March 14th – Squirrel Skinnin’ to Dueling Banjos

            In the words of Mary, “skinning is an art and Gary is a master.” The first time I took up the art of skinning was a year ago. I skinned a duck, and though I thought I had enough guts, it was mildly upsetting. Thinking skinning was not for me, I did not return to volunteer at the museum following my foul experience. Upon my return to the museum this semester for my independent study, however, I decided to give it another shot. I departed from birds and focused on preparing small mammal rounds this time. Gary started me out with voles (Microtus townsendii) and I gradually work through deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and on to my crowning achievement to date: a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii).

            It was early on the Friday before spring break and as I walked into the museum, I spotted a squirrel on the center table next to Gary’s camera. Accustomed to animals lying about the museum, I assumed it was a specimen Gary was thawing in order to prep, so I continued on back to the office. Asking about the squirrel, Gary informed me that it was a fresh kill he had picked up on his way into work. Returning to the front room, Gary placed the squirrel in my hands. It was still warm; the soft scent of fir sap still clung to the squirrel’s coat. One would not necessarily know it was dead; the residual warmth from its life—extinguished perhaps only an hour prior—made it seem as though it was napping. I felt more regret than usual at the squirrel’s death. It felt closer at hand. Nevertheless, it was an excellent specimen to practice skinning fresh. And seeing as I had volunteered to skin in the field with Kena this summer, I needed some experience.

Overcoming my initial sense of regret, I summed up some chutzpa and began the procedure. The skin was far more elastic than usual. Gary had warned me of this and it took a bit more finagling than a previously frozen specimen. It bled a bit more than frozen specimens also, but not too much. I took my time with it, being very intentional about every stroke with my razor blade. I was honing my art. Alone in the museum, I had put on a bluegrass radio station. Just as I pulled the skin from the body, dueling banjos came on and I felt a momentary solidarity with my squirrel-hunting Midwestern relatives. I had done it! I skinned a fresh squirrel.

The rest of the prep went smoothly and I stowed away my specimen in the drying oven. Later that day I saw that Gary had posted about my squirrel prep on the Slater facebook page with the note: “I picked this Douglas Squirrel up on the way in this morning at about 8:30 and it was prepared expertly by KCP (aka Kelsey Crutchfield-Peters) by 11:30 am. Only #14 and a great job.” I was so pleased, and I knew that I had finally gotten the hang of this whole skinning thing. Now on to the pocket gophers!

March 5th – Voles, Bot Flies and Deer Mice, Oh My!

            Dead animals, blood and guts don’t bother me. The meaty stench of my hands after skinning two or three mice back-to-back doesn’t bother me. I was even able to shake off my brief moment of revulsion after having accidentally splashed decades-old pickling ethanol from one of my bat jars into my mouth. But every time I see, touch or even think about ticks, mites or other skin-burrowing critters, the hair on my left forearm raises and I get shivers all over! It isn’t a creepy-crawly response; it is a parasite response. Most recently, my anti-parasite response was induced at the sight of a protruding bot fly larva from a vole specimen I was preparing to skin.

Laying my eyes on the larvae butt sticking out of the vole’s hindquarters, I cried out and dropped the vole. Jumping up from my seat I danced around for a few moments, rubbing my left arm in an attempt to get rid of my goose bumps. Gary laughed as I calmed myself and sat back down. After the initial ick response died down, I challenged myself to examine the larvae. It was one of what looked like three larvae. I prepared my forceps; I was going in!

Botflies, also commonly referred to as warble flies, will lay their eggs on other small insects that serve as vectors for infestation of bot flies in larger mammals. Mosquitos and house flies are common intermediates upon whom a female bot fly will lay approximately 30 eggs. When infected insects land on a mammalian host, the eggs drop in response to the mammal’s body heat and hatch upon contact with the host’s skin. The larva then bury themselves in the host’s skin (thanks Wikipedia!).

