December 11, 2018

Dental Work

I nearly ran into our MuseumMobile Educator while rushing down the hallway the other morning. Jane occasionally stops by to inquire about the use of an additional animal skull or to rearrange any of the number of specimens found in our kits for environmental education programming. On this day, she casually carried a black bear skull encased in bubble wrap, and before we even spoke I knew that I would soon be putting on my conservator hat. And just like any other day at the Museum, I should have know that a brief encounter would lead us both on a quest for more knowledge. This time, we were interested in teeth. 

To say that MuseumMobile specimens are handled a lot would be quite an understatement. Imagine hundreds of elementary school children determined to get their hands on a real black bear skull, to feel the pelt of a bobcat, or to see the life stages of a goldenrod gall fly under the glass of a riker mount. These children might not always have the chance to experience these parts of nature elsewhere, and it's a great pleasure to be able to provide such an opportunity for them. Still, I'll admit that I cringed when Jane let me know that our black bear skull required some dental work as a result of handling. Thankfully, she was able to save the teeth that had escaped from their sockets and I knew that it should be a quick fix.

Above, the incisors of this black bear have come loose
and the canines exhibit cracking. Below, a molar is loose in its socket.
Loose teeth are quite common in prepared skulls--many species of animals from which we collect skulls have a tooth socket that is much larger than the tooth itself. Often too, teeth become loose as a result of common preparation methods such as water maceration--submerging the uncleaned specimen in water for a prolonged period of time to allow for tissue to break down and then be easily removed. 

What are our options when damage has already been done? The fix is actually quite simple and cost-effective. A clear adhesive glue can be applied to both loose and cracked teeth. I spent five minutes at most filling the socket of the lost bear tooth with epoxy and cotton filler. I also applied a thin line of the adhesive to the meeting points of all other teeth and jaw, then allowed it all to dry to a nearly-invisible state. 

The skull of a white-tailed deer, above, and American
bison, below. Notice that both lack upper incisors at
the front of the upper jaw.

Before she left, I made a point to share with Jane the results of past dental work I had completed on our American bison skull. One of its large teeth had broken in half, but I challenge any casual observer to be able to determine which one. Being an inquisitive person, Jane quickly noticed that much like the white-tailed deer that she teaches school children about, this bison also lacked top incisors. What do deer and bison have in common besides the lack of these front teeth? I'll save the answer for another time, but its questions like this that keep me on my toes and ready to investigate the natural world one specimen at a time. 

December 04, 2018


Among my various interests, plants perhaps capture my attention the most. I spend a considerable amount of time collecting outside of the Museum, where I judiciously pick the leaves of wild leeks just as the ground begins to warm in the May sun, or harvest the roots of matured dandelions later in the season. I'm quite fond of my own assortment of medicinal plants stored in various re-used jars at home, and it doesn't bother me one bit to be in charge of over 1,200 plants as Curator at the Museum.

The Museum's collection of pressed plant specimens is referred to as the "herbarium." While the historical use of the term is not ancient, it developed out of a similar practice of saving reference plants centuries ago. "Herbarium" is a Latin compound term formed from the stem of herba (meaning plant or herb) and arium (often denoting a place or receptacle). The earliest recognized forms of herbaria came about many centuries ago, during which physicians cultivated medicinal plants and then saved specimens for future reference. These plant specimens were stored in bound books, so needed to be pressed flat in order to preserve their structural integrity. With reference plants on-hand, physicians as well as botanists were able to better identify and compare the plants that they worked with. 

The Museum's 1,200+ specimen herbarium
is organized taxonomically in various folders.
Although the Museum's plant specimens did not originate many hundreds of years ago, some were compiled in a similar manner. One of my very favorite pieces out of the entire collection is a scrapbook of herbarium specimens prepared by a local woman named Margaret Fitch. What makes this book so special? All specimens had been collected over a century ago in 1896 and bound in an old, smelly book. I love finding the occasional opportunity to slip on my cotton gloves and slowly open each page to the yet pigmented plants and careful penmanship of a long-ago era. Margaret had created a fascinating time capsule, and while I have yet to find much on her life, she did leave behind information on the natural world as she had experienced it long ago. 

