Casey B. Dillman, Curator of Fishes, Amphibians, and Reptiles

Vanya G. Rohwer, Curator of Birds and Mammals

Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology]

[Irby] Okay good evening everybody. Welcome back to the Lab of Ornithology. See a lot of familiar faces here, maybe a few new ones as well. My name is Irby Lovette, I’m the Director of Evolutionary Biology here at the Lab and it’s my pleasure to introduce tonight’s speakers.

But before we go there I want to bring your attention to a couple of forthcoming seminars in our series here that are certainly worth knowing about. The first is uh next week, Monday, here at 7:30. It’s actually the Cayuga Bird Club meeting, and Bob McGuire who’s here somewhere is is gonna be talking about birding across Siberia with a microphone, which sounds like a really grand adventure in which Bob traveled across the Mongolian border to the Arctic Ocean and he made recordings, made videos, took photos of lots of lots of birds, plus the landscapes, street scenes, and stories from what sounds like a truly unforgettable experience. So that sounds like a treat next Monday here at 7:30.

And then you might also want to put on your calendar a, the Monday night seminar on Monday, March 12th. It’s not the normal Monday in the cycle, it’s the second Monday of the month. This one will be held on campus, and it’s a particularly special Monday night seminar because it’s in our inaugural Paul C. Mundinger Distinguished Lectureship for which we’ve invited Rosemary Grant from Princeton University. if you’ve been a biology student taking taking biology in the last 30 years or so in any context you have seen her work on Galapagos finches featured in any textbook. I know AP biology students learn about the finch evolution in the Galapagos she’s done, and certainly we teach about it at the at the college level as well. And so we’re really, really excited to have Rosemary coming to give this first lecture in the series where we’re purposely bringing in you know, very, very eminent scientists who have a history of working on birds. And in Rosemary’s, it will be the first of those. I actually worked for Rosemary when I was 20 years old. Got my own start in evolutionary biology working with Peter and Rosemary Grant. and I was just in the Galapagos up till yesterday looking at the island of Isla Daphne, where they’re really famous work was done. So for me it’s actually gonna be really special to have them come back as well.

But tonight is special for sure. We’re doing something a little bit unusual tonight, it’s a double bill I can, maybe it’s a triple bill actually, because we’ll have some quick talks by two gentlemen, I will introduce in a second, and then whether you’re here in person or if you’re on the live stream we’re gonna take you back behind the scenes and show you some things in the vertebrate collections so you can actually see it yourself.

It’s, it’s not, it’s not a part of the of the Lab that’s typically open to the public, so it’s a treat to get back and see the behind-the-scenes working of the Museum of Vertebrates. Now the people talking tonight will be Casey Dillman and Vanya Rohwer. They are curators in the museum, so you’ll actually be seeing two-thirds of the staff of the museum tonight because it’s a small staff. But but they’re really hard-working and they do a lot of fantastic work. And the collections themselves are actually quite vast so they have big jobs. Both Casey and Vanya are PhD biologists with backgrounds in the respective fields. Casey is the curator of fishes, herps and amphibian, reptiles and amphibians, which we call herps, and Vanya is the curator of birds and mammals. And I think they’ll be speaking about their respective areas of the museum and also maybe a little bit more generally about why museums are so important for for lots of things that I’ll let them tell you about. So with that I think Casey’s going first. Take it away Casey and tell us about the museum.

[Casey] Thank you and thank you all for being here tonight at the Monday night seminar at the Museum of Vertebrates.

[Slide text: Cornell Lab of Ornithology


-Globally Known

-Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity]

As all of you know we’re at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s an iconic institution, it’s globally known, if you if you work on birds, if you think about birds you’ve probably heard of the Lab of Ornithology.

What I didn’t know until eighteen months ago when I started working here was that the building is called the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, and what that sort of means, and maybe you don’t know this, is that there is a Museum of Vertebrates that takes up a pretty large portion of the ground floor in this building. And so that biodiversity portion of that, if you’re if you’re not a biologist, if you don’t think about these things. just as sort of a general idea, biodiversity is the the total of life on Earth. The biological entities that live on the planet Earth in past, present, and then whatever comes in the future.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates


-Natural History]

And in my mind biodiversity and natural history, the way I think about those things, they’re really sort of interrelated to one another. Natural history is sort of the study of biodiversity, or some portion of that biodiversity. And for as long as I can remember I have been absolutely fascinated by the organisms that are around us, and and more specifically with the organisms that are in the water, the fishes, I’ve just always been drawn to water and I’ve always been drawn to fishes. And so biodiversity and Natural History wrap themselves around each other in my mind and the way I approach my work. and really it all goes back to me for me to collections, natural history collections, of which the Museum of Vertebrates is one.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates


-Natural History Collections


-The physical representatives of life in space and time

-Public Place]

And and it’s the specimens, it’s those those animals that that have been collected and are on shelves, and are record keepers of diversity throughout space and time. So those physical representations, be it birds, be it mammals, be it fishes, amphibians, reptiles, rocks, plants, whatever you like, these things are really what get me excited and get me up in the morning.

And almost all natural history collections, we have a little bit out here in front as well. A lot of places have a public place where people come and can see portions of the collections, we’ll see a little bit behind the scenes tonight, but there’s this public place that the natural history collections have and they…

[Slide text: …from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved- Charles Darwin; Photos: Various living organisms]

This I believe came from the Field Museum, so it highlights a lot of the biological diversity, but in a new way. That working in natural history collections around the world.

[Photos: Sturgeon specimens in glass cases]

This is a project that I worked on for about three and a half years, and portions of are still on going, on sturgeons. These are one of the most basal lineages of ray-finned fishes of the actinopterygians, actually there yeah. So and and these specimens came from the 1800s, so they’re stuffed with straw, they’re in these glass cases. This is in St. Petersburg in Russia at their Natural History Museum. We traveled around the northern hemisphere while I was a postdoc at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

[Photo: Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences from above]

There’s this small little tip, if you’re familiar with Virginia it’s on the middle peninsula of Tidewater, Virginia right near Williamsburg, about 10 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia. We spent three years traveling sort of the northern hemisphere where surgeons occur. And we worked in museums across Romania, France, Russia, China, as well as collections in the U.S. to study these remarkable fishes.

