Knull, the artist


As we discussed in our previous post, Josef Knull was well-recognized as a curator, a collector, and as an expert in wood-boring beetles. As a taxonomist he studied and described new genera and many new species of beetles in various families.

However, there’s another side of Joe Knull that hasn’t gotten the same attention: his talent as an artist. While moving some old books around the other day, we found a few pieces of what looks like a poster presentation by Joe Knull that provides information on how to draw on Ross board.  This is a textured scratch board for making drawings. A skilled artist, by varying the intensity of shading and, hence, accentuating the texture on the Ross board, can practically bring a two-dimensional drawing to life! According to Chuck Triplehorn, Joe was proficient in various drawing techniques and was particularly good at indicating shape and surface texture through the use of stippling.


Joe’s 1924 Master’s thesis (archived in the OSU Library holdings) contains a number of detailed illustrations of beetle species found in Pennsylvania. Here are some photos of the original plates.

 

Many of Joe’s publications contain original illustrations of specimens, signed with a simple and elegant ‘J.N.K.’ For example, “A new species of Mecas in Texas” includes a beautiful drawing of Mecas linsleyi and “A New Subspecies of Acmaeodera Quadrivittata Horn” a drawing of Acmaeodera quadrivittata cazie. For those interested in seeing more of Joe Knull’s scientific illustrations, PDFs of his publications are available in the Ohio Journal of Science via the OSU’s Knowledge Bank.


We never met Joe Knull in person. Chuck Triplehorn mentions Joe’s wry sense of humor, but overall our image of him was that of a tough, strict, mostly surly kind of guy. That is, until we saw his paintings, the ones he did for fun. There’s a certain vulnerability and playfulness that we did not associate with Knull before and that is very refreshing. There’s certainly more to Joe, as to most of us, than the work we do.

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We thank Sally Wilson, Dorothy J. Knull’s nice, for the photos of Joe Knull’s paintings. She tells us that the paintings hang on her grandsons’ walls.


References:

☘ Knull, J. N. 1924. The Buprestidae of Pennsylvania. Thesis. The Ohio State University.

 

About the Authors: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection; Dr. Norman Johnson is Professor of Entomology and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

The Knull Legacy

For the past several weeks, Zach Griebenow (undergraduate student assistant, blogger, majoring in Entomology), and I, with some help from Abbie Zimmer (volunteer, majoring in Art) and Dr. Natalia Molotievskiy, have been reorganizing the beetle holdings of the Triplehorn collection to reflect the changes in the classification of the Coleoptera at the superfamily and family levels (per Bouchard et al., 2011).  This is a laborious process that involves moving (almost) all of the 1,629 (heavy!) wooden drawers containing beetles. On any given day we may move 100-200 drawers in a couple of hours. We are now more than two-thirds of the way done and hope to finish ‘the big switcheroo’ in 2-3 weeks. This re-organization is a big step, and it will greatly facilitate the next phase of the re-curation and digitization of the beetles in the collection.

As we worked, moving drawers in and out of tall metal cabinets, I had a chance to look at the contents of the collection again, not with the critical eye of the professional whose job is to upgrade the curatorial status of it, but with the eye of the student who was seeing it for the first time. This rekindled my appreciation for Joe Knull’s work and his dedication to the collection.

Josef N. Knull

Josef N. Knull

For those unfamiliar with the Triplehorn Insect Collection’s history, Josef Nissley Knull (1891-1975) was hired in 1934 as the full-time curator of insects, and that marks the initiation of a formal entomological collection at Ohio State.

Joe Knull was notoriously meticulous in his care for the collection. He was held up by most entomologists across the country as the extreme example of tidiness and organization. We still have many drawers of beetles that were arranged by him: long series of accurately determined, properly mounted, neatly positioned, and perfectly preserved specimens. There are many stories about Joe’s strict rules in the collection: no smoking, no whistling, no careless people, absolutely no breaking specimens. He allegedly kept a list of all the people who broke specimens. Unfortunately, we have no hard evidence that this list existed, but those who knew him say it would be very much like Joe to do that.

