May 15, 2018

A Coyote at the Bank

Imagine a preserved coyote, perched with its mouth agape right in the lobby of a bank; or a great horned owl, mounted with inquisitive eyes looking over its shoulder at a local chiropractor's office. In the small town of Cable, specimens like the coyote or owl taxidermy occasionally become a spectacle in ordinary offices or business lobbies. The surrounding community of northern Wisconsin's Cable Natural History Museum has opened its arms to representatives of the Museum's collections, gaining experiences that inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility.

Not all find the time, ability, or even interest in exploring the insides of a museum. To better serve the public, many institutions have adopted traveling collections or traveling exhibit programs. Traveling collections are mobile forms of specimen display. Museums loan out specimens while also developing interpretive signage and providing display options. For members of the community, a hurried trip to the local bank may become a chance to discover that two seemingly similar birds, the cooper's hawk and sharp-shinned hawk, in fact differ in not only size but also in species. Such chance discoveries can arise from a collaboration between museums and other organizations.

The cooper's hawk (left) and sharp-shinned hawk (right) appear fairly similar,
but a close look reveals several differences. 

A fascination with the wonders of the natural world is innate to humans. We often pick up small bits of nature for safekeeping or stop in our tracks at the sight of charismatic megafauna like wolves, bears, or elk. Animals like this fuel endless fascination, but how many of us have peacefully encountered one within arm's reach? Museums provide an opportunity to get close to such wonderful specimens. Even without a visit to a museum, the public may find that museums provide resources for education and discovery.

Former Curator and Collections Monitor install a
 white-tailed deer specimen at Don Johnson Motors.
 The Cable Natural History Museum began the practice of sharing specimens with local businesses last summer. With a trusty collections cart, carefully prepared paperwork, and a plan, the Curator begins a specimen's journey to the outside world. So far, local buildings that housed our specimens include: the Cable branch of Chippewa Valley Bank, Cable Chiropractic, Hayward Chamber of Commerce, Timber Ford of Hayward, Inc., Don Johnson Motors, and at one point the Sherman and Ruth Weiss Community Library in Hayward.

Thanks to the interest of local businesses, our specimens have traveled to where the public can't help but notice them. With work to increase public exposure to our collections, the Museum hopes to continue providing experiences that support its mission. 

May 08, 2018

Specimen of the Month: Timberdoodle Territory

Inspiration for the current Specimen of the Month arrived just after this spring's glorious snow storm. A small bird cautiously lingered, almost camouflaged in the barely-exposed leaf litter, as various cars drove along Garmisch Road one April evening. While the bird was inconspicuous enough at first glance, my head swiveled back to confirm that I indeed observed a rotund body and beak like chopsticks. This was a bird dear to my heart--one whose mating dance has been the subject of many recollections from lovers of Wisconsin nature. May will be a month to recognize the American woodcock, appropriately nicknamed the timberdoodle for its odd looks and behaviors.  

This is a great time to learn about woodcocks, for spring is when they court each other with a fantastic display. Males have established territory and much like male suitors of our own species, prefer to venture out at nighttime to show off for the ladies. Try an evening of seeking out the woodcock's mating ritual while mosquitoes are still at bay and temperatures are no longer bone-chilling. 

Woodcocks are shorebirds, although they are more comfortable near forests and fields. It's easiest to locate them at dusk, when males produce a nasally peent call as they begin the mating display. The note can carry some several hundred yards and this buzzy, repeated call indicates that he will promptly launch upward through the thicket. While he is on his way up, spectators can listen for the twittering flight sound of feathers beating in the crisp, dark air. The woodcock flies in a quirky pattern before spiraling down to land. The peent begins again, and hopefully a lonely female has taken notice. Thankfully for the males seeking a mate in Northern Wisconsin, this area actually has some of the most productive woodcock breeding habitat in the country. 

While spending one May shuttling to and from Stockton Island among hordes of school children, I listened to a professor describe the secret of stalking a woodcock during such a display. At the moment a peent is heard, drop to the ground and listen closely. The woodcock should land from its flight in the same relative spot that it took off from. So, while it is up in the air, carefully crawl forward towards the bullseye. As he takes off each time, inch closer in hopes of capturing a look at the bird's silhouette. Remember to remain careful enough to both keep from disturbing him and to also keep from jabbing foliage into concentrated eyes. While this spectatorship may require some effort, witnessing a woodcock's mating display is truly a bucket list item!

