Contents tagged with specimens
Created: 9/1/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
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?
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 RobertsView Comments
Created: 2/2/2015 Updated: 8/8/2016
Have you ever seen something in nature that you just couldn’t identify? On Saturday, February 28, we'll be sharing our experts with you during our very first Discovery Day! Our entomologists, paleontologists, and urban ecologists will help identify your discoveries. Whether your specimen is a feather, fossil, shell, rock, plant, photograph, or observation you can join our experts at the Museum from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to learn more about it! As a bonus, visitors who bring a specimen to identify on Discovery Day will receive free admission.
Don't have a piece to bring in? Don't worry! You'll still be able to speak with our experts, ask questions, and learn about some of the Museum’s own discoveries by examining some specimens from our own collection up close.
Join our experts in the Nature Museum’s Wilderness Walk on February 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to discover more about your natural treasures, or maybe even stump our scientists!
Please note, our experts will not be giving appraisals during Discovery Day.View Comments
Created: 1/14/2015 Updated: 8/8/2016
We are having a party this week! The Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded on January 13, 1857 and was the first science museum in Chicago. Our collections served as the nucleus for the organization of our institution and preserve our natural heritage. These specimens, artifacts, and associated documents are used as primary source material for environmental studies and historical research. To celebrate our birthday, we’ve brought out specimens from the museum collections that aren’t typically on display.
One question we are often asked is, “What is the oldest specimen in our collection?” The oldest specimen in our museum collection, in terms of when it was collected, are two Merlins collected in the Rocky Mountains in 1834 by J.R. Townsend. That's right -- bird specimens that are 182 years old! One of these is on display.
Falco columbarius richardsonii
Collected by J.R. Townsend, July 9, 1834
CAS ORN 1848 (old 11426)
Fossils, though, have the award for oldest in terms of when they were created! This "Tully Monster" fossil is from the Mazon Creek area, right here in Illinois, and is approximately 307 million years old.
Mazon Creek Area, Will Co., Illinois
Francis Creek Shale (Carboniferous, 307 MYA)
Donated by Earth Science Club of Illinois, 2013
The Academy’s museum collection includes spectacular geology specimens from the Midwest and locations across North America. These specimens help illustrate how rocks and minerals are used in our society.
No other data
Gilsonite (“natural Asphalt”)
Uintahite variety Asphaltum
Frisco County, Utah
Received from George H. Laflin
CAS GEO 1493
Gold and Silver Ore
Leadville, Lake Co., Colorado
No other data
From geysers at Yellowstone Park, Wyoming
Received from Mrs. E.E. Atwater, c1872
CAS GEO 1
Received from Frank C. Baker, c1920
CAS GEO 515
Rivers in Illinois have changed considerably over the last 200 years and pollution has severely impacted many native species of clams, mussels, and snails. Introduced species, such as Quagga and Zebra mussels, are making an appearance in our waters as well.
Glenwood Park, Fox River, Illinois
Collected by Academy, Sept. 7, 1908
CAS MAL 22356
Collected by W.W. Calkins, c1890
CAS MAL 1803
London Docks, England
CAS MAL 12780
Fullerton Beach, Chicago, Cook Co., Illinois
Collected by Academy, July 9, 2013
This plant specimen from our botanic collection was collected by Floyd Swink, a prominent botanist who co-authored "Plants of the Chicago Region." In 2013, Gerould Wilhelm, Swink's coauthor, visited our collections facility to review some of our plant specimens and annotated several, including this one. These “conversations” left by researchers who utilize our collection adds to the scientific knowledge of those specimens.
Antennaria parlinii parlinii
Palos Park, Cook Co., Illinois
Collected by Floyd A. Swink, May 17, 1952
Annotated by Gerould Wilhelm in 2013
CAS BOT 3775.1
Other specimens from our ornithology collection are also on display.