This violet specimen was collected in the 1890's
near a railroad track in Hayward, WI. With careful
preservation, it has held much of its color over the years. 
Of the Museum's individual collections, our herbarium is probably the least familiar to visitors. Delicate specimens of pressed plants have not historically been displayed at the same volume or frequency as our taxidermy mounts, but we shouldn't let that be an indicator of their importance. Herbariums throughout the world have served as records of change throughout time, as resources to study plant taxonomy or ecology, and have provided material for a number of other inquiries about our natural world for many hundreds of years. I'm still discovering what our own herbarium may add to our local knowledge, but know that the possibilities are numerous. 

This specimen of a marsh violet was collected in 1974. Having
multiple specimens of a particular species collected during various
points in time helps us to acknowledge changes in the landscape over time.

Click here to read a list of the various ways in which herbariums are useful, compiled by members of the US National Herbarium.

November 27, 2018

Specimen of the Month: Reclusive Raptor of the North

"Whoooo" is the greatest owl? Ask that question to a group of naturalists and they might all have a different answer. Some might be fascinated by the Northern Saw-Whet Owl, nature's cutest killer weighing only as much as eight Oreo cookies. Others are probably most impressed by the Great-Horned Owl, certainly a beloved species in our Museum. Yet nobody can deny the greatness of the Great Gray Owl--a species as elusive as it is impressive.

The Museum's taxidermy mount of a great gray owl.
A study skin preparation is also part of our collection.
Great gray owls (Strix nebulosa) have a certain mystique about them--as even their species name would indicate. In the Greek origin myth, Strix referred to a bird akin to an owl, with piercing eyes and a nocturnal cry. Nebulosa has Latin origin, meaning mist or cloud. Picture this dark giant watching over a frosty bog below as it silently occupies an evergreen high above. Despite its large appearance, I could still imagine its gray plumage camouflaging into the bark background. Great gray owls are tall, have a long wingspan, and generally appear large--larger than a great-horned owl even. Interestingly, this species has a relatively small body. 

I admittedly knew little about the great gray owl before a visitor questioned me about the species one recent, bustling day. He and his family had been mesmerized by our raptor display as I approached them along the hallway. They had viewed falcons, eagles, and various owls, but all had wanted to see a great gray. I quietly assumed that they wanted to view its relatively large size, something I had been aware of, and motioned over to the collection storage room where a taxidermy mount sat high on the shelves. 

The reason this bird looks so large is because it requires densely packed feathers for insulation against the cold of its northern habitat. Its need for nutrition thus is satisfied not by rabbits or squirrels, but largely by small voles such as the meadow and southern red-backed voles that occupy the upper Great Lakes region. An owl's highly developed auditory system allows it to hear a rodent as it scurries along subnivean tunnels deep under a blanket of snow, many feet away. Rodents like these account for almost 90% of their diet, and so the owl's life is largely dependent on this small critter's presence throughout the year. When the rodent population crashes, the great gray owls have been observed to move southward for food. 

Evidence of rodents navigating between the cover of
snow and the outside world. Unfortunately for them,
owls can locate activity under two feet of snow! 
This is when we might find the opportunity to witness such a magnificent raptor in the wild. I have viewed excellent images captured by wildlife photographers north into Minnesota.When this species is desperate for food, it may even approach southern portions of Wisconsin. 

If you don't anticipate finding this reclusive owl though, consider familiarizing yourself with one of the Museum's specimens. This species is the Specimen of the Month during December, and our taxidermy mount highlights its impressive stature. While some of the mystique found in a live creature may not be felt, this viewing experience won't require that you keep a safe 50 feet of distance away from the owl. 

