July 17, 2018

Selected FAQ's

As we continue through the heat of the summer, the Cable Natural History Museum welcomes many visitors and program attendees. It has become rare to make it between my office and the front lobby without being stopped by someone curious about some aspect of our collections. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to interact with visitors, and welcome their odd, thought-provoking, or even common questions. In light this, I have assembled some answers to the top five questions I have been asked by visitors young and old, local and from afar. 

What is a Curator? 
In a broad sense, a curator acts as the custodian of a collection. Curators of museum collections interpret material for visitors--they familiarize themselves with all objects in a collection and strive to learn each object's context within our world. Curators seek to create meaningful experiences for the public as they interact with our many, wonderful specimens. At the Cable Natural History Museum, the Curator is involved in all aspects of our collections: accessioning and cataloging objects, maintaining their records in our databases, preserving and monitoring objects in their environment, and interpreting our collection for the public.  

Why can't I touch the...?
The urge to touch is natural. It helps us to sense the object’s physical qualities, giving us more information in that interaction. Unfortunately, touch can also hurt our specimens. Small amounts of oils and/or dirt on our hands can build up on the surfaces of objects we touch, over time leading to their degradation. Since museums house valuable objects, we often place those beloved "No Touching" signs all around our displays to encourage visitors to help us in our preservation efforts. We certainly appreciate whenever visitors can resist that impulse! 

Why can't I go into the collections storage room?
All specimens not currently on display remain housed in a storage room, where visitors may still look through the room's windowed doors at a number of taxidermy mounts. We require that only authorized personnel enter that storage room.  Collections are stored there in an environment that has stable temperature and relative humidity levels, and the room needs to stay closed off as much as possible to ensure proper preservation.

Visible from outside the collection storage room
are many taxidermy mounts of mammals and birds.

How many specimens are there? 
Our current collection includes over 3,500 specimens, with numbers regularly fluctuating. The largest group consists of plants, which account for over 41% of entire collections. Other objects in our collection include: insects, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, amphibians, bird nests, rocks and minerals, skulls and pelts, fungi, lichens, man-made artifacts, artwork, manuscripts, and historical photographs. 

...And the question most frequently asked during our field trips:

Why did you have to kill all these animals?
We didn't! Understandably so, the thought of being surrounded by so many dead animals in a museum is a bit morbid. Our collection includes objects acquired from contributions by the public and objects found by staff. While some animals here were indeed hunted, the Museum would not encourage anyone to go out and take the life of an organism simply for display purposes. We aim to give each object a second "life" as an educational tool for the public, and hope that those experiences will inspire wonder after their visit. 

July 10, 2018

Revisiting a Wayside Bounty

Without being in the position to have ever met our Museum's first director and naturalist, I appreciate the ability to find traces of her in nearly every corner of our recently-constructed building. Lois Nestel's taxidermy work remains scattered among our many animal mounts. Her delicate yet vibrant paintings of northwoods mushrooms hang along the walls leading to our education classroom. Lois has written many beautiful words on her so treasured Cable landscape, resulting in various manuscripts preserved in our care. Within such a rich Lois Nestel collection, there remain a few special pieces that make me wish I could yet run to her and say, "I am so happy to know someone who loves this thing too!" 

The cover of "Wayside Bounty," indeed highlighting
the area's many bounties. 
What objects from our collection excite me the most? There will always be a great many at any given moment. Just this past week, I peered inside an archival box to see an illustration of a hand holding a whole bounty of familiar wild edibles. "Wayside Bounty," a manuscript written and illustrated by Lois, serves as an account of various edible plants that naturally grew in the spaces where she would wander. For someone who regularly forages this area, running into Lois's work at this particular time felt like anything but a coincidence. I took some time to read through her information, comparing it to my own experiences with these plants. I also examined her illustrations--light pencil sketches occasionally peeked through the yet vivid pigments left by her strokes of watercolor paint. As I have been preparing for my own foraging programs this summer, I made it a sort of professional obligation to search through "Wayside Bounty."

