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Episode 104 – A Bite at the Museum (Part II)

Cara Smith gives an educational tour of UNC's Natural History Museum’s animal curation processes.

Cara Smith gives an educational tour of UNC's Natural History Museum’s animal curation processes.

Basically everything in the museum starts from one of these freezers [opens first freezer]. You can see that it is full to the top and I bet you you could go to any museum in the country and you would see the same thing in their freezer. We always have just a huge repository of frozen things that need to be prepped. So a lot of these are donated. See, a lot of these were just found dead. Some of these, we even have a few birds that came from the zoo, for example. So a lot of different ways we acquire stuff.

Is there like a freezer for reptiles and amphibians versus mammals or does it really matter?

I guess technically it doesn't matter. But yeah, this is our reptile one and our bird one is in better shape. [opens second freezer] so these are actually already prepped and we're freezing them in case we have a bug infestation. [Pulls a bag from the freezer] you can see people bring us animals. A lot of these are maybe window strikes, but you can see they're in really good condition. They're really fresh. And the most important part for any museum specimen is good data. So without good data it's almost useless.

When we're talking data, we're talking date, time of death…

at the very least a relative location and yeah, some kind of date. Super helpful. And then if you have any kind of identifying info, if you can't, somebody else can ID it. But if this were just a frozen bird, I can't ID this, I don't know where they're found, I don't know when this was found. And that makes it not really useful for research.

Makes sense.

Yes. And then, these are our prep tables, which it's so great that you [two students] are actually demonstrating how to do this right now. So they're basically using tweezers and razor blades or scalpels to skin the lizards.

So it's a similar process whether you're doing a herp, a bird or a mammal. You're essentially removing all of the soft tissue and muscle and most of the skeleton and most of that isn't going to be kept. You can do some further anatomical studies on that if you want. But most of the time that's data you're just going to lose when you toss it out. And they're gonna end up, well these are going to end up a little bit different, but if you have a mammal or a bird, you're going to end up essentially trying to stuff that skin into a lifelike position and sewing it back up. And if it's a bird, you're keeping the beak and the front part of the skull so that it looks lifelike. And in a mammal you just, you keep the skeleton or the skull separate and you kind of just stuff it. So it looks normal and these [lizards] are not going to get stuffed, they're gonna get ethanol and glycerol preps so the skin is supple and then we can just roll it up and store it that way.

How do you like being in a museum as undergrads? Is it a rewarding and fulfilling experience?

[Student #1]: Definitely. Well, when I first started it was just kind of weird just getting your hands on with, you know, dead reptiles and just animals in general. The more you get into it though, the funner it gets. And like, it's super interesting coming in and being like, you know what, today we're going to skin a ball Python and you just never get the experience of either holding one or doing this kind of prep work. So it's super fun just.

[Student #2]: Starting out. It's really interesting just seeing how each animal is different and their different components, making them unique to each of them and just a lot, a really cool experience to do it. Yeah.

When it comes to removing the organs, you're throwing them away. Do you have a certain place... Can you just take that to the dump?

Usually I'll freeze it because we always want to make sure that our beetles have food.

Ah, here's the beetles. Okay.

So if we want a skeletonize something to actually keep it or if we just want to, you know, feed our beetles and kind of get rid of some extra meat, we toss it in here. So this is our domestic colony. Right now, it looks like they're eating some kind of lizard. Ah, yes. A bearded dragon. And you can see a couple of different looking bugs in here. Some of them look like just plain small black beetles. Those are the adults. The adults will lay eggs on a new carcass and those will hatch into these fuzzy critters. Those are the ones that are actually eating muscle and tissue and flesh and they will molt a few times and get larger and larger. And then by the time they reach probably about that size, he's probably going to pupate soon and then become an adult. And then the cycle continues. You can see they've cleaned the reptile off pretty quickly. So this is probably gonna make a really good teaching specimen so we can articulate it and I can show you a few of my articulations in the other room. And mounted and have a cool looking skeleton. So that's something you could use for like comparative anatomy. They like water [sprays water] so can basically forget about them for long periods of time and they'll eat paper, they'll eat dog food. I don't like to do that cause they will die eventually but they like a little bit of heat, a little bit of moisture and they really like fresh meat but we usually give them dried. We have some of our ethanol collection here too.