November 20, 2018

Unknown Treasures of the Collection

Like the small, white tendrils of mycelium reaching across the landscape underfoot, knowledge similarly spreads through networks that we can't always see. Mycelium is the vegetative component of a fungus, branching out among the forest floor or perhaps a rotting log to produce fruiting bodies in the form of a mushroom. The reason I present this poor analogy is because I felt particularly affected the other day by the lingering knowledge carried by our first Director--and in this case, it came in the form of mushrooms.

Sarcodon imbricatus, a widely distributed
"hedgehog" mushroom associated with conifers.

Lois Nestel's many years spent probing the local landscape resulted in a wealth of practical knowledge, illustrated through her many projects that are now part of the Museum's permanent collection. Much of her work is already displayed for visitors, from taxidermy specimens to acrylic paintings of you guessed it--mushrooms. There are more of her creations in this building than meets the eye, though. I recently became acquainted with a hidden, and hefty collection of her work--numerous pages of illustrations that detail local plants, mushrooms, and phenology.

Framed paintings of local mushroom species
hang in one the Museum's hallways. 
With 36 pages of annotated mushroom illustrations, Lois painted the natural world as she understood it many years ago. What we now have is a record to compare how this world has changed since then. Knowing some about local mushrooms myself, I was immediately curious to see which of these species were categorized differently today. So, I looked up each of the 80 named mushrooms and discovered that the taxonomy has changed for 18 species.Why does this matter? Using context clues such as this, I could glean a bit more from these largely undocumented illustrations. Perhaps with an adequate amount of time and interest, the latter of which I have plenty of, I might narrow down the years that these illustrations were produced based on terminology used. 

Above, various "Bolete" mushrooms
of the Boletus and Suillus genera. Below,
Geastrum triplex and other unidentified species.
Additionally, Lois left us with 16 pages of herbarium and fungus illustrations on large notebook pages. I was delighted to see familiar plants that live in our area today, and of which Lois has written about in her wild foods manuscripts. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), lambsquarters or pigweed (Chenopodium album), and mullein (Verbascum thapsus) are just a few. What impresses me most about this work is that I know Lois didn't simply copy pages out of a book--she truly lived her work and surely foraged for these plants on a regular basis right in Cable. 

Clockwise from the top left: hawthorn, black haw,
staghorn sumac, rose, marsh marigold, and highbush cranberry.
Lastly, I'd like to mention what Lois has left us for the study of phenology. Phenology in a very basic sense is a study of time. It is our understanding of periodic events that take place in the natural world where we live--when blueberries ripen or when chipmunks begin to gather nesting material. In an additional collection of illustrations, Lois noted when certain events took place here by the week for each month of the year. And so again, she left us a record of a particular place in time.  

A snippet of generalized winter events, in which Lois notes
"the creatures of these months are more or
less interchangeable," in fading ink. 
I like to think that the Museum has always celebrated Lois, and will continue to do so as long as our institution exists. She has added so much to our collective knowledge, even when it wasn't intentional. I look forward to discovering new treasures and small signs of her knowledge continuing to spread in our community. 

November 13, 2018

Northwoods Feline

It hasn't taken long to develop a stomach for dead animals when a steady stream of salvaged birds, rodents, and other Northwoods critters regularly enter the Museum as material for future educational experiences. I have become nearly accustomed to slipping on a pair of nitrile gloves and briefly examining the creature before sealing and depositing it in our salvaged animal freezer. Still, there are certain instances when I feel completely unprepared for the animal that I am about to encounter. 

Just last week the Museum received a call from a couple who had driven past an unusual example of roadkill--a bobcat! They were intent on depositing it at the Museum, and arrived quickly after our phone call. I hurriedly met the couple  outside without even stopping for my jacket that blustery afternoon. The couple had parked their truck right in front of the Museum and as I approached, I saw that the truck bed was already open to reveal the bobcat. She was beautiful, and I found it difficult to take my eyes off of her lifeless body, let alone approach her. Bobcats are roughly twice the size of an ordinary housecat, with long legs and a short tail that looks to be cut or "bobbed." I've only ever seen one live in a zoo when I was much younger, and the average person probably won't see one in the wild during their lifetime. 