[Photo: An elephant specimen in a room of the Smithsonian with people all around it]

From VIMS I went to what is probably the best Natural History Museum collection in the world, the Smithsonian. I spent three years as a postdoc at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. and it’s a tremendous place to go to work, and so I’ve been very, very fortunate to have, sort of collections experience, and my research sort of to lineup. and it has allowed me to sort of explore a lot of different things.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates


-Natural History Collections

-The physical representatives of life in space and time

-Public place

-Research space;

Photo: Microscope and computer screen]

So in addition to there, the public space, there’s also the research space. The things that go on behind the scenes. So when you go to the Smithsonian or to the American Museum or the Field Museum, you have these wonderful displays that sort of highlight what all this biodiversity is, and why it’s important, and how it maybe fits into the tree of life. But behind the scenes there are countless researchers and volunteers and staff that are working to produce scientific achievements about our understanding of life on Earth. And that’s just the photo my new microscope which I’m really proud of.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

-Research Libraries of Biodiversity through Space and Time

-Ichthyology (Fishes)- 1.25 to 1.3 million individuals in nearly 100,000 Lots (4.5 miles of shelving)

-Herpetology (Amphibians and Reptiles)



So the Museum of Vertebrates, as I’ve already mentioned, museums are really libraries of biodiversity through space and time. We have specimens that were collected in the 1800s on our shelves, so we have a representation of what that fish looked like, that bird looked like, that whatever looked like, in the 1800s. And we can go back to those same streams and and sites and collect again today. The fish collection here at the museum and we have about 1.25 to 1.3 million individual fishes in jars, about four and a half miles of shelving, and almost 100,000 cataloged lots in this building. And again that’s sort of the idea that you might not have known that coming to the Lab of Ornithology, but there’s this really big component of natural history research. We also have three other collections, the herpetology collection, and then the ornithology collection and mammalogy collection, which Vanya is in charge of.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

-Curatorial Staff & Collections Management

-Build, Oversee, Maintain, and Protect biodiversity holdings


-Adventure & Excitement!

-A look at History!]

As Irby mentioned we are two-thirds of the the employed staff for the museum. We do have several undergraduates that help us out. And and our jobs really are to build, to oversee, to maintain, and really to protect these holdings of biodiversity that sit on these shelves, and are irreplaceable relics of a different time and different place. And with, as well as conduct research that we find intriguing, and interesting, and is important. It also leads to a lot of adventure and excitement. As I said I’ve gotten to travel all over the northern hemisphere studying surgeon. We spent time in Russia, and China, and France, and Romania working on those.

Before that I got to spend three months in Mexico sampling fishes along the backbone of the Sierra Madre Occidental. It was a tremendous way to spend three months of your life, sampling fishes in the mountains. The bottom picture there, we got stuck and it wasn’t very very easy to get out of.

[Slide text: Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

-Natural History Research

-Deep (Evolutionary) History

-Shallow (Recent) History


Photos: Various depictions of time machines, a circular phylogenetic tree, museum shelving]

So in addition to adventure and excitement, my research and what I really do is is I look at historical questions, specifically how species are related, really what I’m kind of interested in. But there’s really two levels of history in that natural history research. There’s the deep evolutionary history, where you really need a time machine, and this illustration here has a bunch of different time machines from different movies and books and genres, which we don’t have. But what we do have are specimens, and we can take tissues, we can take anatomical characters, and we can take specimens. And this is a phylogenetic tree shown here in a circle form. And it basically is a family tree of this group of fishes that I was looking at.

Every time you see two things coming out together, those two things are more closely related to them to each other than they are to anything else in the world. And so this this hypothesis of how those things are related is is a way to sort of reconstruct the history of species and species relationships through time.

In addition to deep evolutionary history what I’m actually going to talked about today are these ideas of shallow or more recent history. Sometimes it’s called ecological timeframe of history. And and that’s really what’s on our shelves back here in the Museum of Vertebrates.

This is one of the four fish rooms, you can see that they’re quite deep and quite wide. And we’ll go back there and take a look at them if you’re interested in seeing the fishes.

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

-Fishes at CUMV

-1865 – Present

-Stories told from CUMV Holdings

-Catatonk Creek at Candor, NY;

Image: Satellite of Candor and surrounding area]

But what I want to really tell you about today is is a story that comes from a well curated database that exists here at the museum and all the natural history collections.

I have these databases where they’ve kept track of what’s been collected where and when, what species were there, who collected them, how long they collected that day, all that information. So from the 1860s when the museum was founded to the present we have this history of fishes in recent time, relatively recent. And one place in particular is Catatonk Creek in Candor, New York, which is right down here sort of the bottom right corner. Ithaca’s up at the top left, Candor’s in the bottom right.

It’s a fairly close location, it goes over the drainage divide and actually drains into the Susquehanna River and down out the Chesapeake Bay. So it’s a little more diverse than the drainages up on this side of the divide, they go northeast towards the St. Lawrence River.

[Photo: Collection site from above]

This is the site we collect at. There’s a highway department, it’s it’s a really, it’s a mix of habitats. Up there is a dam. We have riffles, we have runs, we have pools, with all these standard stream habitats. There are deep pools with big, big fish, there are shallow runs with small fish that you see darting around, and we’ll focus a little bit on those.

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

-Catatonk Creek @ Candor, NY

-182 Sampling Events (unique dates)

-1925 to 2016

-1836 Records (preparations)

-Fishes in Jars

-Cleared & Stained;

Photos: Jar with fish and cleared and stained fish specimen]

So Catatonk Creek in Candor, New York is where we go from 1925 to 2016. We have 182 sampling events that have taken place over that time which has result, resulted in 1836 preparations, which basically accounts for like a hundred per sample site. So we have all these individuals that have been collected through time. And those include fishes in jars that look like this, and we can do different things with them now, like clear and stain them and look at their internal anatomy, and I’ll talk about that in a little bit more detail a little later.

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

-Species Composition over Time

-10 Families

-2 collected Once!

-1938 — Gone now?

-2010 — New arrival?

-1 Family — Percidae (darters; 4 or 5 genera)

-Sampled from 1930 to present (biannually)

-88 year data set!

Images: Eel, brook stickleback, and several darters]

So thinking about this one location in space and time from 1925 till now, 10 families of fishes have been recorded there. Two of those families have only been collected one time. One individual, which was an eel, was collected in 1938 and it hasn’t been collected since. One individual, a brook stickleback, was collected in 2010 and we got one individual and we haven’t seen it since. So there is some dynamicity in what’s happening in this area, but the other eight families have occurred every time we’ve been back. One family that I’m going to talk about today is the darters. This is what they look like in jars, I think they’re quite beautiful. Not everybody thinks they’re quite as exciting as I do. In life they look a lot different, they have these beautiful greens, reds, and sort of browns, and blues and they’re just amazing fishes.

[Photos: Colorful, live darters]

And they sit, this is Etheostoma osburni from the New River drainage. Just beautiful, beautiful fish. they’re not very big, three or four inches long.

There’s another example, and this one has some black built into its fins. The male’s put on these color patterns and displays to attract females, so it’s this standard refrain we have on almost all organisms when they’re trying to reproduce. They show, they show off to try and attract a mate.

