Frankenbirds: A True Story of Science and Immortality, or, How to Make Dead Animals Look Alive

by Sabrina Dahlgren

I’d like to first clarify that this is not a “how-to” manual for your creep-tastic Halloween needs. I’m all for phantasmagorical home decor but the average citizen should not be handling animal specimens. Numerous species are protected or their handling is regulated by state and federal authorities. If you don’t have the necessary permits and training please leave the dead stuff alone (or call us).


Order: Piciformes.

With that disclaimer in place, I’d like to boast that my necropsy (animal autopsy) skills have greatly improved in my time at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. As has my taxidermy technique – not a skill set I thought I’d be adding to my resume, but this place is nothing if not constantly surprising.


Order: Strigiformes.

Why is this done at all, you may ask? As a scientific institution, part of our job is to preserve a record of life on Earth, both for edification of the public (think the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife) and for the maintenance of reference collections used in research (our study skin specimens stored off-site).

It may seem like an obvious assumption, but no one wants to store an untreated dead thing in their building, regardless of ventilation and air-conditioning. Dead things rot, rotten things smell bad and a stinky workplace makes for very unhappy employees. So unprocessed specimens are stored in a freezer until the time comes for someone like me to thaw it out and clean it up. The cleaned skin is either made into a display mount or into a study skin, as much data is gathered as possible, and all records and databases are updated to reflect the newest addition.



What a difference strategic feather placement can make! Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron. Nycticorax nycticorax.

So what kind of person does this for a living? Am I the modern, non-fiction equivalent of Victor Frankenstein? So glad you asked! Here’s the answer, in brief:

In presentation I lean more towards lab coat and nitrile gloves than I do mad-scientist hair and demented cackling.



The resemblance is uncanny.

My lab consists of a tiny room with two freezers, a small fridge, storage cabinets, a section of counter well-lit by under-cabinet lights, and a sink; not a condenser coil nor galvanic rod in sight.



A Tesla coil would add to the ambiance…

There is no Fritz or Igor to assist; the closest I come is Pandora or Spotify to pass the time. The best and most ironic song I listen to is The Vulture Song from Disney’s The Jungle Book because I am a ridiculous human being and a morbid sense of humor serves well when I do this work, especially in October.

Most of my tools are normal: scalpels, dissecting scissors, probes and pins. Grocery items are also used: cotton balls, Q-tips, hydrogen peroxide, borax, Dawn dish soap, and an impressive amount of paper towels. Some of my tools are a bit unorthodox. Gardening shears have become one my most useful tools. Toothbrushes have become specimen dinglehoppers. You don’t even want to know what I use a teaspoon for. (Hint: It’s a fat scraper. Enjoy that bit of TMI.)


Hair dryer + toothbrush = bird salon.


Regarding the actual preparation:

  • Documentation is key – keep a written record of all observations and data that may have accompanied the specimen. Take pictures for reference. Or just because.
  • Record external data (weight, visible trauma, general condition, etc.).
  • Skin the specimen. You’ll end up with bone only in the lower legs and feet, wing extremities, and the cranium; organs, muscle, and adipose (fat) should be removed.
  • Clean the skin as thoroughly as possible – cleanliness equals longevity and that’s the big goal.
  • Clean the feathers and the exterior of the specimen as needed.
  • Fill the eye sockets with cotton  for a study skin and glass eyes for a mount.
  • Reinforce the length of the body with a dowel, then add in stuffing to re-form the body cavity. If you’re preparing a mount, add wire armature inside first so that it will hold a pose, then stuff.
  • Stitch up any incisions or tears in the skin and brush the feathers back into place.
  • Secure the specimen on a foam board and allow to dry for one to three weeks, depending on the size and condition of the specimen.

Unlike Doctor Frankenstein, I am happy to report that I do not galvanize specimens. The only electricity I use is restricted to the lights and the hair dryer, not for reanimating the bird.



…it better not be alive.

Why is any of this important? Simple. Scientists like data. Scientists like data even more if there are visual references available. If those reference materials preserve individual variations among species, observations and inferences can be made concerning species and larger taxa of organisms. Our collection is, essentially, a 3-D reference library that will serve future generations.

And that’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.

So there you have it: the key components of a specimen preparation specialist.

Scientific background + morbid curiosity + Disney references + off-color humor = Sabrina.


This is an ex-parrot.

And now I’m off to calculate the air speed velocity of an unladen European Swallow (Hirundo rustica).

P.S. Someone has already done the math, and it is beautiful.


…and this is a gratuitous Monty Python reference.

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dahlgren is a Curatorial Assistant at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, providing help in tracking and maintaining existing and incoming collections to be installed as exhibits or stored for future exposition.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 10/12-10/18

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 


Savage Garden Now Open!
Oct. 5 – 31
Discover the renegades of the botanical world at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. These baddies eat meat, defy death and break all the rules. Learn how they grew to be so nasty and why they act the way they do. It’s a Halloween season creep-show you don’t want to miss! But hurry — the show ends Oct. 31.

