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.


Color and Create for the Secret Ocean Art Contest!

The bright colors of life on the coral reef inspire artists all over the globe. How well does your art measure up? Show off your talent through the Secret Ocean Art Contest, and you could win free museum tickets and an artist feature on the big screen! Check out some of our ideas below and learn how to enter the contest before the Sept. 25 deadline.

In the saltwater world captured in Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3Dwe see many animals with bright colors and vibrant patterns, and struggle to find some of the animals hiding in plain sight. Coloration plays an important role to survival in most environments. Animals with appropriate coloration can be better at confusing predators, attracting mates, or blending in to catch the next meal. Every animal has its own approach to coloration, and they each use it for more than just beauty.

Dangerous distraction

The lionfish is known for its large elegant fins and the impressive venomous spines along its back, but the red-striped pattern of the lionfish makes it a fierce predator at the top of its food chain. The lionfish does not use its venomous spines to capture prey. The venom is meant to protect the lionfish from other predators, and it is quite successful! The bright pattern on its body warns predators that the lionfish is venomous. Its warning coloration may be the reason there are no known predators for the lionfish that were introduced into the Caribbean.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Bright beauty

The clownfish is also known for its distinct color pattern. Unlike the lionfish, clownfish coloration does not serve as a warning. Rather, it helps them avoid predation. The white stripes break up the body of the clownfish making it harder for another animal to see. Using stripes and spots in this manner is called disruptive coloration. The disruptive coloration on the clownfish can confuse a predator for just enough time and allow the clownfish to retreat safely into its anemone.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Clever camouflage

One of the best color patterns for animals is one that goes unnoticed entirely. It’s hard to catch an animal that you cannot find. The octopus is well known for its ability to change the color and texture of its skin to blend into its surroundings. This camouflage can help the animal escape predators as well as sneak up on unassuming prey. An octopus can also mimic rocks, algae and even coconuts to blend in to all sorts of environments.


Flickr Creative Commons.

Now, combine your artistic talent with your knowledge of coloration for our contest! To compete, print out a copy of the rules and the Secret Ocean art contest template, then create your masterpiece. You can use paint, crayons, sand, glitter, beads and almost anything you can think of to create a fish or octopus. Don’t forget to submit before the deadline, Sept. 25! The top pieces will win great prizes like tickets to the HMNS permanent exhibit halls or to a showing of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. Your artwork could also be projected onto the big screen!

Give us your best shot! We’re looking forward to your colorful creations. Best of luck!

Go ahead. Take your toddler to the museum!

by Victoria Smith

When my children were younger, and I was hip to the toddler scene, I would schedule play dates at all the usual places: I’d push the stroller to the park, load up the red wagon for the zoo, and slip Cheerios to fussy babies during story time at the library. The Houston Museum of Natural Science was also on the top of my list, and I was surprised other moms thought their kids were too young to appreciate it.


“Oh, no! He’s after us!”

The museum is fantastic for small kids! It’s got air conditioning, wide spaces to navigate, and if you have a two-year old who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches cut in squares, not triangles, you are welcome to bring your own food.

And of course, DINOSAURS! They’re huge, they’re exciting and they have pointy teeth (at least the carnivores do). Even if you don’t have a toddler who can identify every prehistoric creature and pronounce the names better than most college graduates, every kid loves dinosaurs. (Thank you, Dr. Scott the Paleontologist!) In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, the dinosaurs are mounted in active poses, bringing these ancient creatures to life for young visitors. The displays tell a story, and the murals illustrate it.


It’s the Circle of Life, baby.

Speaking of stories, my youngest daughter’s favorite story is the lion chasing the zebra in the Hall of African Wildlife.  Even though she knows how it’s going to end for that poor zebra, every time she asks, “Mommy, tell me the story of the lion and the zebra.” It’s not only a great chance throw in a few Mufasa quotes, but it’s also great to discuss how nature doesn’t waste anything because after the predators come the scavengers. I usually manage to work in a moral lesson about the selfish leopard who won’t share, too. There are interdisciplinary opportunities at every turn!


Let me know when the wonderment is over, so Momma can sit down!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is one of our favorite spots to visit, and perhaps even my favorite place in the museum, period. Yes, the awe and delight in a young child’s face is a daily miracle, but they’ve got cushioned benches and free wi-fi! When you’re through with the center, there’s a beehive-themed play area with puzzles and blocks, and most importantly, it’s enclosed!


My daughter at age four, as an assistant in a chemistry demonstration…

If you want your daughters (and sons, of course) to grow up to interested in science, it’s never too early to start. Let them know that science is fun and not scary. The museum has dedicated tour guides who specialize in making the exhibits come alive for young children, and docents who offer many hands-on experiences. Kids can touch real fossils, feel if minerals are rough or smooth, and guess if an animal was an herbivore or carnivore while holding an actual tooth! It’s all there, at their eye-level.  


…and at age eight, taking on a brain dissection at Xplorations summer camp.

So now that the big kids are back in school, it’s a great time to plan a visit to the museum. If you’re lucky like me, you can convince their grandparents that even though your one-year-old can’t talk, he really wants a membership for his birthday, and not another toy to clutter the playroom.

Editor’s note: Victoria is the Executive Assistant to the President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Camera trap captures video of kinkajou in South America

Tom Williams, my father-in-law, is a retired oil prospector who has a fascination with all things science and engineering. As such, he always gets me gifts for birthdays and holidays that he thinks will benefit me in my work (scientific texts, gadgets, etc). Last May, he gave me a fairly high-tech game trail camera with mounting attachment. This was delivered to my old study site (now new again?) in the Peruvian Amazon, by Ron Rossi, a Science Technology instructor from Michigan who spends a lot of time at the Amazon Explorama Lodges, just as I used to many years ago… In fact, today Ron runs a non-profit called EKOAmazon that does wonderful things for the communities living in the region.


Kinkajou. Flickr Creative Commons.

Our initial plan was to monument the camera at a mineral lick at a reserve up the Sucusari Tributary off the Napo River, which Ron did last June. When he visited again earlier this month he realized that nothing was recorded yet, so went ahead and moved the camera to Platform 7 of Explorama’s world-famous Amazon Canopy Walkway at ACTS (Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies). It was with much excitement when he sent me news and the attached clip of a kinkajou (Potos flavus) visiting the bait site of bananas at Platform 7. The kinkajou is a member of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) that is built like a primate to eat fruit. It has a prehensile tail, which is strong enough to wrap about branches to secure the animal’s weight when it is foraging or moving among branches, essentially serving as a “fifth arm.”

The other exciting news is Ron was able to set up the camera at a bird’s nest. Unknowingly at the time, and very luckily, the nest happened to be that of a species of antbird of which virtually nothing is known of its nest, and absolutely nothing documented for parental care. We plan on publishing that information later, so stay tuned…