Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leaving for Ottawa to talk about re-curating our fluid-preserved mammals

Check back here the week of June 7 for the next specimen post.

I'm heading to Ottawa for the 2010 annual SPNHC meeting (SPNHC = Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, lovingly pronounced "spinach" by members) this Sunday, May 30, and will return the next Sunday. At the meeting I'll be presenting to other museum professionals about the methods we used to re-curate our fluid mammal collection (the mammals are the first group we tackled and finished back in January). Should be fun.

Here's a pic straight from my powerpoint, our newly re-curated mammals in all their glory:

Au revoir for now!

Monday, May 24, 2010

YPM ICH 8522 & 8524: Fish that hunt birds

Here on Earth, we are used to seeing this:

But in South America's Amazon River Basin, all bets are off. There, under the water's surface, lurk swimming things that hunt flying things.

Meet the arowanas of the genus Osteoglossum. Osteoglossum comprises two species, Osteoglossum ferreirai and Osteoglossum bicirrhosum. They normally feed on insects swimming on top of the water, but they are skilled jumpers and are known to feed on bats, birds, and monkeys resting on low-hanging branches, and even small planes. Just kidding about the small planes. I'm not kidding though that Wikipedia says that they eat small planes! Haha. Here's the screenshot:

(Yesterday, that line read "small birds").

Our collection has quite a few Osteoglossum specimens. Here is ICH 8522, Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, collected in British Guiana on January 31, 1953 by Ed Migdalski:

unique predatory behavior has been observed by many locals, and confirmed via examination of the stomach contents of museum specimens such as this one. Here is a picture of the head of another one of our specimens, ICH 8522, another Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, collected in the same place, at the same time, and by the same guy as ICH 8524:

It's been sagittally sectioned and stained with Alizarin red dye. Alizarin red is used by zoologists to highlight bone in a specimen, so that it can be studied and distinguished from cartilage and muscular tissue. This specimen thus was probably prepared in this way to study some aspect of the fish's cranial osteology.

Below is the external view of the same Alizarin red-dyed specimen. Pretty neat-looking in my opinion.

Here is one more picture from ICH 8524:

These are some of this specimen's gill rakers, which had fallen off and were loose in the jar. Gill rakers (the spikey red projections in the picture) are attached to the inside of a fish's gills, and function to help keep food from escaping through the gill slits.

Lest you think arowanas are boring-looking without a scientific tattoo job, here is a picture of a live arowana (pic from Wikimedia Commons). They are quite majestic fish:

Before signing off, I must direct you to this video, from a National Geographic show. Unfortunately it doesn't show an arowana catching a bird, but it does show footage of one stalking an insect and jumping out of the water to catch it!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A correction, and how a NASA space shuttle is related to the Peabody Museum

Eric Lazo-Wasem, the collection manager of Invertebrate Zoology here at the Peabody, just informed me that the picture I posted in my flying fish post on May 12, 2010 of the R/V Atlantis was a picture of the new R/V Atlantis, which was launched in 1996, not the old R/V Atlantis, which sailed the seas from 1931 to 1964.

So the flying fish that jumped aboard the R/V Atlantis in 1937 still flew pretty high to get on deck, just not THAT high. (Click here for the flying fish post, now corrected).

Here's the new R/V Atlantis:

Here's the old R/V Atlantis:

A good portion of the fish specimens in our collection were collected by the old R/V Atlantis. It was the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's first research vessel and apparently it was the first ship ever built "specifically for interdisciplinary research in marine biology, marine geology and physical oceanography". It made 299 cruises, sailing for more than 700,000 miles. For more about it, click here.

The new R/V Atlantis was named for the original vessel, as was the NASA space shuttle Atlantis. The new R/V Atlantis is the host of the Alvin, the world's oldest human occupied submersible, and according to the Woods Hole website, one of the most sophisticated research vessels afloat. For more, click here.

I'll close this post with pics of the shuttle Atlantis and Alvin, taken from Wikipedia and the Woods Hole website, respectively:

Monday, May 17, 2010

YPM MAM 5629 & 5636: Bats with snorkels on their noses

If they were human-sized, tube-nosed fruit bats would be the ultimate pie-eating contestants. These critters like to gorge themselves on juicy fruits, and they've got miniature snorkels for nostrils to help them breathe while their faces are immersed in the pulp. Not a bad set-up, eh? Assuming the pies were fruit pies, I bet they'd school these kids. The kid on the left probably is taking a breathing break, and kid on the right's nostrils are probably clogged:

Tube-nosed fruit bats are found in Australia and on New Guinea Island. They comprise the genera Nyctimene and Paranyctimene. Here is YPM MAM 5629, Paranyctimene raptor, collected from New Guinea Island in 1969:

Here is a bigger bat, also collected from New Guinea Island in 1969. This is YPM MAM 5636, Nyctimene aello. I especially like the racing stripe on this bat's back. You may also notice that both species shown here have spots on their wings, which aid in camouflage.

