Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I haven't posted in a while. This is for two reasons, one of which is very exciting:

1) Getting adjusted to graduate school has been very consuming

and... now for the exciting reason:

2) The Peabody is launching a new group collections blog at the Peabody website very soon! I've got a bunch of material that I'm planning to write up when it launches. This way I can cross-post the new posts there in celebration. It's going to be great! Look for more then.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Yale Daily News Letter & List of Peabody Blogs

The YDN posted an excerpt of my full response to Burns today as a letter to the editor.

For anyone who made it here after reading the letter, hello! Here are the links to my colleagues' blogs:

Spineless Wonders, by Jessica Utrup, is a behind-the-scenes look at the specimens of the Invertebrate Paleontology Division.

From DNA to Dinosaurs, by Annette Van Aken, Dan Drew, and Nathan Utrup, is a blog about findings from a special grant-funded project that explores the Peabody's archives.

Prerogative of Harlots, by Chris Norris, is a place where he thinks deeply about museums and their role in society. There's some paleontology here as well.

Museum Model Making, by Michael Anderson, is a place where he writes about how he makes his incredibly life-like replicas for the Peabody's exhibits (including the now-famous (infamous?) bloodsuckers!).


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shape up? Burns misses the Peabody's pulse

This past Thursday a Yale undergraduate named Thomas Burns wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News titled "The Peabody needs to shape up".

I wrote and submitted a response piece over the weekend, but the YDN wrote back saying they had already received multiple replies! Which just goes to show, contrary to Burns's allegations, the great impact that the Peabody has made in so many lives. They ended up publishing Dakota McCoy's piece, "In praise of the Peabody". It's a great piece, and well written. Definitely go read it.

Here is what I had to say in reply to Burns:

The Peabody Museum has been a second home for me for the past six years. As an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major, I came to know it first as a student. I learned hands-on from its collections in my coursework, and in my senior year these collections provided just the material I needed for my research on species diversity in a group of freshwater fishes native to Tennessee. I was also lucky to work as a student assistant in the Vertebrate Zoology Division for two years, and after graduation, even luckier to work as a full-time museum assistant for another two years.

Reading Thomas Burns’s article brought a mix of emotions. I was heartened that Burns recognizes the Peabody as “one of the most distinguishing aspects of Yale’s science program”, excited at his appreciation of the “tireless” efforts of Yale scientists in collecting specimens for research, and happy that he values the Peabody as a “physical encyclopedia of the natural world.” Clearly, Burns cares deeply about the museum and believes ardently in its mission. He testifies that the Peabody is a learning space worthy of more of the University’s resources. I could not agree more.

Yet his argument that the Peabody is an institution that does not serve the Yale community because of a “profit-hungry attitude” is tragically misguided and simply incorrect. My job as museum assistant was to re-curate the Vertebrate Zoology fluid specimens. Much of this work was tedious, but each day was inspiring—not because of the dead specimens I encountered daily, but because the museum is alive. From its students to its staff to its curators, it is alive with curiosity of the natural world, and it is alive with passion for sharing this curiosity.

Do students and faculty “use the museum as a second classroom”? Six courses from my own education relied upon the museum collections: Biology of Terrestrial Arthropods, Introductory Geoscience, Stratigraphy, Laboratory for Evolutionary Biology, Introduction to Physical Anthropology, and History of Life. A few more off the top of my head include Invertebrates, Vertebrate Paleontology, Ornithology and Ichthyology. Very useful in my daily tasks as museum assistant was a cart that I used to move specimens where they needed to go. The Ichthyology class in fact used specimens for teaching so much that, to my dismay, I found myself all too often deprived of my dear cart.

Does the museum “provide intellectual stimuli to the student body”? The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department offers a seminar titled “The Natural History Collections of the Peabody Museum.” A good friend of mine took this course her freshman year, and via a class project she began doing research with Professor and Peabody curator Richard Prum. She continued this research through her college career and their collaboration resulted in the development of a new software program that has helped ornithologists better understand bird vision. Such opportunities are not reserved solely for biology majors. Just last semester we had an art major come spend a good deal of time with us as she did drawing studies of specimens. A history of science student researched with us last semester as well. And I am speaking for only one out of the Peabody’s twelve divisions.