For 28 ½ years Professor Knull devoted his career to the expansion and arrangement of the collection. Each summer of all those years, and those afterward during his retirement, was spent in the field with his wife and fellow entomologist, Dr. Dorothy Johnson Knull. Both were outstanding collectors, and the results of their efforts are reflected in the volume and diversity of material they added to the collection.

Joe was interested in all insects, but he was dedicated to the study of beetles. He published more than 190 papers between 1918 and 1975, particularly on the families Buprestidae, Cerambycidae, Elateridae and Cleridae (Davidson & Bellamy, 2002). The many years of field work with emphasis on beetles, particularly in the Midwestern and  Southwestern states, resulted in a truly outstanding collection of North American Coleoptera.

Professor Josef Knull retired from OSU in January of 1962, but continued collecting and contributing to the OSU collection until the early 1970’s. He died, here in Columbus, on April 24, 1975 at the age of 83. His legacy lives on in every publication generated by the use of the specimens he so carefully collected and preserved, in every visit the collection receives by scientists from the US and abroad, in every specimen image we make available online, in every database query of the 148,154 beetle specimens we have already digitized.

We started re-curating the beetles in 2011. To date, the Carabidae, all 41,466 of them, have been moved to archival quality trays and entirely digitized. Our student assistants are now deep into the digitization of the Tenebrionidae, a whopping 65,150 specimens.  Our volunteers are helping with collection organization. As we continue on with the task of re-curating and digitizing this vast beetle collection (estimated at around 1 million specimens), we keenly feel the responsibility of living up to Joe’s high standards of collection care. I hope he would approve of our work.

Check out the collection’s Facebook page for more photos of Joe Knull and other personalities in our history.

If you are interested in learning more about our work, or would like to volunteer to help us tackle this enormous project, please get in touch.

 

References:

☘ Davidson, J. M. & C. L. Bellamy. 2002. The Entomological Contributions of Josef Nissley Knull (1891 – 1975). Zootaxa 37: 1-24.

☘ Bouchard et al. 2011. Family-Group Names In Coleoptera (Insecta). ZooKeys 88: 1-972. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.88.807

☘ An earlier version of this article appeared in the MBDNewsletter Spring Semester 2013, page 4.  Johnson & Musetti. The Knull Legacy – Joe Knull.

For more about Zach Griebenow, read his interview to Paige Brown Jarreau at From the Lab Bench blog.

 

About the Authors: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection; Dr. Norman Johnson is Professor of Entomology and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

St Patrick’s specimens

Since it is St. Patrick’s day today I felt inspired to search our collections for specimens from Ireland. None of the sound recordings in the Borror lab were made in Ireland – I hope to change this soon as I am planning a trip to Ireland this May. I will keep you updated on which birds I manage to record. May should be prime singing time for most songbirds as they defend their territory and/or attract a mate.

When I searched the Tetrapods collection I came across some bird eggs that sure enough had been collected from nests in Ireland and transported across the Atlantic ocean to be included in our large egg collection. The majority of the 11 egg sets were accessioned when we received the large egg collection put together by Dr. B.R. Bales. He may not have collected all eggs himself, some of the eggs may have been traded with other egg collectors around the world. Such trades were common in former days. The eggs date back to the early 1900s (1899-1923) as you can see from the labels with each one. To my disappointment none were collected on St. Patrick’s day, but I guess March is a bit early for expecting breeding birds in Ireland!

So which species do these Irish eggs belong to? Take a look at the photos.

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Only one species is a songbird, the Dunnock. It builds its nest low in a bush and lays 3-5 blue eggs. Under low light conditions, like inside a bush, these eggs are hard to detect by a potential predator. Keep this in mind when you look at the color and markings of the following eggs of seabirds: The Atlantic Puffin digs a burrow in which it lays its single egg. No color camouflage needed there. Similarly the Manx Shearwater digs a 3-6 feet long burrow in which it lays its single egg. Again the white coloration of the egg is a sign of no camouflage needed. The European Storm Petrel places its nest in crevices between or under rocks, or burrows in the soil. Guess the color of its egg … These eggs are actually from two different females because each lays only a single egg per nesting season. Now look at the egg of the Common Murre, do you think this one is well hidden in a burrow or crevice? The intense markings all over the surface camouflage this egg very well against the bare rock it is laid on. The nest site is on cliff ledges or on flat stony surfaces near water. The last set of eggs is from a single female Corn Crake, a bird in the rail family, which builds its nest in grassland and relies on marking camouflage of its 6-14 eggs per clutch.