In the case of my vole, the bot fly only breached the dermal tissue, making its home between the skin and the connective tissue. There are some species of bot fly, however, that infest the gastrointestinal tract or, in even more unfortunate individuals, the scrotum. I pulled the first bot fly from my vole with some difficulty. Tiny but stout hair-link bristles adorn the larva, pointing away from the head and serving as hooks that prevent the larva from being removed by its host. After overcoming the grip of the larva and pulling it out, I laid it down for measurement. The thing was about 2 cm long and 1 cm in diameter! It was huge! Its counter parts were similarly sized, perhaps a little smaller.

Once I had removed all of them, I stored them in a vial with some pickling ethanol. Gary had taken photos and even video footage at this point. I think he was rather tickled at my squeamishness. I proceeded to skin the vole, discovering that the dermal tissue surrounding where each larva had been was oddly thickened and very tough to cut through. Snipping below the knee joints on the vole and peeling the skin off its hind quarters, I noticed that the hind leg bones were brittle and the muscles atrophied. Poking around near the rear of the skin, removing excess scar tissue from the bot flies, I noticed several more lumps. Slicing into them revealed three more bot fly larva! These three were quite a bit smaller, but nevertheless, after all was said and done, there had been six bot fly larva occupying the flanks of this poor female vole. They undoubtedly did not help as she attempted—and ultimately failed—in fleeing Nell the cat, her murderer.

Apart from a droopy butt once all the larva were removed, the final round of the vole turned out quite nice. We kept the bot fly larva—I’m not entirely sure why, although they do serve as a fantastically disgusting talking point with museum visitors. But despite my persistent revulsion by skin parasites, the six bot flies I pulled from that little vole allowed me to face my fear and I anticipate that in the future I will be able to handle such situations with a bit more composure. 

February 25th – Bat Geeks

            There’s nothing like a good geek-out session with a fellow scientist. It may come following a recent discovery in pop science, or may be the manifestation of a shared passion for a field of research. Personally, I find almost all realms of science to be fascinating. And, given the right information and with the right person, I will go down the rabbit hole into the nitty-gritty science of something. I had this opportunity recently with Rochelle Kelly, a first year graduate student at the University of Washington. Rochelle is researching a topic that has recently found a special space in my heart: bats. Looking at the dental and cranial morphologies of Antrozous pallidus and Macrotus californicus across their region of sympatry in the western U.S, Rochelle is examining the role of competition and resource partitioning in character displacement between the two species.

Fortunately, our extensive bat collection brought Rochelle to the Slater in search of specimens. I spoke with her for a time about my project cataloging the DR bats, and we shared a moment of excitement having both examined Macrotus. What I really found interesting, however, were the techniques she was using in examining the cranial morphologies of her bats. Rochelle uses geometric morphometric technology to compare allopatric populations of A. pallidus and M. californicus with individuals taken from their region of sympatry. Geometric morphometric techniques use digital imaging and mapping of cranial landmarks (defined features on the skull) to examine morphological differences between the skulls of the two species. Using specialized software, all images can be compared to determine subtle differences in cranial morphology.

Rochelle was kind enough to share some of her literature sources with Gary and me in response to our interest in the geometric morphometric techniques she described to us during her visit. These types of analyses have been used, for example, to demonstrate the conserved modularity of the mammalian skull over evolutionary time despite the diversity of the class itself. Rochelle provided us with a paper by Santana and Lofgren, who focus specifically on the cranial morphology of rhinolophid bats. They hypothesized that nasal morphology would be distinct from other mammals due to the unique use of echolocation by chiroptera. However, from their geometric morphometric analyses of rhinolophid bats, they found again that morphology of the nasal dome was consistent with morphological patterns of other mammals (Santana and Lofgren, 2013).

After looking at hundreds of bats, researching the species and pouring over the species description pages from Mammalian Species articles, it is useful for me to see how cranial morphology in is used species ID as well as function in bats. Every Mammalian Species article in its classification and diagnosis of bats species includes figures of each species’ skull and dental morphologies. Rochelle’s study, that of Santana and Lofgren, and yet another study underway by a peer of Rochelle’s on the facial morphology of bats in shaping receipt of signals during echolocation, have revealed to me the strong fascination scientists have for the cranial morphology of bats. I too have been taken in by their faces and skulls: some with short snouts, some long, some with split lips or leaf noses, etc. The manner in which these variables combine to create the astounding diversity in bats alone is endlessly fascinating and I look forward to discussing it in more detail with bat geeks up at the Burke. 