The Peabody’s educational mission extends well beyond the Yale community. Each year, local high school students who are training for Connecticut’s Envirothon competition come to Vertebrate Zoology and use our specimens to prepare, with a guide that one of our collection managers wrote. Last year, this team placed fourth in the national competition. Each fall, nearly every Peabody staff member participates in an annual Bioblitz held in the town of Stratford. This 24 hour effort aims to identify as many organisms as possible, serving to monitor biodiversity in the area over time. The public is invited to join us, and we teach them how to go about identifying the organisms.

Do the museum collections provide “easy access” to the student body and the general public? The Vertebrate Zoology Division allows so many visitors into our laboratory and collection space that I often felt like a stranger myself. Although I tried my hardest, I honestly could not keep track of all the new faces using the collections each day. These visitors ranged from researchers from other institutions to local nature enthusiasts to artists and of course to students. Beyond individual visitors, our collection managers provide generous tours to groups of all sorts, often working late in order to do so.

Is the auditorium used “almost exclusively for parties”? Nothing could be further from the truth. I have attended countless lectures there by dynamic science speakers from within the Peabody and from outside. One of my most vivid auditorium memories is of a film screening of what was then a new documentary, “Hummingbirds, Magic in the Air.” I arrived ten minutes early and there were so many people there that I still had to stand. The film featured findings by Yale researchers, and the panel discussion that followed with these very researchers was so engaging and lively that it truly did feel like there was magic in the air. Although I don’t think it was quite as magical, I once gave a talk in the auditorium myself along with two graduate students from the Geology Department: we shared how we use Peabody specimens in our research with a group of biology undergraduates from Eastern Connecticut State University. 

It saddens me that Burns has so grievously misunderstood the Peabody’s spirit. Everyone I know at the Peabody is eager to share the specimens with anyone who wishes to learn from them. I’ll never forget one of my first days working as a student at the Peabody: although he had research to do, grants to write, and classes to teach, ichthyology curator Tom Near sat down with me and taught me how to sort and identify fish specimens. He started with minnows, a notoriously difficult group, and spent hours showing me the minute differences among species (note to budding ichthyologists: minnows suck…).  If you wish to access the collections, please, just contact a Peabody staff member. Any staff member. Any curator. They will happily point you in the right direction.

In closing, I want to applaud Burns for his vision. He is right: the Peabody’s collections are amazing, and they are vast. We have over twelve million specimens and we are adding to the collections every day. It would be ideal if each one of these specimens could be on permanent display. It would really be a marvel, wouldn’t it? However, this would require expansive, almost limitless space, and it would require extensive security measures in order to keep the specimens safe and secure for future research. No major natural history museum is able to keep all of its specimens on public display.

Yet the Peabody still works towards this goal in creative ways. Many divisions are in the process of digitizing their collections: they are photographing each specimen and inputting all specimen data into Yale’s public database. The Peabody has in fact been a pioneer among museums in harnessing the latest technologies for collection digitization. Further, a number of us blog about the specimens we encounter behind the scenes, precisely because we know there are people like Burns who desire to experience the collections beyond what is on exhibit. I am still blogging about the Vertebrate Zoology specimens, even though I no longer work at the museum. And we are in the midst of creating a collective blog space at the Peabody website that will enable anyone at the Peabody—student, staff, or curator—to easily share about the specimens they are working with, the research they are conducting, and the discoveries they are making. This blog is set to be titled “Twelve million specimens …and counting.” Burns, I hope you will become a regular reader when we launch it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Go Badgers! ...also R.I.P.

So I made it to Madison! Unfortunately, however, my belongings have not: moving company is very late. Not fun. This means that I can't finish up the type series just yet since I don't have my hard drive. In the meantime, however, grad school starts this week, so here is a post in celebration of my first week as a University of Wisconsin Badger.

American badger
Bucky the Badger is of course a ferocious fighting beast (actually a true story: the original live mascot was too vicious to control! and besides that American badgers are carnivores that prey on everything from pocket gophers to woodchucks to ground-nesting birds), but a little while ago I came across a tidbit of badger natural history that would make them seem to have a soft side. I found this in a 1954 book titled The Animal Kingdom: The Strange And Wonderful Ways Of Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Fish And Insects. The book calls this story "A Remarkable Badger 'Funeral'":  

The badgers have few natural enemies, and many live out the normal life span of ten years. They probably die in an underground chamber, which is then sealed off by other tenants of the badger "earth." There is even on record one remarkable instance of a badger "funeral." The event--it took place in England--was witnessed by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald in 1941.