A few plant species Lois included were those which currently sat in my refrigerator at home. One that I affectionately know as Lamb's Quarters, Chenopodium album, develops rampantly when left to grow in plots at the Cable Community Farm. While I imagine none of the other gardeners intend for this plant to take up space in their plots, it remains a worthy edible that I allow to grow for some time in mine. Lois says of lamb's quarters, "Of all the wild greens this is a personal favorite to the extent, even, of leaving patches of the weeds growing until their useful green stage has passed."  Perhaps as I do, she appreciated the taste or the versatility of this plant as a green akin to spinach. Lois didn't discuss any preparation considerations for the leaves, but I will happily continue to use them in my salads with the knowledge that another member of the community has enjoyed lamb's quarters as much as I do. 

Lamb's quarters, otherwise known as pigweed, often grows
unwarranted in gardens. 
Purslane is another weed-turned-delightful dish that tends to spread across my garden plot. The Museum has a pressed specimen of Portulaca oleracea, even though the alternative common name of Little Hogweed was recorded with it. Lois included this plant in "Wayside Bounty," with her lovely illustration articulating its sprawling nature. I was pleased to see purslane listed, as I have not known many to find excitement in its presence--other than my father who first introduced me to the plant in my pre-gardening years. The leaves are incredibly succulent and taste mildly of citrus. Younger plants work well in salads, or the leaves will do fine plucked as a fresh nibble while combating quackgrass. Lois wrote of cooking it up with bacon, suggesting to first cook in salted water and then fry the leaves with bacon bits and drippings. Surprisingly, not many Americans recognize the potential in this so-called weed. Lois was apparently one of those with the uncommon recognition of a weed's usefulness. 

Purslane trails along the surface of soil, quickly spreading from its center root.

Another rather timely plant found in Lois's manuscript is Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. This important pollinator plant grows in patches in many areas that I frequent--across from my driveway near the Forest Lodge estate, the eastern perimeter of Cable Town Park, the pollinator garden adjacent to the Museum's front entrance, and in the Wayside Wanderings Natural Play Area fields (actually the Nestel's old residence). While many may recognize the plant's significance as a host plant of the Monarch butterfly, Lois was one to understand its many states of edibility for people. Common milkweed is currently blooming, but one can still find plants where "the flower heads have formed but are still in firm, tight clusters. These may be gathered and cooked to be served with butter and seasonings or sauces as one would serve broccoli." I agree, and collect a small amount of clusters from each patch to use in a stir-fry whenever broccoli isn't readily available. Lois made sure to illustrate representations of four stages of the plant, three of which having certain edibility. 
On the far left, Lois illustrated a common milkweed plant during bloom. Prior to pink flowers, 
tight green buds make an excellent wild edible. Seed pods, while young, can be eaten when properly prepared.

After giving 34 accounts of individual plants, Lois noted how readily others may seek such a bounty. "Those interested will not find it difficult to pursue the subject to their own satisfaction." It certainly would not be difficult for those reading through her pages--full of notes on additional plant species, a selection of recipes, and some resources still pertinent to this day. Though there are plenty resources for interested foragers in libraries and online sources, the knowledge found in "Wayside Bounty" is particularly comforting. As I prepare for some foraging programs of my own this summer, I thank Lois Nestel for being one who aimed to share with others an appreciation for nature's many bounties. 

July 03, 2018

Specimen of the Month: Small and Mighty Beauties

An excursion to discover the secrets of a pond led a small group through a trail at the edge of Hayward woodlands. Wild roses, brambles, and common milkweed lined the edges before the woods broke to immerse us in the blazing sunlight. As the group turned a corner, a young girl full of spirit pointed to a butterfly and yelled out, “A monarch! There’s a monarch!” Like many, she noticed the beautiful orange wings patterned with black. However, this butterfly was a fritillary, the monarch’s distant cousin. 

While it was impossible to recognize the particular species of fritillary in that fleeting instant, I like to imagine it was one I had just recently become more acquainted with. For the month of July, I asked our bright interns to prepare the Specimen of the Month display. Equally resilient, beautiful, and deserving of our recognition, The Great Spangled Fritillary is one of many butterflies that call the Northwoods home. 