Bird eggs, their colors and markings are fascinating and have inspired many research studies. Do you have any burning questions? Leave a comment and we will get back to you.

Have you ever seen any of these birds? The seabirds can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. I have seen Atlantic Puffins on a puffin cruise off the coast of Maine.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and former curator of the OSU Tetrapods collection.

 

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We Break for Science

A few weeks ago, I highlighted the artistic and scientific variety of illustrations of Metridium senile. These images were on my desk because Metridium is on our minds a lot these days as the focus of the dissertation research of EEOB PhD student Heather Glon. Heather aims to address one of the persistent problems with this widespread and highly variable anemone: whether the name Metridium senile is being used for a constellation of related but distinct species or whether it represents a single, cohesive circumpolar species.

Answering this question requires sampling across the broad range of this species, analyzing DNA from multiple individuals within populations, and comparing morphology and micro-anatomy. Although our partner museums, like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, American Museum of Natural History, and California Academy of Sciences, hold collections that can help solve this puzzle, none of these collections have sampled at the depth we require and the vast majority of the samples in museums are preserved in ways that complicate DNA analysis. With only a few years to amass the data needed for a dissertation, we have no choice but to spend spring break on the road, searching for Metridium along the California coast.

After nearly 10 weeks in classes, this chance to be outside in the field, focusing on research is a welcome change of pace for both me and Heather. The recent rains in California and generally high low tides of the coming week means that we’ll work mostly from floating docks, searching for small pink anemones among the sea squirts, hydroids, and worm tubes coating the floats and pilings. Our travels will take us from Bodega Head to Morro Bay, with detours through Monterey, Half Moon Bay, and Marin. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or check back here on Friday for a wrap up of our efforts.

 

OSU Professor Meg DalyAbout the Author: Dr. Meg Daly is Professor in the department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, director of the Museum of Biological Diversity and leads the laboratory of marine invertebrate diversity at OSU. She and her students study systematics of cnidaria, sea anemones, jellyfish and their like.

Why describing new species is exciting and important!

For many researchers describing a new species seems like a tedious task. The differences between species might not be obvious, and the language confusing and foreign. This fact became apparent to me when I first presented my work to the Ant Lab at the Museum of Biological Diversity (MBD). As I described subtle differences in morphology, a little spine here and the shape of a hair there, I could tell that I had lost my audience by the dulled looks on my lab mates faces. How could they not see the differences in these two species?

comparison of Trachymyrmex new species and T. zeteki

Fig. 1 – Trachymyrmex new species on the left and T. zeteki on the right

“Some key differentiating characters: The integument is granulose, spatulate bi-colored setae occur between the frontal carina, the scape extends past the occipital corners. This is compared to a weakly irrorate integument, simple bi-colored setae between the frontal carina, and the scape reaching the occipital corners.”

Fig. 2 – In case you are not familiar with the some terms used in describing ant species


Totally clear, right?

While the differences in characters that separate Trachymyrmex new species and T. zeteki, are exciting for me, it seems to bore people to death. After my presentation, I received very helpful constructive criticism from my lab group. They thought it was interesting but a lot of my presentation went over their heads. My advisor, Dr. Rachelle Adams (Assistant Professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology), encouraged me to find a way to turn the jargon into something people can digest and appreciate. I am still working on that, and it is a challenge many researchers face.

Species descriptions are important and a necessary part of daily life

Hopefully your parents told you when you were younger, never eat mushrooms you find in the woods. Taxonomy helps us understand what kind of mushroom you found, if it is edible, or if it might seriously hurt you if you eat it. Mushrooms are a great example of why taxonomy is important. Scientists need to describe and name species so that others can learn which characteristics define a species. Then chemists can tell us which are toxic. This information communicated to the public can potentially save lives! Taxonomists donate representations of species in museums so that they can be compared by other scientists in the future. Aside from publishing their species description, they submit the specimen used to describe the new species, a type specimen. Anyone who works with any type of animal or plant should be submitting voucher specimens, physical specimens that serve as a basis of study, as representatives of their work.