With a visit to the Museum, perhaps to experience the recently-debuted exhibit highlighting native bee species, take a moment to look at our woodcock specimen. Not everyone may have the ability to meet one in the wild, but the Museum preserves a few taxidermy mounts and a skull for viewing. Woodcocks are odd looking creatures. Lengthy bills help to probe the ground for their primary food source of earthworms--and a robin's doesn't even compare. I liken these bills to chopsticks, and the holes punctured into soil are enough to leave signs of a woodcock's feast. Take a look at the Specimen of the Month and notice also the placement of its dark eyes. The positioning far back on the side of a woodcock's head create a wide field of vision to spot predators. Buff, brown, and gray plumage help it to hide, or make a sighting difficult for onlookers in our cars. Find a chance to stop by the Museum for a close look at one of our more oddball specimens. 

May 01, 2018

Bee Diversity at a Glance

Giant, colorful flower constructions and exquisite macro photographs now tower over the exhibit hall's many interactive displays. This year, native bees have the spotlight and each display element will serve to highlight their amazing qualities as diverse pollinators. Universally-engaging displays allow visitors a modern museum experience. Meanwhile, a simple case of pinned bee specimens both illustrates their great diversity and nods to a time when museum exhibits consisted entirely of display cases and habitat dioramas. No matter how it is exhibited, a bee's story can find an audience in a museum. Even a dead bee has its place here.

Beginning this May, visitors are able to peer into a display case at a lineup of over 30 unique bee specimens. It would be impossible to witness such an array all at once in the bees' natural habitat, and the comparison demonstrates just how dissimilar each appear. Some bees are large and fuzzy, others being smaller than their identification tags. Without expert knowledge, many of us may even believe some to be flies, wasps, or other type of non-bee insect. It can surely be enlightening to realize through one's own eyes the many types of native bees that may go unnoticed in the wild.

Upon close inspection, bee species differ in many ways. Bombus auricomus, commonly known as the Black-and-Gold Bumble Bee, dwarfs the tiny Masked Bee, Hylaeus mesillae, on the opposite end. The two bumble bees on display have many hairs on their bodies and special clusters of branched hairs on their hind legs for carrying pollen. This is a bowl-like shape that is called a "pollen basket," but other types of bees have hairy legs for collecting pollen as well. The Sunflower Bee is a large member of the Svastra genus, with dense hairs on its hind legs. As the common name suggests, its hairy legs help it to be an excellent pollinator of sunflower plants.

Others have seemingly no hairs at all, but rather dazzling bodies in shades of blue and green. Some bees vary in color even within the species. The Tiny Green Sweat Bee, Augochlorella aurata, changes in hues depending on which angle it is viewed from. Overall, it is a brilliant turquoise, as is its "twin" of an entirely different genus, Augochlora pura or the Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee. Where they lack in fuzzy hairs they make up in shimmery exoskeletons. 

Some bees don stripes on their abdomen. Again, their appearance may convince some onlookers that they are not bees at all, and perhaps this is the intention. Others have elongated bodies, spherical abdomen, or unusually long antennae. With such diversity among 33 bee species, it's incredible to consider that 133 more species make the Northwoods their home. Many, if not all, are represented by specimens located in museums throughout the state. Museums serve as a repository for these and many of the 1.9 million named species of living organisms throughout the world. The ability to share knowledge and discuss observations while huddled around a display is part of the reason why collections continue to grow in size, diversity, and beauty. 

April 24, 2018

A Place for Widlife in Need

Sunny, warm days as of late almost cloud our memories of  the unseasonable amount of snowfall occurring just over a week ago. Wildlife, however, may still be struggling from the effects of such a wintry landscape returning as we near the month of May. For organizations closely linked to the welfare of our flora and fauna, it has been a stressful week. Wildlife rehabilitators have been up to their necks with patients requiring help from human hands. While the Museum characteristically handles mostly non-living animals, recent events have served as a reminder of times when staff have had to actively work to help struggling critters. 

One seemingly ordinary day last month, a Museum member and local teacher arrived at my office announcing that she had a short-tailed weasel in her trunk. It had been struck hard while scampering across the road, but the weasel was still holding onto life after the woman and her husband gently picked it up and placed it in a towel-lined box. They didn't think it would last much longer, and without getting into detail, I didn't have much hope either. We transferred the box to a secluded area of the Museum, anticipating the weasel's untimely demise. The couple thought that if anything, we could try to give this weasel a comfortable space to pass and turn this into an educational opportunity. To my surprise, the educational opportunity turned out to be an adorable story of recovery. 