Above, a Great Spangled Fritillary. Below, a Meadow
Fritillary displays similar markings. 
When Museum interns Sarah and Kristina slipped me the piece of paper on which their chosen specimen was written, I admittedly knew little of the species. Speyeria cebele is an important pollinator, but I became fascinated by this butterfly as I discovered just how unique it is. For example, while most butterfly species remain in their adult stage for up to a month, sometimes less, great spangled fritillaries live well over two. Approaching early September, the fritillary braves the dusk of its life with wings often tattered by flight. This species is rather common in the meadows of Wisconsin, and its lengthy life allows for some great sightings.

Now is the perfect time to begin looking for this fritillary. They emerge as butterflies starting in late June to early July, sticking near fields or the edges of woodlands where nectar sources like common milkweed, butterfly weed, mints, and thistles grow. To the untrained eye, great spangled fritillaries appear similar to other orange butterflies. Further distinguishing them between other fritillary species even requires that one can peak at the underside of its wings. That being said, fritillaries are very quick. There are three representative specimens currently at the Museum and I can confirm that it is much easier to notice the slight differences with stationary butterflies.
Silvery spots and a light band along the hind wing help to
distinguish the great spangled fritillary from other similar species.
Often found by nectar sources as adults, great spangled fritillary caterpillars are incredibly particular about their food source. They only feed on the leaves of violets! The mother knowingly lays eggs among debris near patches of violet plants. It is even suspected that she searches out the scent of its dormant roots. Once violet plants emerge in spring, the fritillary caterpillar emerges from the shelter of nearby leaf litter and begins feasting on the delicious leaves. Conspicuous enough in all black with spikey hairs, the fritillary caterpillars evade sighting quite well. They tend to feed on the violet leaves at night, and only from the underside.

Flowers in the Viola genus range in color, with some being bicolored.
Blue and yellow tend to be two shades found on bicolored species. 
Violets are prolific growers, and while that may lead some to consider them weeds, they provide the only food source for the young great spangled fritillary. There are at least 87 violet species in North America, and each have different combinations of brilliant colors. Availability of this plant directly affects the population of fritillaries, and timing between the two species is important too. As our climate evolves, studies seek to determine whether such changes have already affected Speyeria cebele. The synchronization between violets and fritillaries is a beautiful example of small connections in our Northwoods home, and hopefully one that can continue into the future. 

June 26, 2018

Preserving the Dead

For the first time in my life, I am enjoying handling dead animals! Working on fixing taxidermy mounts and self-teaching the art of pinning native bees has become my work and weekend hobby of late, although I've been preserving natural objects for most of my life. Have you ever cleaned off a patterned rock to display on a sunlit surface, or pressed plants between the pages of a field guide? Those first steps of preservation mimic the delicate practice of museum preservation. Because a natural history museum can host many forms of objects, a variety of methods are used to sustain them. Taxidermy is most likely the first to come to mind. However, the majority of our Museum's specimens are preserved through other means.

Taxidermy: The word "mount" often gets thrown around when discussing the preservation of animals. A taxidermy mount is a prepared skin of an animal that is mounted over a form to give it a realistic shape. Mounts usually range from a full body to a shoulder mount where only the head and neck are included. We usually see shoulder mounts of ungulates like deer, elk, or moose, whether in a museum or Grandpa's workshop. Taxidermy that the Museum owns range from hummingbirds to a moose.

A raptor wing during preparation.
Some may think of taxidermy as a gross process and frankly, it is. Birds and mammals need to have their skin pulled off like a sleeve from bottom up. Once the head is reached, eyes get removed through the mouth and brains are scrambled like eggs until they turn into a goo that can be scraped out. By the time an animal is fitted into a less disturbing state, children will be asking all throughout the Museum, "Is it real?" 

