Using light to describe the ancient world

Archive for October, 2012

Behind the curtain at the Smithsonian

A week ago I was at the 72nd Annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Some of the research presented there has been showing up online – like T. rex eating Triceratops, and descriptions of giant sea creatures. I presented research I am working on at the Smithsonian and it lead to some great conversations with some very interesting people – including two incredible paleoartists, Tyler Keilor and Julius Csotonyi. Before I talk about the conference, I just want to give a bit of background to my work, and mention the mind-blowing collections at the Smithsonian.

I am based in the Division of Birds, in the National Museum of Natural History. Without a doubt, the Natural History Museum is one of the greatest places on Earth. The specimens on display in the public galleries are a small fraction of the amazing things that have been collected over the years. I have the incredible privilege of being among the relatively few people that gets to step behind the curtain and see the wonders that are not on public display.

A large part of the Division of Birds is occupied with the study skin collection and this is what I want to talk about here. I have been working with these skins quite a bit lately and so it is only fair that I do my part to add to the collections. So, under the tutelage of Carla Dove, James Whatton, Chris Milensky, Brian Schmidt, and mostly, Christina Gebhard, I have been learning to prepare birds as study skins. The study skin collection receives many visiting researchers every year, from within the United States and around the world, so it is important to maintain and grow the collection. I am part of a small class of novices that are being trained in the sacred art of preparing study skins. How does this relate to the spectroscopy of fossils? All in good time. First, let me tell my story about how a simple lad from Thames, New Zealand has helped to grow one of the most important natural history collections in the world.

It began in earnest with a male house sparrow, Passer domesticus. I will skip the prologue and move to the part where the sparrow is sitting in front of me on a long table in the Museum prep lab. Our small group of trainees, each equipped with a house sparrow, is clustered either around Brian or Christina, who are also seated with a bird. Brian and Christina, and Chris, working at the high bench on the other side of the room, tell us the number of birds they have prepared and the time it would take them to produce a study skin from an inert sparrow. Thousands and 15 to 30 minutes. We would spend three hours that morning moving through the first set of steps, converting our deceased seed eater into a feather pelt. A quick break for lunch – a true testament of appetite after our mornings activities – and we were ready for the final steps. Cotton wool to fill, cotton thread to seal. For the second time that day the sparrows looked like silently sleeping woodland creatures. The finishing steps involved carefully pinning the bird to a spongy plastic board, making sure the tail was evenly fanned and the head and wings were perfectly straight. After a few days the pins were removed and the sparrow was set in an immortal pose.

Anne Wiley and I have just received the house sparrows that will be prepared as study skins. Anne is a Peter Buck postdoctoral fellow and studies isotopes from seabird tissues. Photo credit: Christina Gebhard.

On the left, foreground to background, are myself, Brian Schmidt and Megan Spitzer (just visible behind Brian). Anne Wiley is sitting opposite me and Hanneke Meijer is sitting across from Megan. It is not a coincidence that I am sitting near Brian, our tutor – preparing study skins is crazy challenging. Photo credit: Christina Gebhard.

The study skins are filled with cotton. I don’t think I need to go into the details. Photo credit: Christina Gebhard.

A final and critical step involves pinning the specimens. This controls the final appearance of the study skin. Photo credit: Christina Gebhard.

These study skins are eternal with proper care, and many tens of thousands of birds have been prepared in the museum’s long history. You might think this is morbid – I have no comment either way, but I will leave you with the following thought. Below is a bird that I have used in my studies. My methods are non-destructive and they use instruments that were built inside of the last decade. This bird was collected in 1883, decades before the technique I use was even discovered, let alone designed into a computerised instrument. This specimen was available to researchers 100 years before I was born and I expect it will outlive me by at least as long. So, there is a very long term, possibly eternal value to these specimens. I find it easy to see the value of these historic collections in a modern world that is pushing species to extinction.

Some birds in the collection are really old – this red-capped robin was collected from Australia in 1883.

Thanks Christina for inspiring this post!

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