So the Percids, the darters, have been sampled from 1930 to present so we have an 88 or so year data set to talk about from this this one site. And starting early on two darters, these are the two darters that were found there originally.

[Photos: 2 species of darters]

[Graph: Frequency distribution of number of E. olmstedi and P. peltata collected from 1930 to 2016]

And this is just a frequency distribution of the number of individuals that were collected over time. In black is Etheostoma olmstedi and green is Percina peltata, and we’ve collected in 1930. You can see there’s quite a bit of variation in them over time. There’s a couple of droughts in terms of collection during World War II and then throughout the ‘70s they weren’t collected because nobody went out there.

[Graph: Frequency distribution of number of E. olmstedi, P. peltata, and E. zonale collected from 1930 to 2016; Photo of E. zonale]

But in 1980 something interesting had happened. There was a fish that got introduced into the system, the Etheostoma zonale, it’s another beautiful darter. And it has this sort of same pattern you see in an invasive species where it first shows up in 1980 in relatively small numbers, it’s that blue bar. And then by 10 years later they’re, the scale here has changed. on the previous slide it was a hundred individuals, now we’re up to almost 200. There’s just the number of individuals skyrocketed once it got into the system.

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

Morphological Change in the Tessellated Darter (Etheostoma olmstedi) Following the Introduction of the Banded Darter (E. zonale) to the Susquehanna River Drainage, Rose L. Carlson]

And it actually, when you look at specimens of another thing, that was Etheostoma olmstedi, the tessellated darter, which is endemic, before the introduction and after there’s actually a physical change in the jaw of the animal that’s resulting in it trying to compete with this introduct, introduced species, then by a former undergraduate at Cornell here, Rose Carlson.

[Graph: Frequency distribution of number of E. olmstedi, P. peltata, E. zonale, and E. blennioides collected from 1930 to 2016]

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

2006 Northeastern Naturalist 13(3):391-402

Range Extension and Rapid Dispersal of Etheostoma blennioides (Teleostei: Percidae) in the Susquehanna River Drainage, David A. Neely and Anna L. George]

Then in 2000 another species got introduced, Etheostoma blennioides, another very beautiful fish, and it’s got, studies done on it showed a very rapid range expansion and we’re already starting to see that same kind of pattern, early on very little, and then we’ve started to see this uptick in the number of individuals.

[Graph: Frequency distribution of number of E. olmstedi, P. peltata, E. zonale, and E. blennioides collected from 1930 to 2016 with star above 2000]

So one of the things I think that’s really great about the history of fishes in recent time, and with collections is, if we hadn’t started sampling Catatonk Creek until 2000, 18 years ago, we would have thought that four species of darters naturally occurred there. Because we have these long term data sets we can actually look at dynamic system changes over time.

[Slide text: History of Fishes — Recent

Species Composition over Time

-1 Family – Percidae

-2 Species endemic (E. olmstedi and P. peltata)

-Collected 1930’s to present

-Periods of intermittency with respect to sampling

-1 Species (E. zonale) appears in 1980!

-50 years after sampling began

-1 Species (E. blennioides) appears in 2000

-70 years after sampling began

-Without Long-term Data and Museum Vouchers

-Impossible to know the history


And so two species were collected from the 1930s to present, one species came in 1980 which is 50 years after sampling began, and another species start, came in 70 years. And so again without that long-term data, we would, it would be impossible to actually know the history of the system, which really is a dynamic system. It’s a, it’s not static, it’s different every time you go.

[Image: Map of U.S. showing the Mississippi River course and watershed]

And just to illustrate that point, if you think about drainage basins sort of writ large. This is the Mississippi drainage catchment. A lot of times it’s shown with just the very big rivers.

[Image: Map of U.S. showing all the smaller rivers that also drain into the Mississippi, covering most of the central U.S.]

But if you think about the number of rivers that actually comprise this one major basin in North America, the number of drainages where things can occur and maybe haven’t actually even been sampled where there might be unknown species, it’s just astronomical.

[Image: World map showing large rivers]

And then to put that in the global scale, the number of drainage basins that exist is really, really high, and a lot of places haven’t ever actually even been sampled, so there’s a lot that we continue to learn and don’t know to this day.

[Slide text: Natural History Collections

-Species Composition over Time

-Technological advances

-Innovative Approaches

-Limited by our imaginations

-Impossible to know what the Future holds

Photos: Fish in a jar, x-ray of fish, stained fish, and CT scan of fish]

So I’ll kind of wrap up by talking about species composition over time is one of the great things about natural history collections, there’s a ton of other things we do with them. I just wanted to kind of give something I found kind of interesting about the history of this group. And so we basically have these fishes in jars on shelves that have stories to tell, we just have to go looking for them.

And one of the things that’s really cool about it, too, is that when fishes were originally collected in 1865, that x-rays hadn’t been invented yet. And now we can go to the CT facility here on campus and take x-rays of fishes in an afternoon, but nobody would have ever thought that we could have done that. Other things including like clearing and staining, where you treat this animal with a pig digestive enzyme to make it transparent, and stain it in a basic solution to make all the bones red, all the cartilage is blue in an acidic solution, and we can look at how all these things fit together internally and manipulate them without actually taking the animal apart. And we can also use CT machines, nobody would have ever envisioned that we had sort of machines that take up, you know the size of a big table, maybe not that big, but, and we could take thousands of images through a specimen and put it together 3D and reconstruct it and show, in this case the modified anal fin of a of a fish that impregnates the female. So delivers sperm to the female through this modified anal fin. And we can look at the the tube in the structure and how that actually works.

And so really innovative approaches are continuing to come along and we’re really limited by our imaginations. And I would like to end with, by saying that it is impossible to know what the future holds, so natural history collections are completely invaluable resources. Thank you.



[Slide text: New discoveries made from collections; Photos: bird study skins, spread wings, bird nest, and bird skulls]

[Vanya] Okay, can people hear me all right? Okay cool. Great well so I’m gonna build off of what Casey talked about, and illustrate just two different case studies of how natural history collections have been used to make new discoveries.

[Slide text: CUMN has specimens from all over the world; Photo: study skin of a bight green bird]

So one of the, one of the biggest strengths of natural history collections is that they house specimens from all over the world. Here at the Museum of Vertebrates, in the bird collection, we have birds from every continent, and we have representatives from just about every single family of bird.

[Photo: Various bird study skins including hornbill, hummingbird, merganser, and spoonbill]

And so you know this kind of geographic and taxonomic diversity that we have in natural history collections really makes collections these powerful and unique resources to understand, well to to approach comparative biology, and to understand broad patterns across species.