Cody working at microscope

Fig. 2 – Photo courtesy of Plain Janell Photography

My Taxonomic Conundrum

While working on my species description, I reviewed all the literature that included T. zeteki. The 30 papers covered a number of areas such as fungus-growing ant genomes, mating systems, alarm pheromones, larvae development, and gut bacteria. Sadly, almost half of the papers do not mention depositing voucher specimens! Two articles deposited their DNA sequences as vouchers to a database for molecular data. Any research that uses DNA sequences has to submit DNA vouchers to that database; without it your work cannot get published. However, they do not have any physical vouchers linked to their sequences! This lack of physical vouchers was quite a surprise to me. The time I spent as an intern at the MBD Triplehorn Insect Collection, my advisors and other mentors strongly advocated the deposition of vouchers. Without being able to link your DNA sequence to a correctly identified organism, that DNA voucher loses its value. You cannot quickly identify an organism from DNA. Using morphology is the easiest way to do so! It seems many researchers don’t recognize the importance of vouchering and most non-taxonomic journals do not demand it. Research published without vouchers lacks reproducibility, an essential component of the scientific method.

In my research project, I am cleaning up the mess left behind from nearly twenty-years’ worth of poor vouchering and misidentification. I’m not only describing a new species and key characters that differentiate two cryptic species, I am listing all of the papers that have been published in the past twenty years using the names Trachymyrmex zeteki and Trachymyrmex cf. zeteki. By linking the new species description to these articles scientists can move forward knowing the proper identification of these hard-to-identify fungus-growing ants.

The deposition of vouchers should be required for all publications, and is crucial for, past, present, and future research in biology. In my undergraduate research, I discovered there is a disconnect between research museums like the MBD and many scientists. While I am still struggling to turn the technical jargon into information that can be swallowed by non-experts, there are discussions to be had about the importance of taxonomy as a cornerstone in biology.

If you want to learn more about fungus-growing ants and the importance of university research collections, come see us at the MBD Open House April 22, 10am – 4pm.

CodyCardenas, undergraduate student ant lab, EEOBAbout the Author: Cody R. Cardenas is a Senior Undergraduate student in Entomology  working in the Adams Ant Lab.

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The Science Behind an Ant Sting: Delivery, Function and Chemical Composition

To date, around 71% of all described ant species have been found to sting or spray secretions from their venom glands. Some spray acid such as Formica mound building ants (clip from Life in the Undergrowth – Supersocieties by David Attenborough):

while others inject venom like the red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta (video by Brave Wilderness channel):

Still other species wipe or paint their victim with poison and can dispense it like a smelly gas into the air. The toxic cocktail of organic compounds that make up ant venom is diverse. The venom of some species contains peptides and proteins, but these molecules typically only constitute 0.1-5% of the total venom extract. Instead, many species of ants depend upon alkaloids, a group of organic compounds defined by a heterocyclic ring containing a nitrogen atom. First discovered in ants in 1970, a diversity of venom alkaloids has been found throughout the subfamily Myrmicinae, with six structural classes represented and various differences in the substituents or side chains attached to the main molecule.

Why study ant venom?

Venoms have been found throughout all major animal phyla and play important roles in a number of ecological interactions, especially in predator-prey relationships where they are used as offensive or defensive chemical weaponry. While the venom alkaloids of many ant species have been identified and characterized, the biological activities of these compounds have only been investigated in a minority of groups. Alkaloids are presently known to have adverse toxic effects on a range of organisms; for example, the major component of S. invicta venom has not only been shown to act as a toxin on predatory and prey animal taxa but also possesses herbicidal and antimicrobial properties. Additionally, some alkaloids have been demonstrated to be utilized in a non-toxic capacity and serve communicative functions as well.

