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Contents tagged with specimen

  • Behind the Scenes: Foundations of a Story

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    Tags: collections, collection, specimens, specimen, data, museum collections

    Created: 9/1/2015      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects. 

    Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?

    Detail of the label for a Passenger Pigeon specimen

    With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:

    “Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.” 

    Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind -- Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.

    Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.

    In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Bird Collections -- Looking Up Close

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, ornithology, bird, specimen, exhibit

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bird watching is a popular activity and one where there are few barriers to participation. Both young and old can participate and from any geographic location; you can watch birds in your backyard through kitchen windows or venture out to more wild areas. With this ready access to living birds, what role do bird collections play?

    One of the greatest advantages is that specimens allow for up close inspection, for as long as desired. This can be particularly helpful when you want to study a species that is difficult to find in its habitat, when you’re just learning how to identify a species, or when you want to compare features from different individuals.

    Eastern bluebird study skin

    An Eastern bluebird study skin, Sialia sialis, collected from Diamond Lake, Illinois in 1904.

    Bird collections are used for all sorts of research. For instance, museum oology collections were used to identify the effects of DDT on bird egg shells, which lead to banning the use of this hazardous substance.  Specimens are used to track changes in a species’ range – check out the range maps the next time you open an identification book; data from museum collections are often used in the creation of these maps.

    Northern Shoveller nest and egg specimens

    Here is a nest and egg set of a Northern Shoveller, Anas clypeata.

    Specimens that are taxidermied in a behavioral posture are utilized frequently for exhibits. These specimens help illustrate behavior and bring them to visitors who may not have the opportunity to see them first hand in the wild.  In order to successfully convey the true nature of an animal, taxidermists need an understanding of how musculature works, but also have an understanding of the animal. Extensive observation of living animals aides in the understanding of a particular species’ behavior, how an animal moves and balances as its walks, and how it interacts with other animals.

    Gambel’s quail mounted specimen

    Gambel’s quail, Callipepla gambelii, mounted specimen.

    The next time you visit the Nature Museum, take a little extra time to study the specimens on display. Note their particular features – the shape of their beaks, the differences in the shape of their feet, the coloration of their feathers.  What can you impart from these features about their diet or their activities? Through this observation, you may gain a more thorough understanding of the animals living in this urban nature environment and even spot them more easily in their natural habitat.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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