Bobcats are crepuscular--actively hunting their prey of squirrels, rabbits, and other small creatures during twilight hours.  They're solitary too. I have heard of them occasionally venturing out from the cover of their densely vegetated habitat, but know it to be a rare occurrence. Most of these stories came from farmers or other community members whose homes border the forest, and these homes often provided a domesticated source of prey such as dogs, cats, or chickens. Bobcats are agile hunters, still their survival is actually quite delicately dependent on ever-changing environmental conditions. 

The average-sized front paw of a bobcat,
held by an average-sized human hand.
Between the frantic phone call and the arrival of the bobcat that day, a colleague asked me how large the paws are. Most of us are aware of some wild cat species that have enormous paws. Take the lynx for example, a close relative with disproportionately large front and hind feet. These work as snowshoes to allow for navigating northern winter landscapes, and are thought to be useful for catching prey. Bobcats live through Northwoods winters too, but must do so without the winter navigation capabilities of a lynx. So before I placed the bobcat in the Museum freezer, I took a moment to hold her paw in my hand and contemplate what she may have endured through past winters. 

This particular bobcat would not experience another season of the Northwoods blanketed in snow and ice. She will instead inspire visitors as a taxidermy mount, or certain parts of her will be used as teaching props. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of our encounter, I knew that this feline would leave a lasting impression on me, and will do so for others into the future. 

November 06, 2018

Specimens Preserved in Jars

My work here requires a harmonious blend of both art and science. On some days, I might concentrate on the positioning of display signage, or the assortment of words printed on it each sign. Maintaining the aesthetics surrounding our collection helps to cultivate the public's interest, while accurate records and careful conservation help to keep the collection scientifically relevant. Last week my focus shifted heavily towards the science of curation--scrutinizing various jars filled with fluid and fetuses, unhatched eggs, and tiny aquatic insects. Often an overlooked component of the Museum's collection, fluid-preserved specimens actually number over 250 individual objects, and are a valuable resource for discovery.

Left to right: fetus of a raccoon, fetus of a white-tailed deer,
and two northern brook lamprey.
Immersing objects in a fluid solution isn't the oldest form of preservation, but it certainly has its roots in history. Ancient cultures regularly preserved foods in sealed containers with fluids such as vinegars or oil. Such a method protected organic materials against bacteria and prevented tissues from exposure to oxygen. Similar practices continue today. A long history of preservation techniques evolved over many centuries, and today both professional institutions and at-home preservation enthusiasts (they do exist) continue the art and science of fluid preservation. 

Unfortunately, wet specimens are widely viewed as grotesque examples of nature's unusual or mutated--but that's largely perpetuated by films. As a matter of fact, the majority of specimens that benefit from fluid preservation most are organisms like macroinvertebrates and algae. Even minerals may be preserved in a jar. For a variety of specimens, a proper jar and the fluid solution inside are both paramount for their longevity--offering hundreds of years of preservation by creating a microenvironment of protection. 

Many of the fluid-preserved specimens in the collection are macroinvertebrates, ranging from the large eastern toe-biter to a small leech. They live in aquatic environments and likewise maintain well in them after death too. This similarly applies to aquatic plants. Why press and dry such an organism when its preserved structure could remain true to when it was first plucked out of its aquatic environment? I would certainly prefer to see the submerged parts of a bladderwort, full of hundreds of tiny "bladder" traps, drifting in liquid than flattened on a sheet. 

Above, an eastern toe-biter (Benacus griseus).
Below, a species of bladderwort (Utricularia sp.).