A female badger was seen excavating a large hole in an abandoned rabbit warren. Her efforts were interrupted by several journeys which she made back and forth between the rabbit warren and her set. All the time she seemed agitated and uttered strange cries.

The excavation completed, the female was joined by another badger, a male, and both retreated to the set. A short time later he was seen dragging a dead badger by the leg (another male--it could have been her mate) with the female giving some assistance from the rear. The body was duly deposited in the open grave and covered with earth. The female returned home; the helpful male went elsewhere and was not seen again.

I should note that this story was about a European badger, not an American badger like Bucky, but it's a fun story nonetheless. Also, probably not a whole lot of meaning should be ascribed to this story: as fossorial creatures, burrowing and burying is just a big part of life for badgers. They bury everything from their poop to their prey, so it's not surprising that on occasion they might be inclined to bury their dead as well. Here's a cute video of a badger digging a burrow:

And in other badger news, badgers have apparently been, well, making the news lately. Check out Chris Norris's post on... MONSTER BADGER

This video is always fun, too.

Monday, August 8, 2011

On the future of this blog...

This week I am leaving New Haven and the Peabody. I'll miss both dearly: New Haven's been home for the past seven years. The Peabody's been my home within that home for the past five. I started working in Peabody Vertebrate Zoology as a student assistant at the start of my junior year. After graduating, I was lucky enough to be able to join the division as a full time museum assistant. Along the way, I've gotten to use the Vertebrate Zoology collections for research with Professor Tom Near, too.

Now, I'm heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to start working on a Phd in sociology. I'm looking to study the sociology of the evolution controversies. I'm stoked.

I'm also trying to figure out what I want to do with this blog. I'll be working with people now, not dead vertebrates in jars of ethanol anymore, but I don't predict that I will lose my love for the natural world upon joining a sociology department...! I've got gobs of cool specimens and photos that I haven't posted about yet, and it seems silly not to share these. So I might keep this up. I recently received an invite to blog at Field of Science, so I may even move the blog there.

But, of course, I'm worried about how much time I'll have now that I'll be starting this new grad school life. We'll see. At the very least, I'm going to finish out this series I've got going on the Peabody fish type collection. And I'll definitely be contributing occasionally to a brand new Peabody group blog that I've been helping to kickstart with some colleagues this summer. It's set to launch in about a month or so-- more on this soon!

I'll keep you updated. For now, I've got to finish packing and get my butt to Wisconsin. Back to boxes...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When two become one (for real)

The deep sea anglerfishes of my previous post are famous for their strange reproductive habits. These habits are strange because they are much more similar to the feeding habits of most other organisms. In the early 1900's, biologists started finding female deep sea anglerfishes with tiny fish attached by their snouts to the females' bellies. Sounds like those poor ladies were getting eaten, right?

Nope, it turns out that those tiny fish were the men in their lives. When I say tiny, I mean that in the most extreme species, the females can be more than 60 times the length and about a half a million times as heavy as the males. These males look nothing like the intimidating females--the anglerfishes you're thinking about, with large jaws and lures for catching prey. The males have neither large jaws nor lures: the only thing large about them is their nostrils, which helps them to find a female in the dark depths of the sea. In some species, once the male finds a female, he attaches permanently to her, becoming embedded in her mass. Their tissues fuse together, and even their blood circulates together. He becomes completely dependent upon her for nutrition, living effectively as a parasite, waiting to provide sperm when she decides to spawn. In some species, the females take on just one male, but in others, females can absorb up to eight.

Unfortunately I don't have any photos to post***, but in reading up about this I stumbled upon some historical quotes that are too good not to share.

This quote is from C.Tate Regan, who, in 1925 was the first to conclude that the tiny fish attached to the females must be males. He romanticizes the phenomenon to the point that it almost, perhaps, maybe, possibly, sounds ... beautiful? If anyone needs an eccentric quote for a toast at an upcoming biologist's wedding, here ya go:
[The male fish is] "merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition, ... so perfect and complete is the union of husband and wife that one may almost be sure that their genital glands ripen simultaneously, and it is perhaps not too fanciful to think that the female may possibly be able to control the seminal discharge of the male and to ensure that it takes place at the right time for fertilization of her eggs."
Then there is this quote, from William Beebe, writing in 1938. He, on the other hand, makes the phenomenon sound, well, utterly terrifying:
"But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully to eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one's veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish--this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it."
 And proof of it, indeed, he--and many others--have seen.