Blue Jay ♂
Mount Forest, Cook Co., Illinois
Collected by B.T. Gault, January 9, 1890
CAS ORN 15859
Peregrine Falcon ♂
Falco peregrines tundrius
Collinson Point, Alaska
Collected by Chas. D. Brower, July 1934
CAS ORN 7862
Peregrine Falcon ♂
No other data
Steve Sullivan, our Curator of Urban Ecology, studies squirrels and manages Project Squirrel. Locally in the Chicago area, we primarily have Grey and Fox squirrels. This species is found in the Southwest.
Abert’s Squirrel ♂
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Collected by a Park Ranger, June 1965
CAS MAM 4519
It is important to document species even if they’re not flashy or colorful. This one drawer of moths from our entomology collection contains species in the same subfamily, Catocalinae, that were found from across North America and span almost 80 years!
Collected from: AZ, CA, FL, IA, IL, IN,
LA, MO, NM, NY, OK, PA, TN, TX, UT
Collected between 1898 to 1976
Our herpetology collection, which includes amphibians and reptiles, is largely preserved in an ethyl alcohol solution. These salamanders were collected in Indiana.View Comments
Northern Slimy Salamander
Turkey Run, Parke Co., Indiana
Collected by W.L. Necker, May 30, 1932
CAS HERP 1472-1479
Our display is located in the Beecher Lab in Wilderness Walk hall. Come visit the Nature Museum, see these marvelous specimens in person, and help us celebrate our natural heritage!
Created: 6/11/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning the art of taxidermy, or, in layman's terms, skinning an animal and stuffing it with cotton and wire. I have to admit that I thought it would be a much more complicated process involving toxic chemicals and specialized safety equipment. In reality, all you need is a sharp knife (preferably a scalpel) and some borax. So long as you're sure to wash your hands afterwards, you don't even need gloves.
As we waited for our chipmunks to thaw, we spent some time drawing them, taking a few minutes to learn about the contours of their bodies, where their joints are, and how their fur lies. I learned two things during that time. First, I'm not very good at drawing. Second, I learned what a chipmunk really looks like: how its legs move, how the features of its head sit upon its skull, how the color patterns flow across its body. It was all quite intimate.
After bonding with our specimens, it came time to cut into them, from thigh to thigh, right above the genitals, being careful not to cut through the thin layer of muscle separating us from the rodent's stinking bowels. This was a relief, it hadn't dawned on me that by only collecting the skin, we could leave its mess of organs tucked safely in the package nature made for them.
This was the only time we cut through the skin, the rest of the cutting we performed was done in between the skin and the muscle, delicately cutting away at the layers of connective tissue. We worked our way from that initial incision to the back knees until we could peel the skin up and over them to fit our scissors around the joint without cutting skin. Then, a bit of pressure, a quick snap, and the femur was separated from the tibia and fibula. We'd come back for those later, it was time for the really fun part. Taxidermists have a special tool for getting the tail out, it almost looks like a pair of wire cutters, but instead of cutting them, it’s designed to hold onto the bones in the tail as you slip off the bushy tail. I don't think I could describe the feeling to you. It sounds rather morbid, I'm sure, but it's really quite delightful, almost like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling grape fruit juice as a kid on Thanksgiving. You gently apply pressure, anticipation mingled with a tinge of fear, then POP, off it goes.
Things were pretty straightforward from there to the skull, just like pulling off a sock. It was actually pretty meditative, and there were times when I had to stop and take stock of what I was doing, assuring myself that, "Yes, I really am peeling the skin of a chipmunk, and it really is this interesting." This is around the same time that the museum guests started showing up, many of them school groups. There were two facts which many of the children seemed to have difficulty holding in their heads at the same time: these are real chipmunks, and they are dead. One child, nearly at the point of holding these facts together asked, "Are you're fixing it?" Aside from the confusion, there were some wonderfully refreshing moments when a child grasped what was happening and watched with awe rather than disgust. These are the young scientists our country so desperately needs.