Pressing: The life of a plant can be fleeting, especially after being picked. A standard way to preserve plants for a museum is to flatten them out as much as possible. This is called pressing, and if taxidermy seems like it requires too much effort or skill, preserving plants may come as a relief. On almost every family vacation out of state I have grabbed a few flowers and squished them flat between the pages of a book. When I moved to the Jackson Burke house during my first Museum internship, I discovered a proper plant press in the basement storage--stacks of cardboard sandwiched between wooden frames that were tightened together with buckled straps.

Pressing plants quickly removes moisture and the resulting two-dimensional structure can be more easily mounted without breakage. Dried plants are placed onto a mount of heavy, archival paper and glue or mounting strips used sparingly to keep delicate bits from breaking off. Plant specimens are fragile and usually kept in storage to be removed for study only. 
Quaking aspen preserved in our herbarium.
Fluid: Fluid preserved specimens seem to only show up in popular culture as jars of deformed critters in horror films. Museums however, have historically preserved a variety of whole specimens by "pickling" them in fluid for centuries. The Cable Natural History Museum houses the following types of materials preserved in fluid: mollusks, insects, fish, amphibians, snakes, plants, and even a fetal beaver. Preparation usually involves plopping a specimen into a fluid preserve of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Larger specimens, like a fetal beaver, may need to be injected with chemicals to further keep from decaying. Placed in a airtight jar, these specimens can last for a couple hundred years with little upkeep.
This fetal beaver was recently gifted to the Museum,
preserved in a glass jar filled with ethanol. 
Pinning: Insect pinning can be a fun project for 4-H and Scout groups. Insects, more loosely referring to most arthropods, don't even need to be collected alive to pin. If found dead and dried, they can be placed in a homemade relaxing chamber that re-hydrates the tiny body to be more flexible during placement. Pins pierce through a particular area of the bug's thorax, depending on the type. Once all parts--wings, legs, or even antennae--are properly positioned, the bugs are allowed to dry, labels are added to the pin, and the specimen can be placed in a display or storage case. 

A bald-faced hornet ready to be removed from a
spreading board where it was allowed to dry. 
Etcetera: Natural history collections store a wide range of objects. The Museum has plentiful variety in preservation needs not yet discussed, with objects including geology specimens, bird nests and eggs, skulls, artwork, and man-made artifacts. Sometimes, preservation requires the simple yet complex work of maintaining an appropriate environment for long-term care. Rocks and mineral, often more hardy materials, are scrubbed of debris before storage. Skeletal remains similarly get cleaned of organic matter. Others more simply are placed in archival containers. No matter which preservation method is used, the act of preserving helps to ensure our collections of information and wonder last for as many years as we can possibly ensure. 

June 19, 2018

How to Vacuum a Turkey

This past week I took part in vacuuming a wild turkey, coloring a squirrel, and inspecting the paint job on feet of various waterfowl. Still technically spring, a team consisting of myself as Curator, our recently returned Collections Monitor, and two Summer Naturalist Interns were working on spring cleaning. An important project occurring at least annually, cleaning of all objects in the Museum's collection can ensure that they remain in good shape. This also allows John, our Collections Monitor of some years, to share tricks of the trade with newer staff. 

Specimen storage is a relatively sterile environment, but that doesn't mean dust cannot accumulate. The large, fire and waterproof cabinets along the back wall of the storage room hold the majority of specimens in our collection. This includes study skins, geology specimens, our entomology collection, herbarium, and man-made artifacts and artwork. Those that remain visible when looking through the storage room doors are animals preserved via taxidermy, and this is where a vacuum comes in.

Positioned high on storage shelving, this wild turkey
requires ladders and considerable stretching to be cleaned. 
Soft bristle brushes and a HEPA vacuum assist collections staff with removing unwanted dust accumulation. Looking back on days as an intern myself, I remember looking on during the busy collections cleaning days. The vacuum hummed and staff slipped in and out of the locked room, suited up in white lab coats, dust masks, and blue gloves. The event took place over a couple days, and eventually I was allowed to join the exclusive group of cleaners. We worked much like an assembly line, one gingerly handing down specimens individually to the person holding the vacuum hose. This person would run the hose from top to bottom of the animal, taking care to remove only dust. Then, dampened Q-tips brushed across glass eyes and real feet, claws, beaks, etc. would pick up the rest of the debris. All the while, we assessed for signs of pests or damages to  the mount's structural integrity. The tedious task drew on, with John occasionally transferring specimens back to his work space for repair. Being inexperienced in all this, my attention largely remained fixed on handling each specimen without dropping it. 