One of the goals of the Adams Lab here at OSU is to understand the biological functions and properties of the various venomous alkaloids of ants, and an area of active research has been within the genus Megalomyrmex. Although the majority of species are free-living predators, some are social parasites that infiltrate the colonies of fungus-farming ants. They consume host brood and fungus garden by dominating the farmers with their alkaloidal weaponry. A well-documented example of this interspecific interaction has been between the parasitic Megalomyrmex symmetochus and its host Sericomyrmex amabilis, in which the venom of M. symmetochus is a crucial component in the aggressive interactions that take place throughout the establishment and maintenance of the host-parasite relationship.

During these aggressive interactions, M. symmetochus ants often use three main types of alkaloid dispensing behaviors: gaster flagging, side-swipe sting, and gaster-tuck sting.

ant behavior "Gaster flagging"

Gaster flagging

A) Gaster flagging is when M. symmetochus ants vibrate their gaster at approximately a 45-degree angle with a drop of alkaloid venom at the tip. This allows for the venom to be dispersed into the air at a low concentration, and is thought to be a warning to their host ants to deter them from attacking, acting as both a visual and chemical signal.

ant behavior "Side-swipe sting"

Side-swipe sting

B) Side-swipe sting is when M. symmetochus’ gaster is waved from the side towards the host, dispensing the venom directly onto the host ant.

ant behavior "Gaster-tuck sting"

Gaster-tuck sting

C) Gaster-tuck sting is when the gaster is tucked under the body in between the legs towards the host ant, dispensing venom directly onto the host (see illustrations below for a visual representation of these behaviors).

However, the interactions between these species are not always aggressive, and in some cases the M. symmetochus parasites act like mercenaries and protect their host from a more lethal ant species – watch them in action (video by Rachelle Adams, Assistant Professor in the OSU department of  EEOBiology):

Our future research will continue exploring ant venoms in a broader context. The Adams Lab will be traveling to Panama to collect and observe Megalomyrmex species in their natural habitats as well as conduct experiments to gain greater insight into their biology. Look for our future blogs from Gamboa, Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in May!

For a more in-depth look at the relationship between M. symmetochus and S. amabilis, check out Dr. Adams’ article in the USA Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Chemically armed mercenary ants protect fungus-farming societies.” And to learn more about the venom of the red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta, watch this video by Eric Keller.

Visit us at the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Open House on April 22nd to learn more about our research! We will have live fungus-growing ants!

 

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Rozlyn E. Haley for the ant illustrations.

Reference: Adams, R. M., Liberti, J., Illum, A. A., Jones, T. H., Nash, D. R., & Boomsma, J. J. (2013). Chemically armed mercenary ants protect fungus-farming societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(39), 15752-15757.

About the Authors: Conor Hogan is a graduate student in Rachelle Adams’ lab and Mazie Davis is an undergraduate student who did a research project on parasitic ant stinging behaviors in Rachelle Adams’ lab in 2016.

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Where would you want to work?

Check out these “work desks” in the different collections at the Museum and let us know which one is your favorite, let’s vote for the best work desk!

By the way, if the last two posts have inspired you and you are seriously interested in helping with work at the museum, most of the collections are looking for volunteers, please send us an e-mail.

 

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and social media and outreach manager at the Museum of Biological Diversity.

Everyday Life at the Museum-part2

Following Monday’s post, here are some illustrations of everyday life in the rest of our collections:

In the Adams lab ants are busy tending their fungi gardens. No students are working the day I stop by, but Rachelle Adams, Assistant Professor in the department of Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology, is happy to take a break from her computer work and she shows me the ant colonies in her lab.


In the Herbarium long-time volunteer Donna Schenk relabels some of the folders that hold the plant specimens. Taxonomy is not static, molecular studies reveal new relationships and classifications are revised. To keep the collection up-to-date and to make it easy to find each specimen we need to keep up with these changes.

In the mollusc collection I find Collection Manager Caitlin Byrne working on the computer. Student worker Trevor Smoot sorts through a bag of mussel shells which a researcher donated to the collection. With a big smile Trevor lays out the shells on top of the cabinets, apparently these are some his favorite species. Others will be identified and catalogued later.