Here's one more picture I grabbed from the internet that shows the protruding snorkel nostrils of a tube-nosed fruit bat quite well:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Flying Fish of YPM VZ: Unsuccessful hitchhikers on Peabody research vessels

Last week I re-curated the flying fish of our collection (family Exocoetidae). Here's a picture of one of them, ICH 8957, a juvenile collected in the Sargasso Sea in February of 1933:

As I entered each specimen's data into our database, I was struck when I noticed that the collector's notes for one of the specimens read "flew aboard". Another specimen's collection notes read "landed on deck". The final tally of such specimens ended up being five! I was amazed.

I knew that flying fish had sharp gliding skills, but I certainly didn't realize that they could glide so high as to make it onto a large research vessel. To give you an idea of the size of such a ship, here is a picture of the original R/V Atlantis, the ship onto which one of these specimens (ICH 8956, see below) flew in 1937:

According to Wikipedia's sources, flying fish can glide as high as 6 meters (20 feet) above the water and as far as 400 meters (1,312 feet). The longest amount of time that a flying fish has been recorded in flight is 45 seconds, a record that was videotaped in May 2008 off the coast of Japan. The video can be seen here:

Flying fish do their flying/gliding thing when they're trying to escape predators. Our five intrepid flying fish may have escaped their predators, but they flew right into the hands of researchers eager to take them back to the lab to study them! I'm not sure their strategy was so well thought-out...

Here's a pic of the five hapless hitchikers:

From left to right are ICH 1438, ICH 8948, ICH 1437, ICH 8949, and ICH 8956. ICH 1437 and 1438 flew aboard off the coast of Peru; ICH 8948 and 8949 flew aboard in the Seychelles Islands; and ICH 8956 flew aboard in the Caribbean Sea.

Here's another flying fish video well worth watching, from the Discovery Channel's Life series. It really shows off the magic of these fish:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

YPM ICH 7020 & 4289: More eels

Here is YPM ICH 7020, a zebra moray, Gymnomuraena zebra. The zebra moray is the only species in its genus. This specimen was collected on November 6, 1957 at the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean:

This specimen's colors have faded over the years in ethanol. Live zebra morays actually look even truer to their common name:

(photo source: )

This is YPM ICH 4289, a goldspotted snake eel, Myrichthys ocellatus. I actually identified this specimen myself! It was collected in Barbados in 1878:

Goldspotted snake eels feed mostly on crabs, and they often use their tails as a sort of drill or shovel to get to their buried prey. Here is a diagram showing how this works:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

YPM ICH 4287 & 4291: Anguillic beauties

The first specimen post (below) was a bit sinister. I don't want to give the impression that all posts will be as such, so here are some pretty specimens that don't burrow into flesh and suck the blood out of hearts.

Eels compose the order Anguilliformes, hence the made-up adjective in this post's title that I thought sounded somewhat like "angelic", ha. I find the patterning on these two specimens particularly striking.

First, here is YPM ICH 4287, a snowflake moray, Echidna nebulosa:

Second, here is YPM ICH 4291, a spotted snake moray, Scuticaria tigrina:

Both of these specimens were collected off the coast of Tahiti in June of 1935 by Henry Sears.

YPM ICH 11443: Simenchelys parasitica, eater of shark hearts

Okay, so this eel doesn't actually eat shark hearts, but it does parasitize them, feeding on the blood within.

Meet the pug-nosed eel, Simenchelys parasitica. This specimen was collected in 1995 by a vessel called the F/V Patty Jo, near the Hudson Canyon, a submarine canyon off the coast of New York.

This species normally scavenges at the bottom of the ocean, using its very powerful jaws to tear off chunks of flesh from sunken carcasses. It's more famous, however, for its occasional parasitic forays. It's been known to ensconce itself along the backbones of various fish, such as halibut and cod, and stay there for a good while without actually killing the fish. As for the shark hearts, two pug-nosed eels were found inside the heart of a shortfin mako shark in 1992, and evidence showed them to have been feeding on blood in the heart. These eels aren't any kind of small, either. The eels that were found in the mako shark heart were 8 and 9 inches. Our specimen is a bit bigger, even. Here's a pic where you can see YPM ICH 11443 in relation to my hand:

Scientists speculate that the two eels probably burrowed into the shark through the gills or the throat. If it makes you feel better, we don't have any gills! And you can always close your mouth... Just kidding, you shouldn't have to worry about these guys, as they live only in the deepest of deep seas.