Collections care often requires practices that deal with conditions which aren't visible to the human eye. During the few days of cleaning with John, however,  I feel a slight relief at the chance to divert my attention to aesthetic needs of our specimens. While sifting through some rodents this year, an eastern fox squirrel showed a noticeable marking from a bullet hole. Exposed skin surrounding the hole appeared much lighter than its gray-brown fur. John ran out without word, returning with some marking pens. He simply drew in with a comparable color, which did well to mask the bullet wound. The trick could likewise be used to correct coloration issues around eyes and mouths. 

Like other institutions, specimen coloration can be a repair priority as inescapable light fades materials. I enjoy watching short videos online from museums such as the American Museum of Natural History to get a glimpse at their methods of recoloring taxidermy. In Cable, our expertise usually allows for the recoloring of skin materials. Although the Museum has limited funds and at times expertise to undertake major taxidermy rejuvenation projects, time will only tell what possibilities become available. 

This mallard and American wigeon have had a bill and feet recolored
respectively to mimic natural coloration of the birds. 
Since my summer employment at the Museum, I've learned much more about the care of our specimens. I tend to rely on the many online and hard copy resources available to a Curator, but experiential learning does wonders. The Collections Monitor has returned for the summer with years of experience and many tricks up his sleeve. We will continue to work together to ensure that specimens remain well preserved, and I look forward to acquiring more of those bits of knowledge that only experience can provide. 

June 12, 2018

Light Danger

Lengthening days of June filled the Museum's halls with warm sunlight. The beams of light penetrated the many glass panes around our building to illuminate the inner architecture, as well as the various large mammals on display. Summer has been beautiful, but in the mindset of a curator, this brightness was terrible. November's rains would be much more preferable. "Why?" you may ask. Light in any form damages our specimens. Since preservation is imperative in a museum, management of our windows becomes a concern for a curator. 

Prolonged exposure to light can cause irreversible
fading to taxidermy specimens. 
Though visible light is necessary for visitors to even see displays, light otherwise does the specimens no favors. It can cause fading and degradation to the many sensitive materials in our collection. This includes leathers, prints and drawings, fur, feathers, undyed organic materials, other biological specimens, and paints. Museum exhibits are often dimly lit, not for atmospheric effect, but for safety of objects on display. Considering this museum often fills with light from our many windows, our specimens are at risk for damage. 

Recognizing the dangers of light in a museum requires a bit of understanding of light itself. Radiating from the sun are three different ranges of wavelengths we are concerned about: infrared, visible, and ultraviolet. Infrared light is noticed simply as the heat felt from the sun or even the warmth of a campfire on an otherwise chilly night. Display or storage under infrared heat can cause deterioration in many of our specimens. 

Secondly, visible light may damage materials as well. While this may come from the sun, light fixtures may also send many harmful lumens of light energy onto a surface. Visible light is all around us--it is how we see and also how our specimens fade over time. We can work to decrease possible damage with energy-efficient bulbs or windows, but visible light remains necessary for exhibits to work. 

However, the most detrimental form of light comes from the ultraviolet (UV) range. It is the wavelength responsible for sunburn and also accounts for nearly 50 percent of fading damage to specimens. Because it is so harmful, and so present in a building with many windows, the Cable Natural History Museum has made some recent changes to better protect its collections against this light. 

Filtering films on classroom windows reject UV
rays with virtually no tint or changes in visibility.
The Museum has a large exhibit hall and classroom space with nearly 40 window panes combined. These windows open up the building to the colorful flower gardens around the property and allow for natural light throughout most of the building. As any visitors to the Museum know, the building itself integrates the environment and architecture. Our green features include energy-efficient windows and light fixtures. Unfortunately, our windows' built-in light filtering has only guarded from some of the incoming UV light. Museums often have to take one step further to stop this, and we did just that over the past week by installing UV filtering film. 

