September 25, 2018

Sights of the Elk

Clad in our rain jackets and winter hats, we sat at the edge of our car seats with eyes darting back and forth, reaching for movement of brown fur against the browned bracken fern to our right. Within a few moments, one of us in the van spotted a head slowly swiveling around and directed the rest of us towards him. We were searching for elk, arguably one of our state's most charismatic of megafauna species. As it turned out, this would not be our last, or even the most exciting, glimpse of such a creature that morning. 

The young bull sat nearly camouflaged by bracken ferns.
He can be seen towards the middle of the photo,
where lines of ferns and pines meet. 
Our group of a dozen hushed individuals gathered that early September morning to caravan around the forests in search of both the sounds and sights of Clam Lake elk. The group's leader, Laine Stowell, works as a wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin DNR and has years of experience replicating elk calls in the field. Laine was a wealth of knowledge. Each question asked by our group was answered with incredible detail that could only come with years of experience and a deep understanding of the elk's place in our community. 

Laine helped us to understand the difficult journey to restore our state's elk population since it was decimated in the 1880's. With years of effort, the population of elk in the Clam Lake heard has grown to an estimated 185 elk this year. Biologists felt for the first time that our state could support a limited bull-only hunt and this year will mark the first managed hunt in Wisconsin. Despite remaining a point of contention, over 38,000 hunters applied for tags and an additional $13,000 was raised to support state elk management. 

The five state hunters awarded tags were required to join Laine for a training program not much unlike our own Museum trip. Hunters were guided through wooded areas, reached only by one-lane logging roads, where groups of the massive ungulates live. During the last stop of our own jaunt with Laine,  the low hum of distant machinery was finally eclipsed by the distinct bugle response of a nearby bull. Our perceptive leader motioned for us to follow him in a sprint down a vehicle path, drawing nearer to the bull elk. Finally, the front of our group cleared a corner and gasped. The elk was within 15 yards of Laine, and he stared straight at the group before turning his white rump to us and trotting off into the thicket. 

Those of us who saw him could not wipe the amazement off their faces. While elk are closely related to white-tailed deer, bull elk can weigh five times more than them. An encounter with an elk in any capacity is a true privilege. When I first visited the Museum three years ago, I was fascinated by the elk shoulder mount on display opposite the front desk. I extended my gaze from directly underneath him, taking in the broadness of his antlers and size of his face hovering over my body. 

Visitors to the Museum over the past few years have likely
awed at this elk mount in the lobby. It will be returned to its owner
in mid-October. 
Since then my awe of these beings has only increased, and I feel very fortunate to be able to walk under an elk as I come in and out of work each day, or to join other inquisitive folks as we search for the herd roaming nearby forests. I'm happy to have the elk mount on display for a few more weeks at the Museum, and hope that others interested in such creatures find a chance to visit the display while it remains towering over us all. 

September 18, 2018

On Preserving Mammals of "Flight"

Gliding through the crisp, dark air on moonlit nights, flying squirrels frequently escape the gaze of their diurnal neighbors. It's quite a pity that we don't encounter them more, for not only are Wisconsin's two flying squirrel species simply adorable with those large, dark eyes, but understandably intriguing rodents as well. What other mammals can descend down to backyard feeders so elegantly? How many others engage in a mutually beneficial relationship with the fungi of our forests, and in turn facilitate growth of the same trees they launch from? 

To my dismay, the only times I have yet gazed upon a flying squirrel were as they rested lifelessly within the Museum. One had been crouched in collection storage for some time, while the other recently came in just hours after falling prey to a house cat. She was brought in by our director, a tad bloodied by fatal bite wounds yet otherwise nearly as pretty as she would have been in life. As a result, she soon became my very first mammal taxidermy experience. 

Small mammals work great as practice material. They are readily available and should, ideally, take little time. I approached taxidermy of this particular flying squirrel interested in highlighting her patagium--the membrane of skin extending from her wrists to ankles which allowed her to glide between trees in life. 

A flying squirrel's patagium creates glide, while
its tail provides stability.
I made my first incision from the base of the neck to the tail, exposing the inner abdomen--having a patagium means that a flying squirrel becomes quite roomy inside once abdominal organs are removed. Before completely separating those inner bits from the skin, I was briefed on the task of slipping bones out from the bushy tail. "Now..." my mentor John paused for a moment during instruction and took on a serious tone, "you need to get a good grip, then pull really hard." I didn't always know when he was being serious, but yet was always intimidated when he took on that inflection. I pinched with one hand,  used the other to pull from where the spinal vertebrae were nestled among muscle and organs, and miraculously, off came that tail with the ease of pulling off a loose sock! I was proud of myself but tried not to let it show too much. 