[Slide text: Plumage quality in nestling birds; Photo: Adult male and fledgling Siberian rubythroat study skins]

So you guys, this first case study looks at, on the quality of the juvenile plumage in nestling birds. So um what this photo shows you are Siberian rubythroats. That top, gaudy looking bird is a adult male, and then that lower bird is a recently fledged rubythroat. And so you can immediately see differences in color, but what’s harder to see unless you’re holding these birds are differences in the texture of those feathers. That nestling has got much more loosely textured plumage, it’s almost downy-like.

[Photo: Three bird study skins, an oriole, grosbeak, and tanager]

And so this is something that ornithologists have recognized for a long time. You know nesting birds look different than adults, and their plumage tends to be a whole lot softer and loftier. And they’ve also recognized that some species have much more downy plumage compared to other species. And so we can kind of see this in this picture, where those bottom two species, it’s a it’s a tanager and a grosbeak, have really kind of fluffy looking body feathers, and then that top specimen is an oriole, and it has much much sleeker more adult-like feathers.

So man, what a cool observation. Here we’ve got across species differences in the, in the texture of these body feathers, how do we explain that? So this is our question, and we set off to explain it.

[Slide text: Lea Callan, 153 species, 2 adults, 2 nestlings, over 600 specimens!

Image: Body feather showing barbs attaching to the rachis; Photo: Lea Callan at a microscope]

And and when I say we, I mean the real royal we, in the best sense of the word, really the the bulk of this work was done by an undergraduate, Lea Callan, who worked in the collection for a little over a year.

And she measured over 600 specimens from the CUMV, from the American Museum, and from Museum of Louisiana. And specifically what she measured was the the number of barbs. Let’s see if I can show this, so the number of barbs, so these little projections per unit distance along the rachis of the feather here.

And so she did that for nestlings, and then she also also did that for adults, so that we could kind of standardize for across species variation. So Lea measured a ton of specimens.

[Slide text: Temperature, Latitude, Diet, Time in the nest; Photos: Bird on a nest in snow, map of North and South America, baby birds begging in a nest, adult bird feeding nestlings]

The next thing we did is we tried to brainstorm, okay what else might influence the quality of these feathers that these nestling birds grow?

I was sitting, thinking and and we could imagine temperature, you know if these feathers have any kind of thermal regulatory function we might expect to see relationships between the feathers and where these birds are breeding. It could be latitude, you know temperate and tropical species, they have really different life histories. Tropical species have high rates of nest predation, adults tend to live for long periods of time, and then they also lay really small clutches. So it could be differences among temperate and tropical species.

It could be time in the nest, you know the more time that nestlings spend in the nest, maybe the higher quality plumage they can grow. Or diet, you know maybe if you’re eating different foods, you’re, you can construct different feathers. So we gathered data on all these variables that we thought might influence the quality of the juvenile plumage, we took all of our feather quality measurements from all 600 specimens, and we plugged them into the computer. And we ran a series of analyses and… this is what we what we found.

[Graph: Time in the nest (days) versus feather structure for temperate and tropical species]

Which it just looks a little, not as exciting when it’s in graph form, but what you can see here. So I’ll just walk you through this this figure real quickly. So on the y axis over here is a measure of feather quality, where low measures here, low measures around 0.5 mean that that the the nestlings had feathers that had only half the number of barbs that adults had, so it’s a much fluffier plumage compared to the adults. Whereas a score of 1 means that nestling feathers were indistinguishable in their barb counts from adult feathers.

So the two variables that really explain this across species variation in the amount, in in the quality of these feathers that these nestlings had, was the amount of time in the nest, where species that spent longer in the nest developing, they could produce much, much more adult-like quality feathers compared to species that spent less time in the nest.

And then the other important factor was um was latitude. Temperate and tropical species just had on average differences, where for a given amount of time in the nest tropical species tended to produce much more fluffy feathers compared to to temperate species. So I should also note that each point on this graph represents a different species. So this was super exciting to us, man, you guys, just have no idea. After months and months of measuring through feathers it was like oh my God.

But so the thing that we were really interested in is okay if time in the nest has such a big influence on the quality of feathers that these juveniles are producing, what’s influencing the amount of time that those birds spend in the nest? So to to to build on this story we we started researching time in the nests, you know what influences time in the nest.

[Slide text: Risk of nest predation; Photos: American robin adult at a nest with nestlings and pileated woodpecker adult at a nest cavity with nestlings]

And repeatedly we found that one of the biggest things is the risk of nest predation. So a species like American robins that have an open cup nest, that’s a, that’s a pretty vulnerable nest site. You know, It’s it’s exposed to a lot of predation. And because of that those nestling robins have to develop really quickly and spend very little time in the nest. And you know in contrast, if you have species that have really safe nest sites, like woodpeckers or like chimney swifts, or any kind of cavity nesting species, you know they don’t have that same risk of nest predation and so they can spend a whole lot more time in the nest.

So thinking about this we we gathered as much information on nest predation that we could, and we matched up as many species that we had plumage quality measurements for, and we looked at the relationship.

[Graph: Daily rates of nesting predation versus feather structure]

And sure enough we found this this pretty striking pattern where species that have a higher risk of nest predation have to develop more quickly, and they produce much lower quality feathers, compared to species that have lower rates of nest predation and can spend more time in the nest and produce more adult-like feathers.

So this was another very exciting result. So to kind of wrap this up. What what did we learn from this study? From from all of Lea’s work?

[Slide text: Dangerous nest sites, Less time in nest

Safe nest sites, More time in nest; Photos of scarlet tanager and northern flicker study skins]

The first question was okay we see such incredible variation across species in the quality of nestling feathers that these birds are producing, how do we explain that? And so Lea’s work showed that, you know, species that have high rates of nest predation, those individuals have to develop quickly to escape that immediate risk of predation, but one of the costs of rapid development is that they end up growing this really fluffy, downy-like plumage. You know by contrast, species that have really safe nest sites, they can spend much more time in the nest and produce feathers that are much more adult-like.

So this is, this is an example of where you have specimens from temperate and tropical regions, you have a really broad taxonomic diversity of specimens that’s included in this data set, and so it’s a, it’s a really nice example that illustrates how natural history collections can be used for these types of comparative analyses, to understand broad patterns across species. In this case, you know, these were patterns of why some species produce really fluffy juvenile plumage, whereas others produce much more adult-like juvenile plumage.

And and ultimately these are coming back to you know, early life strategies in different birds. So this is I think a really neat example, and it’s a, it’s a local example, it’s one that was done right here.

[Slide text: Marbled Murrelets in decline; Images: Marbled murrelets in the ocean and drawing of marbled murrelet on a nest in a tree branch]

Okay so the next case study I want to highlight illustrates how natural history collections can be used to help inform conservation decisions. This particular case study highlights a marbled murrelet. Marbled murrelets are a seabird along the west coast. And marbled murrelets are kind of weird for seabirds, because unlike most other seabirds they, they nest in the canopy of old-growth forests. And they rely on old-growth forests because they need these big horizontal limbs that get covered in moss, and these birds they don’t build a nest, they just pop themselves down on these big limbs, and they lay an egg way up in the canopy.