Steadily working our way up toward the head, casually chatting amongst ourselves, and enthusiastically sharing with the public what we ourselves had learned only a short while ago, it was time for the difficult part. Not only is the face the cutest part of the chipmunk, it's also the most tenaciously wrapped around the skull. The ears, eyelids, and lips can all easily be disfigured by a hand too quick to finish the job. With the help of our resident expert and trainer, we all managed to keep the cuteness intact.
At last, the skin was off, and it was on to the next stage. The hollow skin was rubbed with borax to dry it out, and the fluffy side was turned back to face the right side. Next, wires were cut to replace the bones we had removed. One wire reaching from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and two reaching from the front to back paw on either side. The central wire was then wrapped in cotton and molded with twine to approximate the shape and size of the body. Because chipmunk tails are rather thin, about a third of the wire was left bare so that what we ended up with looked a bit like a popsicle. This was then gently pushed back through the incision we had made hours ago, all the way up to the adorable little face we had affectionately drawn at the start of our day. The other two wires were then set into place along the sides of the body, pushing it into the superman pose which it will hold for centuries to come.
I thought the final step would be sewing it back up, but I'm glad it wasn't (partly because I found it the most difficult). The final step was "to make the specimen look good." I understand that the real reason for this is scientific, for the sake of our collections, but it allowed me to show my respect for the little critter I had just skinned. Gently combing his fur straight and using pins to get his tail and face aligned was a warm way to end what had been a day of cutting, bone breaking, and stuffing. I found it suiting that the process should begin with careful consideration of the creature in its natural form and end with time spent approximating that form. After all, a quick internet search for "bad taxidermy" might make one shudder to think how embarrassed the ancestors of those creatures would be if they were ever to gain sentience.View Comments
Created: 5/4/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to describing an object in a museum collection, a picture can provide essential information. An image of a specimen or artifact adds clarification for distinguishing similar items and provides a visual record for tracking preservation issues and treatments. Images of museum objects can be utilized for exhibition development, initial scientific research, or as an educational resource.
With the help of some amazing volunteers, our Collections staff are digitally photographing specimens and artifacts in the Academy’s collections. Our photography workstation is one we devised and consists of a wire shelving unit with adjustable shelves, so the work area can be changed when desired. We selected acid-free grey paper for a backdrop and created many of our reflectors and stands from materials we had on hand. Some of our best reflectors are simply sheets of hard white foam and the reflective interior of a coffee can!
Digital photography of our scientific collection began with the imaging of our type specimens. A “type” specimen is the specimen originally used to describe a species and displays the majority of characteristics used to identify that species. It’s because of type specimens that we are able to distinguish one animal from another. Here is the type specimen for the subspecies of the Southern Appalachian Rock Vole, Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis (Komarek). This specimen was collected in 1931 from North Carolina.
We’ve since expanded this project and are now systematically photographing catalogued specimens in the Academy's collections. We’ve photographed bird eggs and nests in the oology collection and mammal study skins and skulls in the mammalogy collection. Images from the oology collection were included in a bird identification DVD series released by Thayer Birding Software (www.ThayerBirding.com) released in 2012. Check them out!
Created: 4/8/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
While we do not do it every day, the natural history specimens on display the Museum need regular cleaning, particularly those specimens that are not housed inside of museum display cases. Specimens, like the polar bear, accumulate dust just like other surfaces in the museum.
To clean them we use vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters and variable suction control, fine mesh netting, clean brushes, gloves, ladders, extension cords, and time. The netting is placed over the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner so that large particles cannot be accidentally “sucked” into the vacuum.
The suction control is adjusted so that just enough suction is applied to pull in dirt and dust particles from the air, but not to harm the specimens. The brushes are used to gently pull dirt away from the surface of the specimen with the vacuum nozzle head held just above to collect the now loose particles of dust and dirt. This kind of cleaning is performed on a regular schedule for specimens on permanent display or as needed when additional specimens are installed in new exhibits, like the bison mount in Food: The Nature of Eating.