Wanting to display the pearly-white underbelly,
the abdominal incision was made along the squirrel's back.
As with bird taxidermy before, I was amazed by the anatomy of this flying squirrel. She had so much skin! Having successfully pulled out inner tissue, having clipped away leg muscles from their respective bones, and sliding off that tail, I had to remove the skull. From the base of the head, I pulled skin up to the eyes where I carefully snipped without damaging the lids to those big, gorgeous eyes. I pulled up farther, and once more was very careful as I maneuvered her little nose away from the skull.  

For this project, the actual skull would be used for the mount so it needed to be cleaned. All tissues were scraped, scrambled, and swabbed out and the skull further cooked clean over a hot plate. The smell was ghastly. It was necessary, though, and after boiling the skull, I more readily handled the squirrel's remains without gloves, expressions of disgust, or feigning of nausea. 

Photos, or notes, on placement of small pieces like teeth
should be taken prior to boiling so as to reposition if they come out during the process.

Now, the process likens that of sculpting. Wires help to position limbs in relation to their now Styrofoam bodies, as the taxidermist's imagination runs as wild as the squirrel's existence once was. Tonight I will complete my work of replicating her animate energy via taxidermy. I will attempt to do her justice by displaying her so that visiting children will marvel at how she is objectively cuter than their pet gerbil. Adults will hopefully connect this animal to human innovation in the world of base jumping, or they too will find her cute enough to protect others in their forests. As I work, I will do so with the hope that she will soon inspire us even in death. Even later tonight, as I slump into my cozy bed with a view of tall hemlocks and glistening stars, I will imagine her kin gliding above my roof, safe from house cats for another night. 

September 11, 2018

Fire and Water

Fire is a tricky beast. Mature jack pines rely on its heat to prompt their serotinous cones to open and simply would not reproduce without such an environmental trigger. Natural fires in general are wildly revitalizing for a variety of forests, watersheds, and soil and equally as significant, the process of early humans learning to harness the power of fire proved revolutionary. Despite fire's wonderful power, flames leave behind little promise after reducing valuable natural history specimens to soot and ashes.

Making global news recently has been the near total loss of specimens at the National Museum of Brazil, when it was consumed by flames early this month. The museum had been the oldest scientific institution in its country, surviving for 200 years with a collection grown to approximately 20 million objects. The collection included irreplaceable specimens--"Luisa," the oldest human fossil discovered in the Americas, one of the world's largest meteorites, anthropological artifacts from South America's vanishing indigenous groups, and other tangible records of cultural heritage. Before the fire, it was truly a great repository, informing the public of the vast wonders of the world around us. 

Cries to better safeguard such specimens in Brazil were heard for years, even decades, and continuously silenced by a lack of resources. The National Museum of Brazil is certainly not alone in its loss, however. In 2016, India's National Museum of Natural History was notoriously destroyed by fire as well, and other collections around the world have been decimated by natural forces since museums existed as institutions. No tangible collection is everlasting, and certainly not so in the face of the incredible natural forces such as fire or water. While the Cable Natural History Museum has thus far escaped flames, it has experienced loss. 

Specimens damaged by water during a collapsed
roof in the spring of 2005.
Over a decade ago, the Museum existed in a different building than that of today. An early spring roof collapse in 2005 drenched its contents with water and debris, irreversibly damaging a number of specimens. While damages were not entirely catastrophic--we lost no rare or extinct individuals--we did lose part of our record of the area's natural history. Mammal and bird mounts fell apart at the touch, and archival cases holding entomology specimens likewise crumbled. The Museum suffered--but also adapted, improved, and continued on. 

Humans are resilient creatures and our work can be too. Museums the world over are filled with people arguably as strong as any disaster that may come their way, and each one of us passionately seeks to protect our collections into the infinite future. Situations like that which happened at the National Museum of Brazil are tragic, but inspire us to become better stewards of our records of the world around us. 

September 04, 2018

Specimen of the Month: Harvesting Color

Dyed yarn created by the author, using coreopsis,
poplar, tansy, cochineal, and buckthorn as sources.
Did you know that some of the most beautiful shades of red dye can be produced with the dried bodies of insects, or that lichens can create dye colors ranging from pretty pinks to mossy greens? The world of natural dye is a fascinating one, and the Museum's first director apparently thought so too. 