A note about YPM numbers. A specimen's YPM number is the number it's assigned in our database, searchable here. The prefix "ICH" stands for ichthyology, and is used to designate fish specimens. You'll also probably see me use "MAM", which stands for mammology (mammals), "ORN", which stands for ornithology (birds), and "HER", which stands for herpetology (reptiles and amphibians).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fluid collection re-curation: What I do and why it matters

Last year our division got a collections improvement grant from the National Science Foundation to re-curate our entire fluid collection. (Specimens can be prepared in three ways: as skeletal specimens, as dry skin specimens, or as fluid specimens. Fluid specimens are fixed with formaldehyde and preserved in ethanol. They are also known as "spirit specimens" or "pickled specimens").

I was hired to execute this re-curation effort. What does this mean and why does the fluid collection need to be re-curated? The short of it is this: the specimens need to be re-jarred and their fluid needs to be changed. The data associated with each specimen needs to be entered into our database, and the specimens need new labels. Some of the specimens need to be identified. So, I am re-jarring, changing fluids, databasing, re-labeling, and identifying!

The long (but fun, I assure you!) answer is as follows. First, for the re-jarring and fluid changing: As I mentioned above, the collection is very old. This means that most of the specimens are in old mason jars that do not form very good seals, which allows the ethanol to evaporate. Some very very old specimens are even currently in jars that are sealed with pig bladders! This was a common practice in the 1800's. Here's a salamander skeleton in a pig bladder-sealed jar. This specimen came from a biological supply company in Chicago, and was most likely used for teaching purposes:

To fix the jar problem, we are re-jarring all specimens into modern jars. As we re-jar the specimens, we are changing the fluid in the jars to the modern standard of ethanol. Many different types of fluids were used as preservatives in the past-- including various liqueurs such as Anisette! I do not recommend drinking from old specimen jars, however.

With each specimen there is an associated label that includes invaluable data (the locality where the specimen was collected, the date of collection, the collector, etc.). These labels are currently attached to the outside of the jars (where they could easily fall off), or they are handwritten with ink inside the jar (where the data is fading away with time). This data could be lost forever as is. To fix this problem, we are entering all data into the museum database, and we are re-labeling all specimens with archival, thermal-printed digital labels. Yes, very high-tech.

Here's a shot of the before and the after re-curation:

As I mentioned above, I also do my best to identify as many unidentified specimens as I can, as well as catch any glaring mis-identifications. Identification is one of my favorite parts of the job, and involves lots of books and dichotomous keys.

I'll be repeating this re-curation process for each specimen in our fluid collection, jar by jar, for every bird, mammal, fish, reptile, and amphibian here. As I re-curate my way through, I'll effectively be touring my way through the vertebrate tree of life, as our collection has representatives from a good portion of the tree's branches. I feel lucky to have this opportunity.

I'll finish this post by commenting on why we should care so much about preserving these specimens in the first place, as this is not always obvious to those outside the science/collections world. Chris Norris, the collection manager of Vertebrate Paleontology here at the Peabody, speaks to this elegantly in a recent post in his blog, Prerogative of Harlots:

"In a very real sense these collections are irreplaceable, a point that often comes up when we try to figure out a basis for insuring the specimens held in museum collections. It's impossible to exactly replicate a collecting event, the multiplicity of biotic and environmental factors that mean that every specimen caught at a particular time and place is unique. Even if you can catch the same species they will be represented by different individuals, with different parasite loads, different gut flora and fauna, different stomach contents.

As we become more aware of the importance of the complex data associated with natural history collections, these small differences assume greater importance. Of course, all is not lost if you have the collecting data - the notes and observations made by the researchers at the time the specimens were caught. But these data can only address the factors that were thought to be important at the time of collection. They may not be able to address new questions asked by a future generation of researchers. This is one of the reasons that spend so my time and effort preserving specimens, and why we worry that our preservation techniques may inadvertantly close off future avenues of research."

Along with enabling important research in the future, preserving the specimens in natural history collections also enables us to verify the findings of past and present researchers, as we can study the very specimens they used to make their discoveries.

Losing one of our specimens would be akin to losing an important historical document, but worse. Documents can be easily copied, re-printed, backed up, etc., but these specimens cannot. If the original Declaration of Independence were to be destroyed, it would be a tragedy, but at least we would have copies. If our specimens were to be lost, we could not recover them in any sense.

Essentially, if we wish to understand the life on this Earth-- how it works, how it's changing, how we can keep it from perishing, how it can keep us from perishing--preserving the specimens in natural history collections is a must.

For more on the importance of preserving natural history collections, here's an excellent article on the matter by Carl Zimmer.