Natural Selection

Home to the Northwest’s largest reptile and amphibian collection, as well as significant bird and mammal holdings, Puget Sound’s James R. Slater Museum of Natural History helps preserve biodiversity and is the launching platform for flights of fancy into the natural world.

By Sandra Sarr

Washington’s migratory birds fly to Mexico each winter, but as fewer and fewer of the winged wanderers came home during the late 20th century, scientists began wondering why. They were surprised to learn—not by following the birds, but by studying specimen collections like the ones in Puget Sound’s James R. Slater Museum of Natural History—that molt, the annual replacement of a bird’s plumage, was a key element in the yearly cycle of breeding and migrating.

It turned out that the birds pause in the deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico, where they take advantage of late-summer rains to support their molt. Studying decades-old specimen collections showed the importance of that region to migratory birds from all over the West and alerted researchers to the connection between water conservation in southern deserts and birds of the Pacific Northwest.

Such is the value today of plant and animal species collections. Far from being just dusty dioramas in glass cases, natural history museums offer modern science a treasure trove of genetic and evolutionary history. And the quiet Slater, virtually unknown outside academic circles, is one of the best such museums anywhere. It contains the largest collection of bird eggs, reptiles, and amphibians in the Northwest and, until very recently, the largest collection of mammals in the Northwest (now second to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum). The bird wing collection is also of special significance, and a valuable collection of desert insects from Arizona and Argentina gathered during the International Biomes Project was recently donated to the museum.

Standing in the Slater on the third floor of Thompson Hall, Director Dennis Paulson picks dust flecks off of baby red wolves—an endangered species—that died in captivity at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo. Perhaps the wolves, or some of the Slater’s other 65,000 meticulously catalogued specimens, will whisper further clues to help solve some of humanity’s biggest questions about the natural world.

Earth is going through the greatest mass extinction of plant and animal species in millions of years, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson. “Whole libraries of potential scientific information disappear with each species,” he said in a recent interview. The lost information might have provided help with future medicines, purifying the Earth’s water supply, or soil renewal.

“Natural history museums like Slater can provide enormous insight,” says Sievert Rohwer, curator of birds at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington and a leader in the discovery of patterns of migration.

Another case in point: When prairie chicken eggs began failing to hatch in the central Midwest, scientists extracted DNA from old study skins of prairie chickens collected nearly a century earlier when populations were healthy, and compared these extracts to modern samples preserved in tissue archives. They learned that almost all genetic variability had been lost from what remained of the prairie chickens. A long history of fire control in the Midwestern states had resulted in loss of most of the region’s prairies, causing large declines in the numbers of prairie chickens. The population began to increase when male prairie chickens imported from Kansas reintroduced genetic variation. Without the study skins of prairie chickens preserved in museum collections, the solution would have been more elusive.

The Slater has been a repository of such information for 71 years, and generations of students have learned about the natural world close up during those years. Dubbing themselves The Mouseketeers, students in Dr. Murray Johnson’s mammalogy class during the 1960s and ’70s went to his home each Thursday evening to prepare specimens on card tables in the Tacoma surgeon’s study.

Johnson is credited with building the museum’s mammal collection. Former UPS biology professor James Slater built the amphibian collection, and the museum’s bird collection was originally assembled by former biology professor Gordon Alcorn.

“They put it all together and called it a museum,” Paulson says of the early days, a decision that was full of foresight. “It’s amazing for a liberal arts college to have a collection of this significance,” Paulson notes. Among the remarkable items available for viewing are anteaters and amphiumas, boas and bulldog bats, and right through the alphabet to yellow-cheeked voles and zebra finches.

Today, people from near and far make use of the collections. Researchers studying the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and plants of the Northwest can view specimens in the museum or request loans. Students use museum specimens in biology classes. And artists working in both two- and three-dimensional media often use Slater specimens as references.

The National Science Foundation recently chose the Slater Museum as one of 17 U.S. institutions to receive funding for a project that involves geographic referencing of mammals using a global imaging system. When completed, the project will offer a Web-based network of information servers that allows scientists and others to obtain a snapshot of the world’s mammals, using queries and summaries from all online institutions. Unlike a simple listing of specimens, the project’s goal is to provide map-based summaries to assist in research and policy making.

“In specimen-based research, we often find that there are not sufficient specimens to answer basic questions,” says Gary Shugart, the Slater’s collections manager. “This provides a driving force to build modern-day natural history collections.”