Taken after film installation, this level of UV light
is now more appropriate for specimen display.
When window panes themselves cannot filter out enough ultraviolet radiation, additional window films can. These films have been installed on windows and doorways in the Lois Nestel Memorial Exhibit Hall, our education classroom, and a doorway in an adjacent hall. Regular monitoring of both visible and ultraviolet exposure has shown that UV light levels, measured in microwatts per lumen, have been much too high for museum standards. They exceeded 1,000 µW/l when they should actually be below 50. Once the new UV filtering film had been installed, measurements were again taken and the changes have been astronomical! The most troubled areas are now hovering around 15 µW/l. Considering it is virtually impossible to filter out all UV light, this is a great success. Happy with the results of our preservation project, I can now enjoy some of this brilliant summer sun with much less worry. 

June 05, 2018

Specimen of the Month: Double Clutching

Another search for a new Specimen of the Month led me to a lower corner of our specimen storage room, where fragile eggs rested in an assortment of boxes. Very carefully, I picked up one of the larger cardboard boxes and looked through its cutout window at two rather large bird eggs nestled in some cotton bedding and scattered nesting debris. Comparably sized, one was a creamy white with minimal speckling while the other was a pale buff irregularly marked with darker brown shades. Black embossing tape on the box read, "Crane eggs. From the International Crane Foundation. Baraboo-Wisconsin." Intrigued by their appearance and source, I carried these eggs out of storage and investigated. 

Two eggs typically adorn a sandhill crane nest per season. This is actually an adaptation to increase the likelihood of successful reproduction. Occasionally a pair will only produce one egg in a season, but a second egg works as a sort of insurance against failure should one be infertile. Known as "double clutching," many crane species can continue to lay eggs until two are safely in the nest. 

After learning this, I wondered if there were any crazy numbers of known eggs laid in one season. The International Crane Foundation, who had gifted us these sandhill crane eggs, provides excellent information for those hoping to educate themselves on anything crane related. The Foundation works to conserve crane populations, which includes breeding all 15 crane species in captivity. To my delight, their website stated that "as many as 19 eggs have been produced by one [captive] female during a breeding season." Well, I personally find that quite impressive! 

Sandhill crane eggs, like eggs of many other bird
species, may vary in coloration or pigmentation. 
Some of my initial interest in these specimens came from the fact that they were drastically different in color. I cannot be certain that our two eggs came from the same nest or season, but I do know that intraclutch eggshell coloration does vary with many species of birds. Interestingly, studies on this phenomenon have found that color variation seems to be systematic--the coloration can indicate laying order with less pigmented eggs arriving first or towards the end of a breeding season. Some even hypothesize that females may use egg color to identify individual eggs. Perhaps what I observed could be similarly explained. While one could delve much further into the topic, there are many other intriguing habits associated with sandhill crane nesting. 

Crane mothers work hard to ensure the survival of a new generation, but fathers put in considerable work too. Nesting begins with mates gathering nest materials together. Sandhills prefer to nest in small wetlands or gravitate towards the edges of larger ones. Both parents will gather surrounding vegetation for their nest site--drier materials are used earlier in the season with greenery added as spring stretches toward summer. Parents will throw that which they gather over their shoulders, piling up the nesting mound for the mother to arrange later. 

Once nests are constructed and eggs laid, incubation will last for roughly one month. While parents share that duty, the female generally takes on a bit more than the male and tends to take the overnight shift. Unfortunately, their two large eggs may be preyed upon if left unsupervised. Coyote, wolves, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and larger birds of prey all enjoy a good crane egg when available. The best case scenario for a season would be two fluffy chicks hatching, covered in down and active with eyes already open. Thankfully for cranes, dedicated organizations like the International Crane Foundation work to keep populations going. Because southern central Wisconsin is a more common breeding area for sandhills, the Cable Natural History Museum has been fortunate to obtain such specimens for its collection.