February 20th – Making the Connections

            Thus far, I have assisted on two Nature in the Classroom lessons. The best part of the lessons, for me, is seeing the eyes of students widen either in amazement at the specimens or in a moment of realization of how the animals work. Form and function are emphasized in the bird lesson. Students are challenged to generate hypotheses for what the birds eat and where they live after making careful observations, measurements and drawings of the bird they have been given. We provide them with reference materials and discuss as a class the different types of beaks and talon morphologies, but they ultimately come up with their own predictions. Some students are very insightful, some are shy and some entertain fantastical ideas of what their birds are doing in the world. All of these responses to the lesson are excellent. And through gentle suggestions here and there, it is often easy to guide the students to appropriate conclusions about not only their species of bird, but about the various habits of birds in general.

February 11th – The Alcoholics: part 2

            I have continued to work through the alcoholic bat collection. I have gotten through ten jars and have approximately sixty to go! The process of entering each individual bat into the catalog requires more time than I had initially anticipated and is a product of the great deal of cross-referencing and research that must go into each specimen entry. For example, if a location of collection has already been entered into the catalog, I must make sure that the latitude and longitude match the old values in my new entry. Or, in some cases, localities are entered into the database as X miles north/south and X miles east/west of a well-known landmark or city. Without distinct place names to drop pins using GIS software, it is challenging to generate accurate coordinates for a collection site. Using Acme mapper, however, one can use simple descriptions, like mile distances from a city, to generate latitude and longitude values with some associated error.

Recently, I have found great pleasure in matching the locality of specimens with maps F.H.A drew himself, and then finding the sites using modern maps of the DR. If there is a confusion of locality, or an inconsistency between F.H.A’s log and all previously listed localities in the DR bat catalog, I turn to Google Earth or Acme Mapper to generate data.  Many of the sites are caves (cuevas) and some can still be found using Google maps. Some remain unmapped, as they are likely locally known caves in more remote rock outcrops. However, one of the cave sties, Cueva Pomier Bolbon, is has now been declared as an anthropological reserve along with neighboring some caves. It is truly fascinating to place the little hand drawn caves from F.H.As notes onto a physical landscape. That guy got around!   

February 4th – The Bejeweled Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

 One of the primary inquiries of visitors to the museum is how specimens are collected. Historically, the killing of animals for natural history collections was the most common means of acquiring specimens. The Slater Museum, however, acquires specimens primarily through salvage of animals that have been killed or have died from illness or injury. For example, birds hitting windows, birds killed by cats and animals that have died from sickness or through some human-facilitated manner all manage to make their way to the museum. The expansion of our collection is fueled by relationships that have been developed with animal rescue groups, local naturalists, other natural history museums (e.g. the Burke Museum) and federal wildlife management agencies like the Department of Wildlife. But anyone can donate to the museum, as long as two pieces of information are included along with each specimen: date and the location for the specimen found. Occasionally, we will even receive pets.

The sulcata tortoise brought to us in February this year is a perfect example of a family pet donated to the museum after death. This story is a unique tragedy, as the lady tortoise—whose shell was decorated with rhinestones—had been backed over by the father of the family as he exited the driveway. The tortoise had been roaming in the yard and unfortunately chose to take her rest in the shade of the car. Sadly, once the wheels were in motion she was unable to escape and her shell was not strong enough to withstand the crushing weight of the car.

The bejeweled tortoise was a sulcata tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), also referred to as the African spurred tortoise. The sulcata tortoise is native to the southern edge of the Sahara desert. They are the third largest species of tortoise in the world, following the Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) and Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantean). Exotic specimens such as these are acquired by the Slater as previously captive animals, through trade with other museums, or in the case of our sulcata tortoise, as pets.