Lecture – How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction
Tuesday, Oct.14
6:30 p.m.
Could extinct species, like mammoths, be brought back to life? The science says yes! Dr. Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, will present the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction, which could redefine conservation’s future. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used today to resurrect the past – along with its practical benefits and ethical challenges. A book signing of Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction will follow the lecture.

Lecture – The People of the Rainforest with Adam Mekler and Dirk Van Tuerenhoust, Ph.D.  
Wednesday, Oct. 15
6:30 p.m.
Ceremonial objects, headdresses, masks, body costumes–all unique to the different tribes of the Amazon Rainforest. In conversation with curator of anthropology Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Adam Mekler, will share stories of everyday life among the rapidly disappearing indigenous groups of the Amazon. Aspects Amazonian cultures will be illustrated with beautiful images of rare tribal artifacts. Adam Mekler is curator of Houston Museum of Natural Science’s unparalleled Amazonia collection.


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Being Natural: Nancy Greig

In 1994, Dr. Nancy Greig inherited what was “basically a hole in the ground.”

More than 21 years later, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a world-renowned exhibition, and Greig’s vision is a major part of the success of both the CBC and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

As Greig puts it, getting the job “was just lucky.” Before moving back to Texas, Greig was wrapping up a year of postdoctoral studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she was, in her words, “changing caterpillar diapers.”

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Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Dr. Nancy Greig visits with a rice paper butterfly in the facility her efforts have made hugely popular.

“This professor I was working with was looking at the caterpillar fauna on three species of oak tree. After we collected them in the field it was my job to raise them in the lab so we could determine what species they were,” Greig said. “I had to get them fresh leaves and clean the containers out, so that’s why I called it changing caterpillar diapers. Pretty much you have to dump the ‘frass’ out every day.”

Greig’s background is a blend of tropical plant biology and entomology.  She did her graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin, conducting research in Costa Rican rainforests under the supervision of Dr. Larry Gilbert, who studies tropical butterflies.  Between receiving her Ph.D. and the postdoc position, Greig spent two more years in Costa Rica teaching a tropical ecology course, that was “like summer camp for graduate students – an amazing experience.”  She was back in Austin for a Christmas visit in 1993 when her UT advisor remembered he had recently received a call about a position at HMNS.

“I thought I was going to be a University professor or something, and I was expecting another year or two of postdocs,” Greig said. “But I got in touch with the museum and they wanted me to come to Houston for an interview. Two weeks later, they called in St. Louis and asked, ‘How fast can you be here?’”

Greig’s field experience in Costa Rica gave her a leg up on the job; during her field work and subsequent teaching, she had spent plenty of time getting intimately familiar with the neotropical rainforest environment the museum wanted to craft in Houston.

When Greig first arrived in Houston, the Cockrell Butterfly Center was still under construction.

“It was a hard-hat zone,” she said. “There were cables and ropes everywhere. Some of the cement planters were in place, but not much else. The metal struts were up but there was no glass.


Greig educates students about plants as well as insects. In nature, the two forms of life depend on each other.

“It was so bare when we first opened, so of course it’s grown up [since then]. At first the plants were so small,” Greig said. But despite the bareness, “the first year, we had a millon people come through the butterfly center. It was a big deal, and kind of a trial by fire.  I had never been on television or radio before, and we got plenty of press. I had to learn to talk in front of a camera!”

Her first duties were to help oversee the construction and work with the builders and the landscape architects.  She also had to hire staff, get the butterfly importation permits, and create the museum’s first entomology hall. This precursor to the current Brown Hall of Entomology contained many preserved specimens but had lots of text and no interactive displays.

“People would go through the butterfly center first and then go up there – and the energy level just died,” Greig said. “There were some great specimens and some good information, but it was a very quiet, somber space.”

After several years, Greig and the Exhibits department began planning a bigger, brighter, vibrant entomology hall. Along with a couple of museum board members, they visited museums and zoos all over the country to see what others had accomplished and how to adapt the best qualities into one fun, educational hall. The result has been well-received.

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Greig educates a student on butterfly identification at the CBC.

Gone were the static displays, replaced by interactive games, giant models and live arthropods. One of the biggest changes was to move the display cases closer to the ground, making the whole exhibit more kid-friendly and engaging.

The unveiling of the brand new Brown Hall of Entomology on July 1, 2007 was one of the highlights of Greig’s 22-year tenure as director, followed closely by the hysteria of Lois the corpse flower and “Cash for Cockroaches.”

In preparation for the opening of the new exhibit in 2007, the CBC offered to buy up to 1,000 cockroaches for 25 cents each from Houston residents to fill a feature of the hall, the Roach Dome. The public response was huge, and the story made the front page of the Houston Chronicle before jumping nationally and beyond with coverage from Reuters.