As a natural history museum, we often accept wild animal remains found by members of the public. We do so in order to bring something positive out of this loss of life. Preserved animal specimens aid in scientific inquiry and allow visitors to witness the wonders of local biodiversity. 

Salvage permits allow the Museum to hold non-living animals, but this is not a place for live animal care. Over the next few hours after receiving the weasel, it had continued to show signs of life. I knew that it would be appropriate to place the small, carnivorous mustelid in the care of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Rehabilitators are specially trained to care for and treat wild animals. They also offer invaluable instruction for anyone in similar situations. Being part of an organization dedicated to connecting people to our natural world and in light of recent events, I hope to share information for others who may witness a wildlife crisis. 

If you have found a sick, injured, or orphaned wild animal, there are a few places to reach out to for help. The Wisconsin DNR can answer questions regarding the handling and transportation of found wildlife. Their call center is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and can be reached at 1-888-936-7463. They additionally have a website page with a helpful map directory to locate licensed wildlife rehabilitators by county: 

There are a few rehabilitation centers specifically in the Northwoods which the Museum has asked for help in some capacity. 

Dr. Kim Ammann of Spooner works primarily with raptors, and has assisted the Museum with care for our own education raptors, Aldo, Carson, and Theo. She can be reached at 715-781-2595

The Northwoods Wildlife Center works with most wild animals. They are located in Minoqua and their phone number is 715-356-7400

The Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) is dedicated to caring for and sharing knowledge about native bird species. The phone number for this organization, located in Antigo, is 715-623-4015

Wild Instincts was one of the organizations I had anxiously called upon to help save the struggling short-tailed weasel. They worked hard to coordinate a pick up, and that evening I was able to pass off the weasel to volunteers who would drive it back to Rhinelander for care. Their phone number is 715-362-9453

As always, the Museum will offer insight where ever we can. Please consider making the effort to seek out information about the small things you can do to make a big difference. I'm glad I had the resources to be able to find caring hands in a timely manner. The weasel, by the way, worked through some head trauma and was seen chomping down on a healthy meal just days after its trip to Rhinelander. 

April 17, 2018

Continuing Education

Learning certainly never ends. Admittedly, many personal breakthroughs of late have been in navigating computer files. I have spent more time than I would like to admit brainstorming new ways to search for a tidbit of information I just know is hiding somewhere in Museum file folders. I've often lamented to my older friends who quickly sympathize with my struggles related to technology. Computer and technology workshops pop up every so often, and I actually know people who have owned up to their inexperience and attended. However, "Museum Databases for Beginners" doesn't usually show up on the list. What is a new Curator to do? Well, through the Northern States Conservation Center there exists online training specifically for museum professionals to learn all about subjects from "Care of Leather and Skin Materials" to "Archives Management," and anywhere in between. 

This past week I figuratively dusted off my school supplies and jumped into “Collection Management Databases.” Just like an off-line class, there is a list of varied readings, assignments, and even class discussions that are scheduled as online chat sessions. This course in particular is designed to help museum staffs who deal with specimen records. Records include identifying information about specimens, when and where they came from, changes in their condition or location, and otherwise. While the Cable Natural History Museum continues to make paper copies of all catalog records, everything is also entered into a digital “file cabinet” or database. A computer database works a bit differently than paper records do, but it serves the same function.

This course will allow me to better manage collections and the essential information connected to each collection object through elaborate computer software. During the first week, I have become familiar with nomenclature, important considerations related to storing our information, and the fascinating history of museum databasing. Computer databases have been utilized by museums for much longer than I had assumed. Actually, during the same year that the Cable Natural History Museum was founded, 1967, a group of museum professionals in New York created the first professional organization to promote the use of computers in museums, called the Museum Computer Network. Since then, there have been astounding developments with what can be achieved through this method of record keeping. I look forward to learning much more about this over the next three weeks.

Most importantly, I’ve learned two key points thus far. First, catalog records are nearly as important to a museum as the objects they describe. Records inform a specimen’s value by telling its story and giving us insight into how it can better our understanding of the world around us. Second, I am fortunate to be here. As a professed lover of academics, I find myself at times overwhelmed with gratitude for the formal and informal education I have gained in my young life. The opportunity to spend nearly every day of the week in a museum, of all places, no doubt leads to some of the most curious learning opportunities. I look forward to what the Museum will teach me. 

April 10, 2018

Specimen of the Month: It Glows!

Here is a question: how long would the Museum be able to showcase a different specimen if just one were on display each month?