Humans learned in ancient times how to capture vibrant colors for their textiles using plants and invertebrates and continued to experiment with other biological sources as well as minerals into modern times. Use of natural dyes likely predated records but there is written evidence of fabrics being dyed in areas of China around 2600 BC. Many plant sources readily produce shades of brown from tannins, or yellows and greens. In ancient times, Egyptians learned to use species of madder to produce reds and some centuries later, purple was made from the veins of mollusks. Considerable efforts were taken to extract the most prized pigments for textiles and often only the royal or wealthy were able to afford fabrics of purple, blue, or red hues. 

What halted such a fascination with natural dye materials? Mauve was accidentally discovered as the first synthetic dye stuff in 1856, and the textile industry quickly adjusted to rely on those synthetic materials rather than natural. Although times have changed, many continue to find inspiration in the colors of nature. Natural dyeing has practically become a niche hobby, and many find wonder in locating natural materials and utilizing them to produce beautiful pieces of art.

The September 2018 Specimen of the Month includes
three wool yarn samples dyed with one species of lichen.
The three wool samples on display for September--one gold, one a vibrant olive green, and the other a deep fern green--were all dyed using a composite organism of algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi, known as lichen. Natural dyes created by Lois  Nestel originated from various organisms which grew in and around her hometown of Cable. There is evidence within our collection of her using both plant and lichen materials for dyes, although her formidable understanding of fungi may indicate a possibility of her experimenting with some of the same mushrooms that she painted. Lois certainly notes her endeavors with plant sources in other works, such as in her well-known wild foods manuscript, Wayside Bounty.

Like a true naturalist, Lois expertly observed the natural world. She understood each component through multiple lenses--a plant was not only a living organism, but also a food source for humans and other animals, a worthy subject for artwork, or a means to preserve the lovely hues of nature during any season. In Wayside Bounty, Lois writes accounts on various plants as foods, but also makes a point to indicate a few of their dye properties. Of Rumex stenophyllus, known as narrowleaf dock, Lois stated that its roots produce the finest yellow she had yet found. Clusters of green brier berries were noted as one of the few fruits to produce a blue dye--a color found in only a handful of natural sources. 

A wealth of literature may be found on natural dyes, and I implore anyone with a creative spirit to spend if only a few minutes reading about such practices. I believe that Lois's life was certainly enhanced by her exploration of plant-bred color. While I could likely write many pages about how  an interest in natural dyes has brightened the lives of many among her, I believe that the colors of her craft speak for themselves.

An example of various pigments created by Lois Nestel.

August 28, 2018

Fall Color Tour

Nature has begun to express its yearly transition into autumn--goldenrods and tansy continue to shower the landscape with a bit of sunshine as hyssops and black-eyed Susans droop downward with muted petals. The browning involucres of hazelnuts signal a ripened treat for squirrels, and humans readily venture to the forests in search of vibrant edible fungi. We are in the twilight of summer, and soon the Northwoods will fill with a different rainbow of color. 

As much of the work of a curator requires that sunny days be spent behind museum walls, one might assume that an autumn work week would remain dull. However, there is a whole spectrum of colorful views to appreciate just within the Museum's collections. A tour of color is to be had each day at the Cable Natural History Museum and you don't have to take my word for it: 

Red: Dainty pinks of rhodonite inspire its common name--"rhodos" translating from Greek as "rose colored." In contrast, a male northern flicker displays his fiery red nape. 

Orange: The rusted orange of a Lactarius deliciosus painted by Lois Nestel accurately illustrates this well-known member of the Lactarius mushroom family. Meanwhile, the lively orange of a baltimore oriole's breast is a common sight at backyard feeders and can be found in a study skin drawer. 

Yellow: From lemon-yellow tips of a cedar waxwing's tail feathers, to burnt gold swirls, shades of yellow grace the museum whether in the geology or bird taxidermy collection. 

Green: While thousands of these primarily nocturnal relatives of crickets are best known for their mating calls, katydids should also be noted for their striking leafy green body. Also providing lush green to the collection room are various wool yarns dyed shades of green with the help of local lichens. 

Blue: The deep blue of a catbird egg is perhaps only rivaled by the famously blue shell of a robin's egg, but deserves comparable recognition. Even deeper in shade is the plumage of the aptly named indigo bunting. 

Violet: Spring azures flitter around drab forests, showering spring with bits of violet-blue before completing their life and retiring to the entomology cabinet. In the Museum's adjacent cabinet, geology specimens shine with comparably vivid colors.

If one must find him- or herself indoors on these beautifully brisk days leading into autumn, then it might as well be in a museum--where the colors of nature certainly remain long enough for all to enjoy. 

To explore all of the Museum's collections from home, click here for our online database. 

