The Beyond Taxidermy experience. Part II.

The end of the semester is here, and with that the last post on the Beyond Taxidermy experience for the Spring 2017. A previous post presented the activities students conducted during the first nine weeks of the BIOL 497: Special Topics class. This is what happened from Week 10 to the end of the semester:

Week 10: Abstract preparation. Francis Marion University hosts a special day for students to present their research (completed or in progress) to the FMU community called Researched & Exhibition Day (RED). This event is also an opportunity for students to show and talk about their accomplishments in classes by means of having an exhibit booth. This year’s RED would count with the participation of Beyond Taxidermy students. On week 10, the class met at the usual meeting time and place, and blasted through the preparation of two abstracts: one for a poster and one for an exhibit. After all, my students had done the work. They had notes about the articles they read. They were ready to present the case of natural history collections, and to stand up for the need of preparing and preserving bird study skins. It all just had to be put on paper. We had a successful meeting and the abstracts were completed and submitted on the same day.

Week 11: Poster and exhibit preparation. The preparation of the exhibit was a lot of fun! The preparation of the poster, not so much. Students decided on what to include in the exhibit, things that could help visitors understand the magnitude of the undertaken project: building a bird study skin collection. The box with for the exhibit was ready to go in less than 30 minutes. The poster preparation, on the other hand, was more of a challenge. Most of my students had never prepared a poster before, so it took more than the 50 minute meeting time to compete this task, but the target date for printing the poster was met. And the poster was ready on time for RED.

Week 12: Research & Exhibition Day. The event was on a Tuesday, from 10am to 3:30pm. We made arrangements to have the Beyond Taxidermy poster and exhibit next to each other. Students signed-up for 30 minute shifts, so there would always be at least one person by the exhibit. We had bird study skins that people could see and touch! This week we had an informal meeting at our regular meeting time, to talk about the experience of participating in RED. Participation in RED happened to be a more valuable activity than what I expected. Students were supportive to each other and extremely professional. They worked as a team and I am sure they will be ready to lead their group next time they have to get ready for a presentation.

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Beyond Taxidermy at the Francis Marion University Research & Exhibition Day. Ashley MacNeil grooms a pileated woodpecker collected in campus in 2005. The poster, on the right, explained the purpose behind the experience, and the exhibit, on the table, presented some birds prepared by the students enrolled in the class.

Week 13: Bird preparation 4. Initially, I had plan for students to prepare four birds, one bird during each preparation session. But I had not considered large birds. Two students continued working on the birds they started preparing on Week 9. Four students chose a new bird to prepare in three hours. Bird preparation has been a learning experience for all of us.

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Preparing bird study skins. Choosing the materials needed to skin birds depends on available tools and personal preference.

Field trip: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Only one day before we were in the laboratory preparing bird skins. On Saturday, April 15 2017, my class met at the university parking lot. We all jumped on a 15 passenger van and headed north, towards Raleigh, North Carolina. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences offers free admission to the exhibits, but the reason we went there was to visit their bird collection. Brian O’Shea kindly opened the doors of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bird collection, on a Saturday morning, for my students, to see the place where thousands of birds specimens lay, waiting to be studied. This was exactly what I envisioned. Well, in fact it was more. My students were ecstatic at every door that opened in front of them. They awed at every drawer that showed its contents to them. They didn’t know places like this existed. Well, now they do. And they know that in places like this resides the only evidence of times past in our planet. The Beyond Taxidermy experience accomplished its goal.

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Large series of bird study skins allow scientists to study variation and, in some cases, to discover new species that may have been overseen due to overall external similarity.

About preparing bird skins. Preparing bird skins involves cutting skin, separating skin from muscle, cleaning muscle off bone, removing eyes, removing tongue. Some specimens may have lots of fat under the skin. Some may have trauma that leads to bleeding during the skinning process. Some may have broken bones. All of these can make the process more challenging than one would expect. This is a dirty job for the not so weak of stomach. At the same time it is a beautiful skill that builds into experience. Feathers are stunning, when clean, dry, and groomed. And building a specimen, after its skin has been separated from the rest of its body, by stuffing it with cotton and sawing it closed, can be extremely rewarding. I let students experiment with the first specimens they prepared. Only approaching them when asked for help. Most of my students where shy about their own skills. All the specimens my students prepared are wonderful. Because preparing a bird study skin is something personal. Preparing skinny bird skins, or preparing short and stubby ones, is as personal as you are. Students realized this when they saw large series of specimens in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Bird Collection. At this institution, one person prepares robust and deep bird skins, which are sometimes even hard to fit in the standard drawers. This is his personal signature. This is what makes each of the specimens in any collection unique. And each of us will leave our own personal signature on every single bird study skin we prepare.