Without the ability to allow every specimen on the exhibit floor at once, curators must make difficult decisions. Some specimens simply don’t fit a display theme. Some literally do not fit—certain animals magically become much larger when one tries to work them into a tight space. Despite having amazing qualities, specimens won’t always make the cut, however they do have a chance at becoming the next specimen showcased on its own in the Museum lobby.  Here, a single-specimen display has been greeting visitors for some years, known as the Specimen of the Month. To answer the question, the Museum’s current collection could sustain a new Specimen of the Month for nearly three hundred years without repeating even once.

It would be amiss to bring up the Specimen of the Month without directing readers’ attention to one of these specimens. Meet calcite, the magical member of our geology collection that glows, and April’s showcased specimen. The specimen is a broken geode, an unassuming rock formation of beautiful crystals hidden within. Geodes began long, long ago as igneous or sedimentary rocks.  Air or gas built up to create a cavity inside the rock. A crusty outer layer then formed, and finally groundwater full of dissolved minerals seeped inside. After only some thousands to a million years, a geode is born. Luckily for humans, geodes should only take a few minutes to break open, exposing the wonderful inner calcite crystals.

Other mesmerizing qualities of this carbonate mineral can be revealed after just some tinkering. When heated, it emits light, much like that of heated metals. Calcite also has a property called photoluminescence. To witness this, one may simply take a piece of calcite and hold it under a black light in a dark room.  The result is calcite absorbing ultraviolet light and immediately emitting light of a different wavelength. The photoluminescence will usually appear as a brilliant blue or magenta. As staff, it’s rather amusing to be able to share with visitors that some of our rocks glow.

The Museum will continue to showcase this calcite geode, highlighting more of its unique qualities, for a few more weeks before returning it to storage with over 500 other rock and mineral specimens. If visitors are ambitious, they may venture to the online database to view a majority of the Museum’s specimens, or can stop by to see our other displays. The Museum attempts to expose the public to as much of its collections as possible, whether through long-term exhibits, Specimen of the Month, or virtual means of exploration.  For some fifty years now, the staff has been proud to present the unique stories of the Northwoods’ seemingly endless amount of natural wonders.

April 03, 2018

Borrowing Bees

Everyone knows the feeling of excitement from receiving a package through the mail. For a Curator, the prize revealed after tearing through layers of packing tape is often some sacred piece of equipment used in maintaining collection specimens. Admittedly, sacred often refers here to anything from specialized paper labels to a fancy device for measuring light levels in the Museum. Some packages have undoubtedly been more exciting. The pinnacle of incoming mail for this fledgling Curator has most certainly been a giant box holding 28 dead bees.

These were not simply bees, but specimens representative of the wonderfully beautiful and diverse bees that call the Cable area their home. In fact, this is a mere handful of the 166 bee species naturally occurring in our corner of Wisconsin—over twice as many species as all mammal species  found in the Northwoods.  The bees that arrived to the Museum range in size from a tiny piece of rice to about an inch long. Without a visual, the comparison is rather underwhelming, which is a reason that the Museum will have these specimens on display in its Bee Amazed exhibit.

Admittedly, there were a few specimens that stood out as the box was promptly shown to everyone within sight. Augochlorella aurata is a tiny sweat bee that shines metallic shades of green. Being that it is only 6 mm long, it’s easy to understand swatting it away while mowing the lawn. Given the opportunity to gaze at one in a stationary position however, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine striking such a beautiful creature. After all, they only want to get to the nutrients so readily available in our salty perspiration.

Agapostemon splendens is another specimen flashing with metallic green. The specimen loaned is clearly a male, as its abdomen contrasts the green with thick black and yellow stripes. Long antenna and wings top off its clownish appearance to make it one of the more visually appealing specimens.

Comparatively giant, the black and gold bumblebee is just as charismatic as another bumblebee species that will be highlighted in Bee Amazed. Bombus auricomus queens are quite large. Their length is comparable to the diameter of a US quarter and this bee overpowers the many smaller bees assembled in the loan. This bee requires grassland habitats filled with flowering plants like clover, wild bergamot, and thistle. Unfortunately, their decline in the Northeastern states is a likely result of decreased grassland habitats.

Among these few are 25 equally fascinating specimens. The carefully assembled package was originally sent out from the land of academia—specifically the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection (WIRC) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For a small organization like us, the ability to network with other institutions is crucial. Specimen loans allow all sizes of institutions to exchange information and provide borrowers with material for research, educational opportunities, and exhibition. For the next year, the Cable Natural History Museum will display these 28 bees, in the hopes of allowing visitors to view and understand them in a new light.