Lois similarly brought in a surge of media attention when the giant corpse flower showed hints of blooming in the summer of 2010. After being cared for and nurtured for years up in the greenhouses, Lois sprouted a slightly different stalk, sending the city of Houston into a three-week frenzy that culminated with her stinky bloom in July. Celebrity status was afforded to horticulturist Zac Stayton, a parody Twitter account was born, t-shirts and buttons were mass produced, and a documentary was made and released in the aftermath.

“It was so great for the museum; so great for Houston,” Greig said. “That is what the museum should be about. It was exciting and educational and fun. There was one woman who came over 30 times! At least once, sometimes twice a day!”

While Greig has always loved “creepy crawlies,” she has devoted her life to educating others about the positives bugs and arthropods provide to the world. She says that you can’t force that appreciation on people, but you can try to get through to them by asking them to imagine what the world would be like without them, among other tactics.

“I try to educate them with some fun stories and show that I’m not afraid. That there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seeing that someone can be totally comfortable with insects and spiders is important,” Greig said.

Nancy Greig Cockroaches

As an arthropod-lover, Greig believes all insects are important, and that even roaches are deserving of our love.

Greig herself is very enthusiastic about the evolution of many insects and their various adaptations for survival. The camouflage used by insects such as walking sticks and katydids really gets visitors thinking about how life got to this point, and Greig counts that as one of the must-sees of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is passionate about moving past the “creepy crawly” label as a result.

“It’s neat to be able to use the butterflies as the hook, the ambassadors, I would say, to bring people in, and then we help them to realize that bees and even cockroaches are important,” Greig added.

While Greig has always had a love of nature, she arrived at UT from Calgary ready to study linguistics. She says she took a circuitous route back to biology and that she is proof that “you can do really whatever you want to do.”

“It’s turned out to be really a perfect fit,” Greig said. “Running the Butterfly Center has been a great job for me. There are really not that many jobs like this. It was total serendipity.”

Visitors to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in October can see special plant life in the rainforest conservatory during the temporary exhibition, Savage Garden. And teachers hoping to meet Greig can mark their calendars for The Educator Event @HMNS Jan. 23, 2016, where she will give the keynote address. In addition, educators can book one of Greig’s Bugs On Wheels Outreach Programs, Monarchs or The Buzz About Bees.


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14 easy costumes that show your inner nerd

Sure, you can go daring. You can go scary. If you’re into zombie and cat costumes, more power to ya. But if you’re still searching for your look this year, consider going geek! Especially if you’re coming out to Spirits and Skeletons at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Nerds are all the rage these days, especially with the hipster look. Grab a pair of suspenders, nerdy glasses and a pair of shorts. Got a pair of loafers? Even better.

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Maybe go in character, like this Steve Urkel from Family Matters. It’s a twist on nerdy with a red cardigan and high-waisted jeans. Don’t forget the flattop!

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Go professional nerd with this Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. Add an Initech coffee cup and remind people to put cover sheets on all their TPS reports. “Ummm… Yeeeaahhh…”

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Nerdy doesn’t have to mean the geek look. An advertisement makes a hilarious and nerdy reference costume that shows off your love of pop culture, and they’re easy, like this Brawny man. Carry your product with you to boost sales.

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Or choose a piece of propaganda to work from. Check out this Rosie the Riveter. A little detail, like the polka-dot scarf, goes a long way.

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Woah! This Patrick Bateman from American Psycho looks like the real guy! If you’re a movie fan, show your love of this cult classic by dressing in a suit and a clear rain coat. You’ll have to check the axe at the door, though, or make a foam version.

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Instead of going zombie, go zombie-killer. And instead of Walking Dead, go Shaun of the Dead! It’s a hilarious spin on the traditional look.

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Whatever party you go to, there’s bound to be a Spider-Man or two. At Spirits and Skeletons, you can show your geek by donning Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker. Grab a camera and a costume shirt, and leave your mask peeking out of your satchel.

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If you’ve got a group, go geek as social media. Works in singles and pairs, too! Redditors, go as Alien Blue!

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What’s better than one killer chemist costume? How about two? Breaking Bad is all the rage this year, but check out this guy’s brilliant double-sided spin on Walter White/Heisenberg.
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Then there’s always The Doctor. Since the lead of Doctor Who is ever-changing, tell people you’re the next in line! Pretty much all you need is a red bow tie and a blazer.

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Funny nerdy costumes are puns of fun, and super easy, too. Check out this freudian slip costume! Pin some print-outs to a nightgown and psych people out. 

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Pin some socks to a winter sweater and go as static cling! If it’s chilly by the end of October (which is rare in Houston, I know), you’ll be glad you wore some real clothes and not a thin costume.

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Last but not least, check out this nerd! She’s a cheerleader who roots for ceilings. A ceiling fan!! Get it? Hahahahahaha!

No costume is too nerdy at Spirits and Skeletons, so go all-out! Get your geek on! #ChillsAtHMNS

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