I mean it’s hard to imagine. These things are kind of like nerf footballs flying through the air, and to imagine these things navigating a canopy of old-growth is just difficult. So because marbled murrelets rely on old-growth forests for for nesting we’ve always attributed declines in marbled murrelets to a loss of nesting habitat.

But you know so many things can influence the well-being of a population, and so surely this story is more complex than just a loss of habitat.

[Slide text: Change of diet; Photo: Marbled murrelet flying just above water]

And and for the case of marbled murrelets another possible explanation is a change in diet. Researchers in the early 1900s working off the coast of California collected a series of marbled murrelets and of this series of marbled murrelets they saved stomach samples in a handful of individuals. And so more recently some modern researchers were going through natural history collections and they encountered these stomach samples that were full of sardines. So we know, okay in their early 1900s these marbled murrelets were eating sardines. And then when we look at more modern specimens of marbled murrelets we find that they’re, they’re feeding lower on the trophic levels. They’re eating stuff like less nutritious fishes and and also small shrimp, krill.

So this seemed like another alternative that might affect the population.

[Slide text: Collapse of fisheries = change in murrelet diet

-1935-1945 harvest 372,000 tons

-1945-1955 harvest 32,000 tons

-Collapse of Sardine Fisheries;

Photo: Lots of small fish in a net on a boat with two fishermen looking on]

And when we, when we look into this rich history of fisheries along the California coastline we indeed see this dramatic change in the number of sardines that were harvested. And and you eventually see this this collapse of the sardine fisheries that um, if anybody is a Steinbeck fan, has been immortalized in The Silencing of Cannery Row. So you know, inspired in part by by these stomach samples from the early 1900s these researchers took a much more kind of thorough approach. And they used new technologies, stable isotope technologies, to reconstruct the diets using historic specimens.

[Slide text: New technology (stable Isotopes N15) on old specimens

-Historic specimens fed higher on the food chain (Sardines)

-Current specimens feed lower on the food chain (Krill);

Photos: Sardines, krill, and five marbled murrelet study skins]

And so they did this by plucking individual feathers from old specimens and then plucking individual feathers from modern specimens, analyzing these feathers for stable nitrogen isotopes, which gives you an index of where in the trophic level these birds were feeding at. And they were able to show that marbled murrelets collected prior to the collapse of the sardine fisheries were feeding much higher on the trophic level, eating mostly sardines, whereas modern specimens were feeding lower on the trophic level, eating mostly krill.

[Slide text: Does change in diet change reproductive success?

1 Sardine ~ 80 Krill

Murrelets lay a single egg

Lots of energy invested foraging

Fewer young produced?

Photo: Two murrelets on water]

So these researchers then took this one step further, and they asked okay, if these birds have changed their diet, might that have influenced their, their reproduction, and their reproductive success? And there’s there’s reason to believe that it would, you know.

So sardines and krill have very different energy equivalents, such that one sardine is roughly equivalent to eating 80 krill. Marbled murrelets, they invest a lot in reproduction. They lay only a single egg and so you invest everything in that egg. So they spend a lot of time foraging to be able to develop these eggs, and you can imagine that if birds have shifted their diets, you know the amount of time that they spend foraging might, might change, and that might leave them fewer resources to invest in reproduction.

So specifically these researchers ask the question do marbled murrelets produce fewer young now than they used to before the collapse of the sardine fisheries? And you know you can address this using natural history collections again.

[Slide text: Reconstructing historic demography

Offspring produced per individual = juveniles/adults

Survival of adults = adults/(adults + juveniles);

Photo: Three trays of marbled murrelet study skins]

And you can address this because adult marbled murrelets have different plumage characteristics than juvenile marbled murrelets and that allows you to distinguish between these two age classes.

You can then compare, and compare these age classes and estimate the number of offspring produced per individual. And then using similar comparisons you can estimate the the survival probability of adults.

[Slide text: Reconstructing historic demography

-Production of young 8-9 times greater when eating sardines

-No change in adult survival;

Photo: Five marbled murrelet study skins]

So when these researchers, researchers made these comparisons they were able to show that the production of young was about eight to nine times higher prior to the collapse of the sardine fisheries. And when they looked at adults survival they didn’t find any differences through time.

[Slide text: Collections solved the mystery of declining murrelets; Photo of two marbled murrelets on the ocean]

So you guys, I think this is a really powerful example of how natural history collections can be used to inform, just conservation issues surrounding endangered species. You know if we didn’t have natural history collections, our understanding of marbled murrelet decline would be, you know, so much more one-dimensional. We would just attribute it to a loss of old-growth forests. But using specimens we know that marbled murrelets have changed their diet over the past 100 years, and then over that same time period we know that there’s also been a corresponding reduction in the number of young produced.

And so this just adds a much richer picture of what factors are influencing the population dynamics of marbled murrelets. And then another really neat thing that this study illustrates, and it’s something that Casey mentioned, is that you know in the early 1900s when people were first working on murrelets, you know they would have never imagined that a hundred years later this bird would be endangered. They would have never imagined that stable isotope technologies would allow researchers to reconstruct the diets from specimens that were collected over a hundred years ago, you know, and that’s a really remarkable tool.

[Slide text: Can’t anticipate questions and technologies of tomorrow

Specimens are the sole source for new data to understand the past;

Photo: Two bird study skins]

So, you guys, I’ll end this with, with two important notes, two kind of take-home messages of the values of natural history collections when it comes to conservation. And that is that you know, we can’t anticipate how organisms are going to respond to changes in their environment, and we can’t anticipate the types of questions we’re going to be asking, or what kinds of technologies we’re going to have to address those questions. And so these types of uncertainties make natural history collections, and the specimens that they house, often this this real important repository of new information to understand the past.

And that’s I think the real beauty of natural history collections.

So with, with that… we don’t want, we don’t want to talk your ears off tonight here, especially when when there’s so much to see in the collection, but Casey and I would be happy to answer any questions that you guys might have.


[Vanya] Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, so the question was whether or not we’re going to talk about how the specimens are preserved. And we will. As soon as we get back to the, to the real like exciting places in the museum, we’ll talk all about that.

Yeah, yeah. So the the question was that, in order to do some research you have to take destructive samples from specimens, and so how do you balance these needs of kind of discovering new information while maintaining the integrity of specimens? And that’s a really good question and it’s something that different museums have very different approaches to. You know so certain destructive sampling requests, so are are not that destructive. For example, if people requested to pluck individual feathers from like the front of the bird, well you know we typically approve of those kinds of requests. If they want to pluck flight feathers that are really restrictive, and that tends to limit future uses of the specimen, that gets a little bit trickier. So the short answer is that we, museums deal with it in different ways, and that we we treat these destructive sampling requests really on a case-by-case basis, and and it is a real balancing act trying to balance kind of the future potential uses of specimens to what current research interests are.