Amber KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 3/18/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
If you work with museum objects in a natural history museum, “freezing” is a necessary part of the job. It may sound a bit odd to freeze a museum object of any sort, but it enables us to store specimens until they can be prepared and it is also an effective way of killing insect pests without the use of chemical pesticides. The use of pesticides leaves a residue on specimens each time they are used and this causes a build-up over time. By using the freeze-treatment method instead, we reduce this residual build-up and the related side effects that could possibly harm specimens over time and/or become a health hazard to the collections staff that care for them.
Most of the time we can “freeze-treat” our specimens in house, but for larger mounts, like a bison mount that is 6.5 feet tall by 8.5 feet long, we do not own a large enough freezer. Instead we had to seek out a facility that would not only have room to accommodate its size but was willing to tackle this project. Midwest Freeze-Dry in Skokie was up for the job and already had experience with the process.
To freeze-treat a natural history specimen, it first it needs to be enclosed in a protective barrier. In this case we used plastic sheeting because it came in a large enough size to cover the mount, but for smaller specimens plastic garbage bags or freezer grade zipper-closure bags work well. The purpose is twofold: (1) it creates a “sealed” enclosure so that insects cannot spread to other specimens and (2) it creates a moisture barrier so that any condensation that may form during the freeze-treatment forms on the exterior of the barrier and not on the specimen.
Once the bison mount was wrapped, in what resembled a plastic cocoon upon completion, we arranged a delivery date and then booked appropriate transportation with additional people to assist with the move. After the mount was carefully moved onto the truck and securely strapped in for the 6 mile trip north, the next step was to transfer it from our truck to the freezer truck, which was accomplished with a forklift and the help of many people.
Unlike freezing food items at home, to effectively kill insect pests, the specimen has to be exposed to at least two freeze cycles with a thaw in between. The method is pretty simple, the specimen is placed inside the freezer space and the temperature is dropped rapidly and held steady for a set time and then the temperature is gradually increased. After the space returns to room temperature, the temperature is dropped rapidly again for a second cycle and then gradually brought back up to room temperature again. This cycle ensures that any insect pests that went into a dormant phase during the first freeze cycle are “woken up” during the thaw period and then eradicated by quickly dropping the temperature again. The amount of time needed depends on the temperature of the freezer space, the size of the freezer space, what kind of insect pest you are dealing with, and the size and composition of the specimen.
When the allotted freezer time was completed, utilizing more people, two forklifts (one at each location) and a pallet jack, the Bison mount was transported to the museum for its final installation. You can see the Bison mount as well as other specimens from the collection in the exhibit, Food: The Nature of Eating, at the museum.
Amber K. KingView Comments
Assistant Collections Manager
Created: 3/16/2013 Updated: 8/10/2016
One, two, three, four...
Keeping track of items in a museum collection requires organization. A LOT of organization. Collections staff track where specimens and artifacts are stored and record any time they move, such as when they go on loan or on exhibit. We track the condition of a specimen and any procedures that we undertake to resolve preservation issues. We make notations about how much deterioration a specimen is subjected to when it is on display in an exhibit. We document information about the specimen, such as who collected it, when, and where. But to be able to do all of this, we first need to know what we have!
How do you go about inventorying a museum collection? In a word: methodically. A small army of staff, interns, and volunteers went through the Academy's collection for our inventory. It took us five years, but cabinet by cabinet, each and every item was handled, counted, and described -- bird and mammal study skins, pinned insects, fossils, pressed plants, snail shells -- over 280,000 items! We created a new digital record in a database for each item we documented so that the inforamtion is in one place.
What, exactly, does this mean? It means that our Collections staff can now look up information about our collection in a database, rather than sifting through old musty ledger books and multiple, out-of-date card catalogue systems. These searches are faster and more comprehensive. We can provide this library of specimens and corresponding data to researchers and help answer questions about the environment. More of the collection can be incorporated into our exhibitions and educational programs to help illustrate issues relevant to the Midwest and allow our visitors to see these treasures first hand.
It means we have a much clearer picture of not only what is in our collection, but the history of it all as well. And knowing what we have makes tracking it, and building a reservoir of information about it, much easier. Many thanks go to the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for their generous support of our collections inventory project.View Comments