Treasures from the Deep

I cannot even tell you how many times I have been to the Buffalo Museum of Science. As a young girl, we frequented there approximately once a month on Sundays as part of our family day together. I loved it. I can remember the endangered species exhibit where stand next to a life-size rhino replica. I remember the traveling exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs. My favorite though was the dioramas. Capturing a moment in time, you could look into the secret world of animals as an unobtrusive observer for as long as you wanted.

I’m now a full-blown scientist with a doctorate, but it wasn’t until recently that I fully understood what museums were all about. At the University of Missouri, where I did my dissertation research, I was friends with a postdoc who was always looking for dead birds and mammals to skin as specimens. He was in charge of the university’s museum. I didn’t think much of it at the time except that I thought he just found the prep part itself interesting. It wasn’t until I became in charge of the museum during my postdoc work that I really understood the value of the museum and what it was.

I didn’t even really know we had a museum. You can’t see it from the outside. It is largely contained in one classroom and all you can see are large file cabinets. Inside these cabinets were trays of hundreds of animals arranged by their taxonomic status. The animals aren’t stuffed into poses like those in dioramas, but are laid out for research.

Scientists come to the museum or the museum loans out specimens for research purposes. These specimens allow scientists to look into the past to compare to species living today. Some of the questions researchers might pursue include those understanding the relationships between taxa including species designations. For example, the olinguito was recently discovered through examining museum collection specimens. When diseases break out, such as the aggressive and virulent Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a cancer that is decimating Tasmanian devil populations, scientists can go back to museum specimens to look for clues to aid in combatting it. Specimens also provide important sources of DNA. Although controversial, scientists would use museum specimens like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, to potentially revive the species and bring it back to life.

I recently was fortunate to visit collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which is about 50 times as large as the museum at the University of Missouri. Below are some of the interesting findings you would not know about…

Each specimen is recorded in this book. Computers are hack-able and destructible, but this book is woven with cotton paper and ink resistant to fading. It is also protected in fire-proof safes.
Each specimen is recorded in this book. Computers are hack-able and destructible, but this book is woven with cotton paper and ink resistant to fading. It is also protected in fire-proof safes.
The woodland jumping mouse, can jump 3 feet vertically and 6 feet horizontally (but not in same jump). It also has a beautiful dorsal stripe and reddish fur on its sides.
The woodland jumping mouse, can jump 3 feet vertically and 6 feet horizontally (but not in same jump). It also has a beautiful dorsal stripe and reddish fur on its sides.
The incredible pelage (fur) variation of fox squirrels.
The incredible pelage (fur) variation of fox squirrels.
Forelimbs and wrist bones of a mole, a mammal extremely adapted for digging (fossorial). Look at how thick the humerus is! Your humerus is the bone from your shoulder to your elbow.
Forelimbs and wrist bones of a mole, a mammal extremely adapted for digging (fossorial). Look at how thick the humerus is! Your humerus is the bone from your shoulder to your elbow.
The American pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal in North America and among the smallest mammals in the world. Many insects are larger than this guy!
The American pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal in North America and among the smallest mammals in the world. Many insects are larger than this guy!
Red wolf. So beautiful and also much larger than I expected. This species is critically endangered and is heavily managed in North Carolina. It’s biggest s are hybridization with coyotes and poaching.
Red wolf. So beautiful and also much larger than I expected. This species is critically endangered and is heavily managed in North Carolina. It’s biggest treats are hybridization with coyotes and poaching.
Striped skunks. Never realized how much variation there is in pelage.
Striped skunks. Never realized how much variation there is in pelage.
Eastern spotted skunk. Little is known about this species as it remains very elusive. David Jackowski is undertaking a large scale study to understand this species better.
Eastern spotted skunk. Little is known about this species as it remains very elusive. David Jackowski is undertaking a large scale study to understand this species better.
Ocelot. Although the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences specializes in southeastern taxa, it also acquires exotic species from institutions such as zoos.
Ocelot. Although the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences specializes in southeastern taxa, it also acquires exotic species from institutions such as zoos.
Ivory tusk from African (a guess) elephant. And yes, that is a human skeleton in the background.
Ivory tusk from African (a guess) elephant. And yes, that is a human skeleton in the background.
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