[man] In your study of the structure of the feathers, did you compare the, that structure, on the different species, the short nesters versus the long nesters, also by age? So you have a robin that’s three weeks old and a flicker that’s three weeks old.

[Vanya] Oh yeah, yeah. Okay, yeah, yeah. So right, right, yeah. So that’s a good question. So the question was how might the age of the fledgling that we’re measuring influence the structure of the feathers that we’re trying to measure? And the way that we control for that is we we limited our measurements to only fledglings that we’re still growing all their flight feathers.

And so that, so that means that all their tail feathers, and all their wing feathers were still growing. Because the short answer is we don’t know precisely when a lot of birds start to replace that plumage that they grow in the nest. And so we had to control for that by, by using specimens that were still like clearly showing the the nest grown plumage. Yeah but that’s it that’s it that’s a good point.


[woman] I have a question for Casey. The creek that’s in my backyard, Sulphur Springs Creek, is a tributary to the Catatonk, so I wanna know how these two fish got introduced into the Catatonk, and when they’re gonna be in my creek.


[Casey] So the question was, she has a tributary to Catatonk Creek where I was talking about, and how these two fishes got introduced into the Catatonk, and how long it’ll be before they’re in her creek. And I would say the short answer is they’re already in your creek, and they they likely got introduced through bait buckets. Darters typically aren’t used in bait, but there there seems to be, on occasion they do get swept up in those bait buckets. And when people are done fishing, they don’t typically take the bait home, they’ll dump it out wherever they were fishing. So there’s not really a lot of regulation on what, what minnows get collected and where they go. So a lot of things have been introduced that way.

They’re from, they’re from the neighboring drainage, the neighboring drainage basin. Over in the Ohio and yeah in the Ohio, Mississippi River drainage. They occurred on the other side of the divide. Yes, yes they are. It’s not like the snakehead that’s shown up in Chesapeake Bay and Arkansas.

[Vanya] You wanna?

[Casey] The question was what are the avenues in which new material is added to the collections. And it’s varied. We have active collecting taking place for for fishes, targeted for specific things. We do revisit some of the historical areas. I have an interest in comparing some of the older specimens to new specimens to look at changes over time. Also have a project ongoing in in the Amazon so we’re hoping to build up the collections from South America. And then we do take orphaned collections, collections that have been deaccessioned as well.

[Vanya] So yeah and then you know, we’ll often take salvaged specimens too. So there’s all types of avenues and, and it really depends on the types of questions that we’re asking, and and also the the species that are coming in.

Oh yeah. Oh excellent. Yeah yeah so that’s a, that’s a great point. So if you guys do um find a dead bird, either roadkill or a bird collides with one of your windows, feel free to bring it to us here at the museum. The important thing to record is is a, is a, is a locality, and then also the date that you found it. But you know we’d, we’d welcome it into the collection.

[Irby] Without getting the location it really has little value, but with the location it has a lot of value, and everyone who works at the front desk knows exactly what to do. [inaudible] I guess the one thing we should add on top of this is we don’t have permits for all states, so local stuff were totally covered for, but if you find something in a different part of the country, or especially a different part of the world, you could be getting yourself in a lot of trouble, and us too. So in that kind of situation call first.

[woman] Should we freeze it if we can’t bring it in right away?

[Vanya] Yeah yeah yeah, please do. [laughter]

[woman] [inaudible] all those jumping mice. They’re in my freezer.

[Vanya] Oh, you bet.

[Irby] So I think we’ll have you guys go out into the hall, sort people as they come out. Good. For those of you watching at home, we’re just gonna take a couple of minute break, and if you stay tuned, we will come back on the air in the Museum of Vertebrates so that should be very exciting for you. And for the rest of you, this room is secure, you can leave yourself here. In fact I think it’d be better for you to leave your stuff here, and then come back and grab it on your way out the door, building is locked. So everything will be fine here. Yeah, and that’s it, thanks.



[Video: View of a back room of the museum, where specimens are prepared. On the table are a variety of bird study skins, including a California condor, orioles, flickers, and many spread wings]

[Vanya] Yeah, so come on in, you guys. This is… I mean I’m a little bit biased, but I think this is one of the most exciting rooms in the museum.

[man] And just to give you guys a heads up, this camera is streaming live to the internet, so people can see what’s on the table, so I have folks in such a way that most of you, anybody to the left of the table, we won’t see you on the screen, if you care sure. We’ll keep it mostly pointed down towards the table, though. Just so you know.

[woman] Do you have beetle boxes?

[Vanya] We sure do! [laughter] Yeah, so uh, so come on in you guys. We just have a kind of a hodgepodge of specimens out here. We’ve got one of the most exciting specimens, which is a California condor that we recently received from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

[Video: Close up of the California condor. Vanya picks it up and moves it around to show off various features]

This guy, you know, you’re never gonna be able to actively collect a condor, and you just simply shouldn’t be able to, right. So this is a, is a great example of salvaged specimens. And and every single condor that dies goes and gets a very thorough necropsy in Ashland, Oregon, I believe. And then from there they, they distribute condor specimens to museums across the U.S. and so this is our very first condor material.

You can see this bird, so the necropsy, it started way up at the tip of the bill and they cut all the way down to the butt of the bird. And if I had a before photo, man, this thing would just look like… oh. I mean, it would just look like mostly guts. And and while uh it came out to be a really beautiful specimen. And so you can, you can see, each one gets a gets a tag. I mean we know, we practically know what its favorite color is we know so much about these individual condors. We know when they were born, how long they lived in captivity, we know where they were released, how long they live for in the wild.

[Video: Vanya picks up the spread condor wing]

So another thing to notice on this bird is, is it just has a single wing attached to it. And and it’s really hard to get a sense of what that wing shape looks like when it’s pulled it up on the birds back. So yes, you guys, we cut the other wing off and, and we spread it. It looks kind of like that, it’s not totally right because they cut some of the major flight feathers, I think for their necropsy, so you can see some of these big flight feathers that are cut, but you still get a much better picture of what the wing morphology looked like. And then you can see all kinds of different patterns, of kind of these new and the old feathers. And then you can just see how massive these individual flight feathers are.

[man] It died of lead poisoning?

[Vanya] It did yeah, yeah. Yeah so we, yeah, all so we we received three condors from Fish and Wildlife and all three died of lead poisoning.

[man] It’s the number one killer of condors. It’s the reason why populations aren’t increasing on their own in the wild right now.