While many of our fluid-preserved specimens are small, we do maintain some larger organisms. A new gift of fluid-preserved fetal mammals has helped to both diversify our collection and unsettle some docents. Despite being an unnerving sight, a mammal preserved in fluid presents a few advantages for scientific research projects. Both the anatomy and histology (the macro- and microscopic levels respectively) may be readily studied for many years into the future. Fluid preservation also allows for the entire organism to remain intact--where the internal tissues and intestinal contents would be removed in a taxidermy preparation, they may remain in a fluid preservation. It's incredible to realize what information may be found in organs of a deer, or in the crop of a grouse. 

What might this be? Pictured here is the crop (at top)
of a ruffed grouse, with numerous buds of an aspen
that were found within it when dissected.

Although no method of preservation can stop time indefinitely, we continue our efforts to postpone deterioration in the name of science. Whether dried, frozen, or submerged in alcohol, all of the objects in our collection give answers to our questions about the natural world when properly preserved. 

October 30, 2018

Specimen of the Month: "Crane-Berry"

I slipped into a local bog one evening last week, while the sunshine still stuck around long enough to hamper the autumn chill. I arrived with intent, but dismissed that and the encroaching darkness for a bit to observe some cotton grass momentarily bowing in the wind. I sat on some moss and changed out my hiking boots for rain boots, then plunged into the bog, taking long, careful strides. I didn't want to let the cold water into my boots but I also didn't want to overlook the shiny red pearls that I came to find. 

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon), not to be confused with the "not-a-true-cranberry" shrub commonly known as highbush cranberry, produce the tart treat often associated with this time of year. The market supply of edible cranberries now comes from commercial sources in states like Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, but until the middle 1800's people had to venture into natural habitats to find them. The red fruits of cranberries are conspicuous enough, and the dainty pink flowers resembling cranes are easily recognizable. Still, the plant itself is small and delicate. One should probably dedicate a good portion of the day--not simply an hour after the work day--to investigate what lies within the sphagnum hummocks of our various local bogs. 

The fruits of cranberries dot sphagnum hummocks
with shiny red during a cold October evening.
Cranberry plants are low-growing perennials with small, ovular leaves that can remain green throughout the year. The cranberry is not a real berry at all. Rather, cranberry plants are actually "epigynous," having false berries. They are the product of a 16-month growth cycle that begins with the initiation of a flower bud.  Changing day length will trigger these buds sometime during July to enter dormancy, which lasts until the following spring when buds are exposed to enough “chilling hours” of 32 to 45 degrees.  Flowers grow into the characteristic shape of a crane's head and beak, which inspired the name "crane-berry" that was eventually modified to "cranberry."  During flowering mid-summer, native bees help to pollinate.  Bumble bee species are the most effective at this as they buzz pollinate--using their flight muscles to literally shake pollen from within the flowers. Others, like leaf cutter and mason bee species, use their legs to drum on the flower to release pollen. Thanks to these pollinators, cranberries ripen by mid-autumn and support various animals who enjoy the fruits.

Although small, the bright pink cranberry flowers
stick out against various green sedges
and shrubby plants in a bog. 
The Museum's only herbarium specimen of a cranberry plant was collected over forty years ago during July flowering. In 1975, this particular specimen grew in an area outside of Drummond noted as a "large floating bog on [an] open lake...creeping over sphagnum, [on the] edge of water." I have yet to visit this site--the density of wetlands like open bogs and fens here hasn't required that I do much more than take a short walk down the road from my home. 

Herbarium specimens and their associated
information help to capture a snapshot
of plant life in a particular time and place. 
Bogs are not confined to northern Wisconsin, but often form in the glacial depressions left many years ago when glaciers altered our landscape. The thick distribution of cranberry plants here directly reflects the abundance of its habitat. Still, I find it quite miraculous that wild cranberries and their bog habitat have sustained, as they are dependent on very particular conditions that are not easily mimicked. Without such a unique wetland habitat, we would not and will not have such unique plants as cotton grass, charismatic sundews and pitcher plants,  or the wonderful cranberry.