[Opens cabinet] So this would be all of our salamanders, frogs and toads. So this is how we store ethanol collection. It's a huge undertaking to make sure that none of these dry out. As you can see this is already starting to dry out a little bit cause if it were to dry out then our specimen is going to dry out and get ruined.

Does the ethanol need to be changed?

That's a good question. So the ethanol will actually evaporate out. We keep it at 70% for kind of best preservation to prevent the growth of anything. But if it evaporates down to this point, we've actually found a few that were at like 10% or even lower than that. So yeah, we have to check it. I would say we should check it every year and also make sure that our ethanol concentrations are high enough cause otherwise the specimen slowly degrades. And these are really valuable because unlike the mammal and bird skins, you can cut them open and get all kinds of information about their soft tissue histology structure. You can look at their diet. You can't really do any of that with the mammals or the birds unless you were to do that right after you skinned it, or you were to save that somehow.

Like, how long have these been in here?

Some of them have been in here since, I think I found one from the late 1880s.

Oh really? Wow, okay.

But most of them are probably collected more like 1990s, early 2000s.

[Opens cabinet] So we actually have entire collections that we call the teaching collection, which kind of emphasizes just how useful all of these things are. Again, this gets used for herpetology and these are specimens that maybe don't have the best locality data, but we do know what it is and it shows structures and morphology really well. Our research collection is right here. This is what I had spent like a good portion of my masters trying to organize. So, we have hundreds and hundreds of rattlesnakes, mostly focus on Colorado because you know, we're in Colorado and there's a few common species here. We have some really cool ones. Somebody moved the two headed rattlesnake. But anywho, they're mostly organized taxonomically just to make it kind of easier to look through all this stuff.

Does it make a difference how many snakes are in one jar?

For us and probably for every museum it's all about conserving space. It's totally fine to have them kind of stacked up like this because they'll each get an individual ID number so they'll all have their own separate data. But this is basically all of our venomous snake collection. We mostly have Vipers but not very many like cobras or or what have you. [Closes cabinet and opens an adjacent cabinet] Yeah there's nothing particularly interesting in here cause most of these are non-venomous

Is that a rat snake?


I have been bitten by one of those. Yeah. I'm all about that.

Did you bleed?

I don't remember bleeding. It got me on the hand while I was holding it.

They still will hurt cause they have these little recurved teeth and they'll get kind of stuck.

I had to, I had to pull it off like try it off and there was a little pop when I did it.

yeah because their teeth are curved backwards so they hook into you.

[Opens drawer] Here is what our mammal collection looks like. so each of these should be stored with a skull

I am looking at what, just to confirm?

These are a whole bunch of different kinds of ground squirrels, 13 lined ground squirrel, Wyoming ground squirrel.

I've never seen squirrels with spots like that before.

I haven’t either. I don't know where you can find them actually. Oh, apparently in Weld County.

Oh, okay. Wow.

And some of these are quite old as well. So what's interesting is that you can kind of watch how the abundance and presence of things might shift over time. So maybe somebody collected one of those 13 lined ground squirrels in 1950 somewhere and like we haven't found them in 50 years. Now I could tell us something about how things are shifting over time.

Right. Like they're no longer in Weld County. Maybe you're there now up in Wyoming.

Right. Or maybe we didn't see something and now we have something that's invasive and we're finding that. But if we don't keep those records, then we'll never know.

It comes back to the importance of the data.

Yup. Oh, we do have some pretty big skulls. We've got a black bear. There's a grizzly bear that's in the room that we started in. [Pulls drawer open] We have a few. I really like using these as teaching specimens because it can tell you about diet, looking at tooth structure and doing dental formulas. And that's something that we do with like summer camps when kids come through.

These are bears?

Yes. And you can tell because they have huge canines, but they also have these kind of flattened molars here cause they're omnivores.

We are always happy to give tours. A lot of people will walk by and just see us and start asking questions and we'll give them a tour. We do accept undergrads who want to do directed studies or just volunteer and if they want to learn preservation techniques or focus on one particular kind of animal, we always welcome that. We love to do outreach. We'll try to do open houses every year, every semester, and we just try our best to make sure people know about us so that we can bring specimens to a new class or go teach people a new thing about something.


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