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?

Spotlight on Outreach: Embrace the oddballs with the Vertebrates version of HMNS’ Wildlife on Wheels

When you want to see a degu, an African Burrowing frog or an echidna, where do you go? You’re probably thinking the Zoo, or maybe on the National Geographic channel.

So where do you go to touch a degu, an African Burrowing frog or an echidna? Would you believe . . . a natural science museum? Even better, would you believe the museum could bring these fascinating creatures to you?

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on Wheels

The best way to understand the different vertebrates is to meet them!

HMNS has a plethora of outreach programs that do just that. One of our most popular (and my favorite) outreach programs is Wildlife on Wheels. The Vertebrates theme can bring the aformentioned live fuzzies, squishies and stuffed pokies to schools, scout meetings, church groups, festivals or anywhere a group wants to learn. I love seeing the looks on kids’ faces when we present slick amphibians like salamanders or show them the actual size of an emu’s wing.

One of the best parts is having kids (and the occasionally squeamish adult) touch our live animals. You can see the excitement, trepidation and — hopefully! —understanding on their faces as they interact with something they may have only seen in a movie.

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on WheelsA frog makes friends.

The Vertebrates theme brings an array of back-boned animals — both stuffed specimens and live creatures — up close and helps people make connections. Because the Vertebrates theme covers all five Vertebrates groups, it’s easy to illustrate the similarities and differences between fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

It is also, I think, our loudest theme — but what can you expect with live birds in tow and tons of inspired kiddos? Even our toads will sometimes get in on the “chorus” if you hold them just right!

HMNS Outreach: Wildlife on WheelsWildlife on Wheels students examine some of our specimens

It seems like a simple enough idea, but we can also adapt the program for different age groups. We love to talk about cool stuff, like what we call “the Rule-Breakers.”  By “rule breakers,” I mean those animals that don’t seem to fit in our carefully constructed categories.

Think about egg-laying mammals like the echidna. What about snakes that have live birth? Consider the endangered sawfish, a family of rays that traverse both fresh and salt water. How about a fish with lungs? There are so many oddities and so little time.

I love our Vertebrates topic. You can simplify the program and use it as an introduction to back-boned animals, make it an energizing refresher, or even make the first scientific connections in a child’s mind.

Ready to learn more about HMNS’ outreach programs or book your own visit from our critters? See it for yourself!

Just another day at HMNS: Angry rattlesnakes, gecko cooling and non-stop learning in the Education Department

The conversation starts innocently enough. “So, how was your day?” asks my husband. “Well,” I say, “the short version goes like this: After I spent an hour with my arms held over my head wedged inside the gecko tank to extend its misting system, I asked my Director of Education to help me transfer our very large (and angry) rattlesnake so I could clean out his tank.

Nicole conversing with Archie

After I scrubbed out the rattlesnake tank, we wrangled him back in again. Then I think I paid some standard bills: fruit flies, crickets, you know — the basics. Oh, but the best part was during my test dissection of an owl pellet for an upcoming class, when I found an entire bird skull in the pellet. It was so cool! How was your day?”

Bird Skeleton found in Owl PelletMy husband pauses to let all of that to sink in and finally says, “Fine.” Another pause. “Did you say angry rattlesnake? You didn’t touch it, did you?”

“Well…”

So begins another conversation about my day-to-day with an incredulous spouse. I assure him once again that, yes, all of that is in my job description. And it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when you think about the Overnights, Teacher Workshops, Outreach Programs, or overarching if-you-don’t-know-ask-Education requests our Department solves daily.

One thing is for sure, it’s never routine, and there’s never a dull moment.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (behind glass)

To learn more about HMNS’ Education Department, what it does and the amazing programming it offers, click here.

September Flickr Photo of the Month: Baby Alligators!

_DSC8853_R1_C1BM-LR
_DSC8853_R1_C1BM-LR by Mark L 2010.
Shared with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as our satellite facilities in the Sugar Land area. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Mark L 2010, taken in Brazos Bend State Park – home to the Museum’s George Observatory. Spending the day there wildlife spotting is a perfect lead in to stargazing at the Observatory on a Saturday night. And as you can see – the animals are really cool!

Here’s what Mark had to say about his photo:

On Labor Day, 2011, we visited Brazos Bend State Park to take a look around and shoot a few photos. Just beyond the shore line of 40 Acre Lake against the fishing pier we saw a dozen or so baby alligators. The duck weed coated them completely, making an interesting sight.

Maybe more striking was the fact that as they were sleeping in the sun they were laying on one another much like you would expect of puppies. It was just a nice view of young wild life. We all wish our area could break out of the grip of this destructive drought, but it is surprising how beauty remains available in this park. Thanks to all who participate in making it available to the rest of us.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.