Working from zero: How exchange programs and scientific sleuthing fuel our Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Our collection focus in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology is dictated by both our exhibits and current areas of research. We are heavily vested in birds and mammals (and herps to a lesser extent) from Texas (yeehaw!), Africa and Latin America, as well as globally threatened/endangered species that transcend political boundaries.

Tightly correlated with this latter category are some of the exotic pheasants — sadly, rare in nature due to their capacity to feed hungry families in otherwise impoverished areas. The majority of the planet’s pheasants come from Asia — although it’s not a continent the collection focuses on per se, the fact that most pheasants are threatened/endangered makes them a targeted focal group for our collection.

However, Asian Bird Flu virus has all but shut down all export of birds from Asia! Consequently, we rely heavily on the captive stocks of zoos and private game breeders to build our synoptic series of pheasants. We have managed to build a respectable collection of most genera and at least 35 different species, although there are still a few species we are lacking, which can only be obtained through exchange programs with other museums. Such exchange programs are difficult to get off the ground for a number of primarily bureaucratic reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the many exciting developments in Vertebrate Zoology this year is a new exchange program with a large museum in the northeast. The Museum provides them with data-rich specimens that we already have represented in our collection, and they, in turn, provide us with study skins to help fill various gaps.

In terms of our current pheasant holdings, we currently have all species but one in the cases of junglefowl (Gallus), and peacock pheasants (Polyplectron), which are very different from peafowl (Pavo), and tragopans (Tragopan). In the latter case, we were fortunate to recently receive a beautiful adult male specimen of the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) through the above-mentioned exchange program.

Unfortunately, the specimen arrived with very little information. For example, was it collected from the wild or hatched in captivity? Although this seems trivial, knowing this information can mean the difference between a specimen that is valuable in studies dealing with biogeography and systematics, versus one that is only useful to make drawings from or is just something pretty to look at.  This is where detective work comes in handy (such as the sleuthing highlighted in my blog dealing with Col. Richard Meinertzhagen).

Between the tags on the specimen and data at the bottom of the online catalog, I was able to glean the following information: The specimen was cataloged on Oct. 3, 1908. Either the species or specimen was from northern India, obtained from the private collection of Tristam.

Western Tragopan

First I needed to determine if the specimen was collected from the wild or hatched in captivity. The late Jean Delacour was a fascinating individual who was very interested in a broad array of topics dealing with gamebirds. His family owned a large 14th-century French castle and estate in the quaint town of Cleres (just north of Rouen) which he inherited and used to raise and study exotic gamebirds. Ultimately, he donated the facility in full to the Paris Museum (I was fortunate to visit the Cleres facility for a meeting about 15 years ago).

Delacour was an authority on pheasants and wrote a first edition on these birds in the 1950s that included everything known at the time of its writing, including the status of different species in captivity. Delving into this source, I learned that about 50 Western Tragopans were imported from northern India between 1863-93, mostly to breeders and zoos in France, as well as the London Zoo.  Apparently they were very difficult to raise, but one French aviculturist managed to raise a limited number by the mid 1890s.

However, Delacour then indicates that every single Western Tragopan died out in captivity by 1900 and they were never imported again, so they never reached the U.S. So it seems intuitive that because our new specimen was cataloged in 1908, it would surely have to have been collected from the wild as it was collected eight years after the last Western Tragopan perished in captivity.

Simple enough, right? Not that simple, I’m afraid.

The British Collector Henry Baker Tristam died in 1906. It fits logically that the specimen then made its way to the institution we received it from, where it was cataloged in 1908. It is possible that Tristam had the bird in his possession for a while prior to his death, and it is therefore plausible that the bird could have been one of the captive imports that died out.

However, given that so few were bred in captivity, it is likely that this male was indeed collected in nature — even if it lived in captivity for a spell prior to its death. Reinforcing this, apparently very few, if any, of the birds in Tristam’s specimen collection were raised in captivity.

Have you done any scientific sleuthing lately?

100 Years – 100 Objects: Manatee Ribs

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

These bones, part of the Attwater-Westheimer collection, represent the fourth specimen record of Manatee (Trichechus manatus) for the state Texas.  They were collected prior to 1929 at San Jose Island, Aransas County. 

For years they were passed over as part of a ‘vat of dolphin [Tursiops truncatus] bones’ which Attwater probably collected on the beach at San Jose Island concordant with collection of disarticulated dolphin skeletons. 

This finding was important enough for HMNS staff to publish (2001. Tx. J. Sci. 53: 292-294).

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.