Thursday, April 29, 2010

Peabody VZ: Where I work

Before I begin posting the good stuff, I figure it will be useful to explain where all of the specimens I'll be blogging about come from (in this post), and what it is that I do that allows me access to them (I'll cover this in the next post).

They come from the Division of Vertebrate Zoology (VZ for short) at the Yale Peabody Museum (YPM for short). Er, I should clarify: immediately, they come from YPM VZ. In truth, they come from all over the world! I'll come back to that point, but this is where they are housed.

The VZ collections comprise over 300,000 specimens of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Although the specimens are dead, they are not fossils. The Peabody's fossil fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals are housed in the Vertebrate Paleontology department. All of the specimens found in VZ are extant, meaning that the species are still around today (with a few exceptions-- our department has a few species that have gone extinct very recently, for example, the passenger pigeon. But again, these specimens are not fossils).

The VZ collection is a scientific research collection, meaning that the specimens have been amassed over the years for scientific study by researchers and research expeditions. Specimens are still being added today by our curators, who collect them for their current research. What kinds of research can be done with our specimens? Our curators, who are Yale professors, provide a good sampling. David Skelly uses VZ specimens to study amphibian ecology. Tom Near, Eric Sargis, and Jacques Gauthier use our specimens to study fish, mammal, and reptile systematics, respectively. (Systematics is the branch of biology that seeks to understand the evolutionary relationships of organisms and delimits species boundaries). Richard Prum uses VZ specimens to study avian (bird) evolution.

Our curators aren't the only ones who use our specimens, though-- many researchers from many universities both visit our collection and loan out specimens from us each year.

We've got specimens from every continent (yes, even Antarctica-- Tom Near has an active research program focusing on Antarctic fishes!), and we've got specimens that date back all the way to the 1800's. In 1995, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists performed a survey of fish collections in the U.S. and Canada, and we were one of the highest ranked collections for number of species represented. But I'll stop bragging. More info about YPM VZ can be found here by clicking on the Herpetology, Ichthyology, Mammology, and Ornithology links on the left.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

New blog, first post!

A shrew that with a spine so strong it can withstand the force of an adult human standing on top of it. A bat with a snorkel on its nose. A fish that hunts birds. I didn't know these things existed, either.

I work at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, in a job that provides me a daily glimpse of Earth's incredible vertebrate diversity. I'll post more about what I do in a coming post. What I've learned so far, though, is that the lions, tigers, and bears that we all learned about growing up are boring. Perhaps boring is too strong of a word. The important thing, however, is that there is so much more. Our planet is teeming with countless unsung species with astounding beauty and fascinating habits. Each day, these creatures marvel me, and each day, their diversity bewilders me.

I started a Twitter account a while ago to share these creatures that I discover each day with anyone who might be interested, and so that once I finish my work here, I won't forget them. I've found, though, that 140 characters just isn't enough to do justice to these remarkable species, which is why I've started this blog.

What exactly will this blog be? I envision it as an online, haphazardly-organized, specimen-based tour of extant vertebrate diversity (some of it at least). Haphazardly-organized because the way this will work is that basically whenever I come across a cool specimen in the collections, I'll post pictures and fun facts about its natural history here. And I'll still post to Twitter whenever I update here. Enjoy!