[man] Wasn’t the guy from Oregon here a few years back giving a seminar?

[Irby] I wouldn’t be surprised. I can’t recall, actually.

[woman] How do you preserve a wing? I mean, here you talk about stuff and drying it, but what about a wing?

[Video: Close up of spread wings, then condor]

[Vanya] Yeah it is, it’s, it’s the same basic idea, but a little bit different. So for these wings on these smaller species, we just pin them out in the position that we want the wing to dry in. If it’s a really big bird like that condor, there’s quite a bit of muscle here kind of where the secondaries are attaching and so we have to open that up, pull out all that meat. And then they’ve got those big thick bones, and so we drill holes in those bones, and we we shoot compressed air through them to shoot out all the bone marrow. Just to get out anything that will rot or that bugs will eat.

[man] What about mites?

[Vanya] Yeah like feather mites. Yeah yeah yeah, so feather mites are are in, are an issue. And and once you freeze the specimens you can kind of kill the feather mites.

[man] For good?

[Vanya] Yeah, well you know, for a while. So there’s a number of ways that we try and like, combat any kind of bug infestation in the collections. And some collections use a lot of really aromatic insecticides and pesticides, but we, we, we just tend to freeze stuff. If we notice any casings or any kind of bug infestation, we’ll just put him in the freezer.

Yeah so there’s a couple other neat things. So for this condor, man, you gotta imagine, we were so excited to get this condor. So it only has a single foot, which is kind of odd. [laughter] And part of the reason it only has a single foot is we, we tried to kind of maximize the utility of this single specimen. So we saved an extended wing, we have a skin, we have a partial skeleton.

[Video: Close up of condor partial skeleton. Vanya picks up the foot]

And in that partial skeleton we have, low and behold, the other foot. And, and then we saved a number of tissue samples for any kind of genetic analyses or, or analyses that are looking at contaminants in muscle tissue. So it’s a, it’s a way to kind of maximize the information that we get from a single specimen.

[man] Is there some kind of symposium or dialogue between all you guys that have these kind of more critical collections, so that there is some equitability? So that rare things aren’t over harvested or all go to one spot or something like that?

[Video: Close up on Vanya]

[Vanya] Yeah yeah yeah, so from like the perspective of over harvesting, you know, that that just isn’t isn’t really an issue nowadays, just because collecting is super super tightly regulated from federal agencies to state level agencies. And so all museums have to go through a number of permitting processes to be able to actively collect specimens. But it is a real risk to think okay if you have the bulk of the condor specimens in a single institution, man what if there’s a fire, or what if there’s a flood, you know, and you end up losing all those specimens. But that’s like institutional pride to it’s like, oh we’ve got the best collection of condors, we’re not parting with them. So it’s, you know, I I think right now what Fish and Wildlife Service is doing as far as distributing unprepared specimens is is a good move to kind of make this more equitable among institutions.

[Video: View of bird skins on the table]

So there’s a, there’s a, there’s a handful of orioles here on the table, and and I pulled these guys out because these are birds that we actively collected during the summers of 2016 and then 2017. And this is I think a really exciting project because the Museum of Vertebrates has a transect of orioles, a transect of flickers, towhees, buntings, and grosbeaks, all five kind of groups of birds. And this transect runs across the Midwest, mostly across Nebraska, and it’s there where you get your eastern species, your your Baltimore orioles, and your western species, your Bullock’s orioles, that come into contact and then they hybridize.

And so the first studies of these hybrid zones in the Great Plains were done in the 1950s by researchers here at Cornell. And so we have the specimens from the ‘50s. And so we can go back now 70, almost 70 years later, and revisit the same locations that those guys worked, and and resample and see okay how how these hybrid zones changed in these 70 years since they were first sample. Have hybrid zones shifted east or west? Have they have they expanded?

[Video: Close up of oriole study skins]

Have they shrunk? You know and this kind of information just tells us how these species are, I guess, perceiving each other, and then what kind of selection there is against hybrids, or for hybrids.

[woman] Are they fertile? Or maybe you don’t know.

[Vanya] Good question. Yeah so for some of them, yeah they definitely are. For others it looks like they’re fertile, but they don’t do as well as, as either parental species does. So for the orioles we have a couple. We have, these are these are the western, the Bullock’s. And then we’ve got you know some mostly pure Baltimores, like this one.

[Video: Vanya picks up oriole study skins]

And and so kind of the key differences among these are just the amount of black in the head. And like that big black hood on this Baltimore oriole compared to the Bullock’s.

[Video: Close up of orioles]

There’s also differences that you can really see nicely in the wings between the amount of white and the amount of orange. But then you get these hybrids that have this kind of like beautiful blending of these of these orange and black characters in the face and there’s a real nice one right here. That you know it looks like okay this is a first generation hybrid like its mom must have been a Baltimore and its dad was a Bullock’s or something like that. And so you know we’ll be able to address that with these modern specimens because these modern specimens all have tissue samples associated with them. Yeah yeah.

[Video: Close up of flickers]

So there’s another cool thing with the flickers. You know the the probably the most visual character of the flickers are, are the color of these undertail coverts. Oh… and I, we don’t have any western ones out here, but the western ones have a real salmony, a rich kind of reddish color, and then the eastern ones have this really yellow color.

There’s also differences in the color of these like black patches on the face in in the red shafted in the western equivalent, these are red, a lot like this one up here. And then the throat color in the eastern tends to be a much more kind of richer brown, whereas in the western you get this real kind of gray. So you look at that and its face looks like a western, but then the that the color of its tail and its wing just look like an eastern. And so you get this real bizarre a combination of eastern and western traits showing up in individuals.

[man] Where is this guy from? Nebraska as well?

[Vanya] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So yeah so, what else do we have?

[Video: Vanya picks up a large spread wing]

So this this is really cool. I got a real weakness for these extended wings, I just love ‘em.  Any, any ideas?

[woman] Sandhill crane.

[Vanya] Oh, we got birders in this room. [laughter] Yeah, you guys are totally right. Okay any idea what age class of crane? [laughter] We’ll up the ante here.

[man] Not to mention his favorite color.

[Vanya] Yeah, yeah right. So this is a, this is a neat one. So you can, you can see these differences.

[Video: Vanya also picks up condor spread wing]

So these. You know as birds get bigger and bigger, they face more and more time constraints to be able to replace all their flight feathers in a single year, right? And so when you’re out birdwatching and you see like great blue herons or you see pelicans or you see condors, you’ll see this mix of old and new feathers in the wing. And you’ll see that in these kind of like, you can see it really nicely on the underside, in these like brown and black kind of shiny feathers in here. So the black ones are newer feathers, the brown ones are older ones. And so if it’s, if it’s a young bird, it grew all these feathers simultaneously, and so all the flight feathers are going to be the same age.