*** We do have a female specimen with a parasitic male attached, but it's been used for teaching so much that it's in danger of falling off, so I didn't want to risk making it worse by taking it out to photograph it. Sigh...


Pietsch, Theodore W. 1976. Dimorphism, Parasitism and Sex: Reproductive Strategies among Deepsea Ceratioid Anglerfishes. Copeia, No. 4, pp. 781-793.

Pietsch, Theodore W. Ceratioidei. Tree of Life Web Project.

Pietsch, Theodore W. 2009. Oceanic Anglerfishes: Extraordinary Diversity in the Deep Sea. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tiny but Monstrous Type Specimens from the Deep

One of the greatest things about our type collection of fishes is that most of them are deep sea fishes! And the reason we have all of these deep sea types is an unlikely story: it's in large part thanks to the efforts of -- not any scientist or scientific organization -- but an independent New York businessman named Harry Payne Bingham. Bingham was a curious guy who, in the 1920's, developed a serious interest in marine biology. So, of course, upon developing this interest, he hired a biologist, a few assistants, and even an artist, and he set sail exploring and collecting fishes in his own yacht, the "Pawnee." I say we need more businessmen like that! :)

The Pawnee sailed three times, in 1925, 1926, and 1927, and after this last expedition, Bingham donated all the specimens of his "Bingham Oceanographic Collection" to the Peabody Museum. Many of his specimens were new to science, hence all of our type specimens.

Here are some excerpts from an article published in the Yale Alumni Weekly in 1928 that convey the excitement of these discoveries at the time:
"Mr. Bingham is to be congratulated on the success with which he has carried out thus far his venture in studying marine life. Few men have combined the means, the foresight and the inclination to undertake such work.... A natural desire to preserve some of the fishes he found in tropical waters increased his interest in ocean life, leading to expeditions which have yielded invaluable returns to science."
Bingham apparently even acquired a novel, giant, high-tech net for use in the third expedition:
"The third expedition, by far the most successful judging it by the importance of its results to science, visited the waters about the Bahama and Bermuda Islands. Mr. Bingham had come more and more to appreciate the value of deep-sea investigations, and had included in the equipment of the "Pawnee" a specially constructed circular net fourteen feet in diameter at the opening. This was probably the largest net of its kind ever used in deep-sea collecting, and proved its worth by capturing a great many new of little known free-swimming organisms between the depths of 3000 and 6000 feet. Remarkable indeed are the bizarre fishes preserved from the hauls of this net. Thirty new species have already been described by Mr. Alfred E. Parr, whom Mr. Bingham had engaged as oceanographer for this cruise. As many more will probably be found."
Those thirty new species, however, only included those in the third expedition! Regarding the entire collection resulting from all three Pawnee trips, the author, Peabody curator Stanley Ball, writes:
"The hundreds of these fishes now deposited in Peabody Museum, preserved in alcohol and formalin, constitute one of the country's most extensive and valuable deep-sea ichthyological collections... The entire collection of fishes at present time requires about 3000 catalogue numbers. Not less than one hundred new species, as well as many rare forms, are included. The larval eels alone would gladden the heart of any ichthyologist..."
OK but enough history already. Now for some of these deep sea types! These are anglerfishes of the family Linophrynidae. I think all the anglerfishes are awesome, but these are double awesome. All anglerfishes have an appendage on top of their heads known as the esca-- it's a fleshy growth that derives from their first dorsal spine which harbors symbiotic bioluminescent bacteria, and it acts as a lure. But most Linophrynid anglerfishes have this esca AND another appendage- a "complex bioluminescent chin barbel." Out of their anglerfish relatives, they also have  the largest mouths, "with the longest dagger-like teeth of any fish and perhaps of any vertebrate."

Here are some of these spectacular Linophrynids. This is the holotype of Linophryne coronata diphlema, described in 1934 by Albert Parr. It has a chin barbel longer than its body length! It was collected near New Providence Island in the Bahamas:

This is the holotype of Linophryne brevibarbis, described by Parr in 1927. It was collected off Bermuda with that famous 14 foot circular trawl!

And here is the holotype of Linophryne arborifer, also described by Parr in 1927. It was collected off Bermuda, again with the 14 foot circular trawl:

These guys all look pretty scary, but as I alluded to in the title, each one is actually only about the size of a nickel.


Pietsch, Theodore W. Linophrynidae. Tree of Life Web Project.