There is still active collection of animals for museums. However, it is highly regulated and requires permits for the collection of wild animals. The bejeweled tortoise was a unique and welcomed addition to the collection. And once the beetles are finished removing what is left of the meat from the skeleton, the bones with be boiled in hydrogen peroxide, the shell will be reconstructed where it was cracked and the lady sulcata tortoise will join the ranks of Slater specimens.

January 27th – The Alcoholics

            Entering the museum, visitors are met with a very distinct smell: the cumulative oils of skins and pelts of the animals housed here. Unscrewing jars of “alcoholic” bats, I add the smell of ethanol to the air. Carefully, I lay out the delicate little specimens on my dissecting tray. Their noses are turned up in the typical bat fashion, their membranous wings are tucked in close and occasionally a lolling tongue peeks out from between their teeth. I have been charged with cataloging these bats using the new digital database.

All of our alcoholic bats hail from the Dominican Republic, and were donated to the museum by the avid naturalist, F.H. Armstrong. We keep the collection in the Thompson basement along with many other specimens that are overflow from the primary museum rooms. I carry up small loads of jars (of which there are 73) and I set to work taking out each bat, cross-referencing the specimen number on its tag with that originally recorded by F.H.A. I work from two of F.H.A’s field notebooks where he has recorded species, sex, location and date of collection as well as the standard mammal body measurements (full body, tail, hind foot, ear) for each bat. 

F.H.A’s records of the specimens are interspersed with journal entries recounting trips and collection attempts from his time in the Dominican Republic during the 1960s. In the back of one of his notebooks he has detailed maps drawn of caves he collected from which includes houses and specific locales he opportunistically collected specimens from. His accounts include meetings with friends and collaborators in his collection expeditions.

Using his thorough records as well as ours, I can trace the history of each bat from its collection to its entry into the Puget Sound Museum catalog system. In some cases bats are missing. These bats have often been traded—as noted by Slater in his records. In a sense, I am acting as a naturalistic investigator. I record species name, sex and all other pertinent collection information in the digital catalog, but I also corroborate the species name with existing taxonomical databases to ensure that the species listed by F.H.A. still exist.

An interesting occurrence I picked up on early in my work was the ‘mislabeling’ of several bat species by F.H.A. Again and again I came across species epithets that were absent from the largest databases of mammalian and animal taxonomies. But what was more curious, was that I found no synonomies with the species originally listed by F.H.A. (e.g. Molossus major, Monophyllous cubanus and Brachyphylla pumila). These species names, according to the taxonomic databases, never existed and were not documented as having been changed. But of course, with the advent of the internet, my search was not long before I found evidence that some of these species names did exist at one time. In fact, after speaking with Denis, I learned that many of the species epithets I could not find were given to bats hailing from different islands throughout the Caribbean that were recognized as different species in the 1950s and 60s, but are now recognized as the same species.  Molosus major is now classified as Molossus molossus; Monophyllous cubanus is now classified as Monophyllus redmanii; and Brachyphylla pumila is now classified as Brachyphylla nana.

As I continue to catalog bats, I will likely uncover other curious stories of unique specimens and their rich history that has been preserved in the records of F.H. Armstrong.

January 25thThe Slater

            It is easy to miss the Slater Museum tucked away in Thompson. The display case outside of its doors offers just a taste of the myriad bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian specimens that are found within. With a large table area as the central workspace of the museum, staff and volunteers work daily organizing, identifying and preparing specimens. I accomplish a variety of tasks in the museum: from cataloging specimens, to assisting with natural history lessons taught by museum staff to elementary school students. There are an incredible number of learning opportunities at the museum. I am honing my ability to identify animal species, learning form and function of unfamiliar animal morphologies and studying the evolution and relatedness of species. Beyond the biological knowledge I am gaining at the museum, however, there is incredible potential for practical knowledge of museum studies: preparing animal skins and skeletons; proper maintenance of specimens; archiving specimen information correctly and completely, etc. And fundamentally, at the heart of museum work, is an incredible attention to detail. I look forward to exploring the Slater for the next several months.