Yeah, yeah so this one if you look at them they’re just like they’re, they’re all the same yeah, yeah, first year, yeah, fall bird. Yeah and so this was, this was a salvage from, from hunters out in Saskatchewan. Where you know, people love hunting sandhill cranes. They’re renowned to be delicious, with, like they’re, I don’t know if it’s hunter slang or what but they call these things like sirloin of the sky. And and and they’re considered agricultural pests throughout Canada, and so we, we were up there and, man, we saw these hunters getting cranes and were like, ‘hey, any chance we can salvage one of those from ya?’ So so yeah we were lucky enough to get a couple cranes.

Okay so all the birds that you see here, the way, the way that we prepare these things is we’ll, we’ll get a bird. Ideally, well you know possibly, one of you guys will bring in a bird that struck a window or something like that. We’ll thaw it out. We’ll take a series of measurements, this is stuff like mass, we’ll spread the wings and get an estimate of its wingspan, because we can’t get these measurements once the bird is is already skinned.

[Video: Vanya picks up oriole study skin then puts it down]

You can get other measurements like, like wing cord from a specimen, so we don’t typically take that because there’s a lot of variability among whoever is making the measurements. Take series of measurements, we cut a wing off, other places don’t.

[Video: Vanya points to the center of the condor’s chest and down to the tail]

And then we make a little incision that starts kind of right, right about in the center of the belly, so on this guy would start about there, and then we cut right down to the butt of the bird. And then we, all the feathers are attached to the skin, and so we can just separate that skin from the, from the meat.

And then we work our way down to the legs, we’ll push the knee up through and separate the skin from the leg, and then we’ll cut that leg off, take all the meat off the leg so now this leg is only attached by the skin. We’ll do the same on the other leg, then we’ll cut across the tailbone, and then, and now it’s, now it’s like the tail is held on just by the skin of the birds back. And then we’ll be able to just like slide this skin, work it all the way up to the wings.

On the wing that we cut off, it just turns in to be a little hole.

[Video: Vanya picks up oriole study skin and puts it down]

And when you have that little hole, we end up on putting a little, a little button stick right in that hole. And that’ll just keep the other wing in place, so that’ll keep it up close against body. And then for the wing that’s still attached, we’ll slide it up, we’ll cut it so it’s just held on by the skin, and then we’ll take it all the way up, we’ll slide it over the head.

Then the next thing you encounter are the ears, and you have to pull the ears out. And then you get up to the eyes, and, and all these birds have a very delicate eye ring of feathers, and so we’ll have to slice, so we’re slicing just on the right side of the of the eye ring, so that the feathers are coming off with the skin. We do that on both eyes, take it up to the bill, and then we kind of cut around the back of the skull. And then we can separate the whole bird body from, now it’s just a skin.

It’s very difficult to visualize this right now, but it’s clear as day for me. And then and then we’ll just you know, pull out the brains, and then turn the bird right side out. And then you’ll put in little white cotton eyes, and then a cotton brain, and then a little cotton body. And then we don’t, we don’t put any, any borax on these really small birds like an oriole. On, on something like a bigger bird that’s got much thicker skin, we might use a little bit of borax on it. And then and then we’ll just sew it up, and then we pin it out like these guys so that they’re kind of in a very standardized position, kind of a doll position, on their back. It’s a very space efficient position for a museum. And then they’ll have to sit there and dry for about, these skins, maybe about ten days before they’re dry. The wings are a little bit longer maybe like two weeks or so.

[man] We have a question from the online audience, wondering whether or not you use beetles to help with any of the bones from birds or anything else.

[Vanya] Yeah, yeah so we do. We have a, we have a dermestid beetle colony. And the way that we prepare a skeleton for the beetles.

[Video: Vanya points to the condor partial skeleton]

This guy is ready to go to the beetles. So we, we take skeleton, we try and remove a bunch of excess meat that will take a long time for the beetles to eat up. And then we just dry it for a long time underneath that fume hood. And then we’ll take it over to the colony, and turn the beetles loose on the skeleton. You do have to monitor your skeletons, especially if it’s a really fine skeleton. The beetles will eat dry meat, but they’ll also eat really fine bones, so stuff like hummingbird skeletons where you have really fragile bones ,you can’t leave in there very long otherwise the beetles will eat the whole thing. There goes your specimen. So yeah we do use beetles.

[man] That explains the deer head over here in the hood.

[Vanya] Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know occasionally we’ll have a lull in the number of skeletons that we’re preparing, and yeah you’ll see a roadkill deer, and you’ll think wow that’s some good beetle food right there. Yeah, yeah there are, there, any other, any other questions about specimen prep or, yeah?

[woman] I used to come over for biology 105, 106 and get some bird skins to take back through the lab.

[Vanya] Oh, uh huh.

[woman] I was, I’m sure they were not your best specimens, but I was also told at the time that, don’t handle them because they have arsenic.

[Vanya] Yeah, yeah.

[woman] Of course you don’t do that anymore, but do you still have a number of specimens with arsenic on the exterior?

[Vanya] We do, yeah, yeah. So the the bulk of the research collection is, is quite old. A lot of it dates to before the 1950s. And that was just standard practice then was just treat your skins with a bunch of arsenic, mercury, all kinds of nasty chemicals that would. It keeps bugs from eating it but it also has a lot of side effects. So all the modern specimens, yeah we don’t, we don’t treat them with any nasty chemicals like that.

[woman] So what precautions do you take? Do you wear a mask and gloves and stuff when you work with the old ones?

[Vanya] Yeah, when working with the old ones, yeah sometimes, depending on how much your you’re like really risking kind of getting a lot of those chemicals airborne. Yeah, otherwise you know, I certainly, I’ll sometimes wear gloves, but I’ll always wash my hands after handling those things.

[Video: People moving around]

[man] Is this a sharp-shinned hawk over here? Or is it a Cooper’s hawk?

[Vanya] Oh yeah I think it’s a sharp-shinned.

[woman] Do you know Andy Jones and Tim Madsen from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History?

[Vanya] Oh, I don’t, no.

[woman] We just moved here from Cleveland.

[Vanya] Oh, okay. Okay, oh cool.

[Video: Irby comes into the frame]

[Irby] Well thanks to everybody at home. This is gonna conclude our behind-the-scenes look at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates. Thanks everybody for joining us and we’ll see you next time.

End of transcript

The best natural history collections are vibrant, dynamic places that reveal new insights into the workings of the natural world. Join Vanya Rohwer and Casey Dillman, curators of the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates (CUMV), to learn how natural history collections are used to teach, conserve, and inspire new ideas. The lecture takes place in the auditorium as usual, but we also get a special behind-the-scenes peek at the specimens and spaces of the CUMV.