August 21, 2018

Discover a Red-Eyed Vireo Nest

Anyone who takes the time to carefully deconstruct a bird's nest, piece by tiny piece, deserves to have that work recognized. Back in 2007--think back in recent memory to when the first iPhone was released and the last book of the Harry Potter series was published--Joleen Stinson was busy exploring the components of a red-eyed vireo nest. She counted and then laid out over 400 pieces of tree bark, 347 pine needles, a singular cherry stem, and effectively revealed the hard work of a mother bird through her own dedication. 

Developing and constructing a new exhibit each year, the Cable Natural History Museum landed on "Birds in Focus" over a decade ago--described as helping to "turn even the most nature-phobic urbanite into a fledgling naturalist and birder." With a variety of tactile elements that surely survived in the minds of its visitors, the exhibit also inspired a red-eyed vireo nest display that to this day hangs on the walls of the Museum. It has yet to lose its novelty. 

Joleen was an employee of the Museum at the time, and as a quintessential naturalist her interest in our local birds must have been thoroughly piqued. Simply put, her nest display demonstrates the various materials a mother red-eyed vireo prefers to use as she creates an entire nest in about five days. Most of us have probably observed such a nest, as they tend to be built in the understory of trees and shrubs, concealed from above and often in the fork of a branch. 

Nearly all materials used in the nest can be found organized on the display. From a tiny ball of pitch to numerous shreds of birch bark, Joleen accounted for all. The following is a list of the materials she discovered in one red-eyed vireo nest: 

Cherry stem: 1
Piece of paper: 1
Pitch ball (tree sap): 1
Pieces of thread: 2
Balsam fir needles: 7
Plant buds: 9
Pine needle sheaths: 69
Pieces of hornet nest: 16
Twigs: 24
Animal hairs: 50
Pieces of birch bark: 346
Pine needles: 347
Pieces of tree bark (inner bark): 427
Pieces of spider web (not included in display): 16

What does this display demonstrate to us? Is it an accumulation of data--a work of art? As a Curator, this display serves to highlight the dedication of all creatures in this world. Some mother red-eyed vireo spent days collecting over a thousand bits of her habitat to foster the life of her young. A curious naturalist then meticulously rewound time to better understand that vireo's work. The notion of dedication extends beyond this display--it fills our halls and the minds of our many visitors--and the Museum is dedicated to inspiring others to exploring nature as Joleen has. 

August 14, 2018

Curious Gifts

Why has the Museum salvaged an American purple gallinule--a colorful rail usually found along the Gulf coast? Where did our stranger specimens come from--albino and piebald deer, a fetal beaver, or an unusually large calcite geode? How might we build our relatively small collection of taxidermy fish? The answer to those questions is through a steady and well-intended flow of, often unsolicited, donations. 

In many instances, the owners of such items had inherited them from relatives. At other times, the items were collected on an excursion or a simple walk around town. As some may even dare to admit, the red-tailed hawk they came to donate had sat in a garage for decades before being "disposed of" at the Museum. Either way, thinking to bring any natural history object to the care of the Museum is almost as appropriate as it is greatly appreciated. 

I love to share stories of how the Museum came to acquire our specimens. A large portion of our over 3,500 items came under the arm of a visitor and proudly placed on the lobby desk, either to the docent's enjoyment or dismay. A few months back I was promised a nearly pristine purple gallinule from a Scouts leader, who found the immature bird's body caught along the yet icy banks of the St. Louis River. Gallinules are known erratic flyers, and this individual had amazingly traveled from its usual grounds in the Gulf of Mexico to the cold of the Northwoods.

I was surprised when this man came back the next work day with the gallinule, as well as a fetal beaver floating in a glass jar. He casually told me and our docent, as a look of pure horror crept across her face, that he found similar items in his father's basement after his passing. I would assume that all families have kept odd relics but found his story particularly curious. At the back of my mind, I began to think of how many other amusing bits of nature must have been revived from the basements or attics of loved ones. 

After his father passed away, another man found himself in the custody of some treasured family items. A burbot that had once swam the waters of Lake Superior had hung preserved at his father's home for some years before he inherited the fish. Similar to others, this man came to the Museum  hoping that we may have better use for his humble treasure. I had admittedly lamented about our incomplete fish collection recently, so had cause to quickly accept this gracious offer with little need for deliberation. 

While not all situations allow for the Museum to accept potential gifts, there is great significance in the public's continued tendency to share personal treasures with others.  A difficult part of a curator's job is when we must inevitably deny items that don't support our mission, or which we can't support for various financial or architectural reasons. What makes the job so interesting however, is the unknown nature of how the collection could develop into the future. As long as we continue to find wonder in our natural world, museums will serve to inspire that through collections built by our curious community.