In the fish collection Sampling Coordinator Brian Zimmerman and Assistant Curator Marc Kibbey both work on their computers.

Zoology major Elijah Williams catalogs fish specimens from a recent acquisition:

 

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and the museum’s social media and outreach manager.

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Everyday Life at the Museum-part 1

Visitors to our Annual Open House – by the way, the next Open House is coming up soon on Saturday April 22, 2017 – often wonder what everyday life in our museum collections looks like. During the Open House we showcase specimens in fabulous displays but how do we accession and maintain specimens throughout the year? To find out I took a walk through our building on a weekday morning and stopped by each collection to get a snapshot of our students’ and staff’ workdays. Watch the short videos below to get some behind the scenes insights and see how important the help of OSU undergraduate students is for our collections.

In the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics Evolution and Ecology major Morgan VanDeCarr digitizes recordings of House Finches Haemorhous mexicanus. The song of these birds was recorded onto a reel-to-reel tape by researcher Erik Bitterbaum at Occidental College in 1976.

In the Triplehorn insect collection Art major Katherine Beigel takes images of tiny insect specimens under a microscope and stacks them into one composite image using special software. Here she shows us a Coleoptera, beetle specimen.

In the Acarology collection Dr. Hans Klompen, Professor in the OSU department of Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology, talks to a student. The tick and mite specimens are neatly shelved and ready for the next Acarology Summer Program (June 19 – July 7).

In the Tetrapods collection Evolution and Ecology major Chelsea Hothem updates location information in the computer database. To get accurate data she often goes back to the specimens and reads information on the tags.

We will look behind the scenes in the herbarium, the mollusc and the fish collection on Friday!

 

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and the museum’s social media and outreach manager.

 

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Teaching in the collections

Unlike the super heroes in popular movies, scientists don’t just wake up and suddenly have the power and knowledge of everything in their field. It takes tremendous work and studying for researchers or curators to get to where they are today. In the field of natural history, museums play a huge role in the establishment of a baseline of identification knowledge for students. The Ohio State University (OSU) students have the privilege of gaining hands-on-experience with the very species they may study in the future. The MBD provides a hands-on aspect to many of OSU’s “-ology” courses, with our teaching collections.

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What distinguishes a teaching collection from a scientific collection?

Scientific specimens hold valuable data. Typically, they will have a specific date or location when and where they were collected associated with them. Sometimes they may be the first described of their species, a state record, or from an expedition. These specimens are all unique and valuable to the scientific community. Therefore we tend to only use them for teaching when they are the only example available in our collection. Our goal is to make these scientific specimens last for centuries. If they are used for teaching and are handled regularly, they degrade quicker and may not be available for future research.

Specimens in a teaching collection typically do not have data associated with them. Instead, these specimens are chosen and prepared to be best representations of their species. Instead of having drawers with many individuals of the same species, specimens for a teaching collection are carefully chosen so that they represent a male and a female, a juvenile and an adult, winter and breeding plumage of a species. So if every specimen in a collection is individualistic and different looking why do our teaching collections only have a few representatives? The goal for a teaching collection is to show a general representation of a species. Students should be able to look at one or two specimens of a species, use what they have learned from those specimens, to identify living representations out in nature.

Who uses the teaching collections?

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The main value of a teaching collection is to further science education. The primary purpose of the OSU teaching is to educate OSU students. Courses such as Ohio Birds, Avian Wildlife Biology and Management, Mammalogy, and Herpetology use teaching specimens as hands-on tools to help students to become engaged in the classroom. Students also gain skills in understanding how natural history collections work. They have opportunities to contribute specimens to the collections, learn how skins are made, and learn the overall value of a collection. When not being used to educate OSU students, the teaching collection is also used for identification workshops at the museum, during tours, for outreach events, such as our annual Open House – coming up soon on April 22, 2017.

 

 

Stephanie Malinich, collection manager TetrapodsAbout the Author: Stephanie Malinich is Tetrapod Collection Manager at the Museum of Biological Diversity and research assistant in Dr. Andreas Chavez’ lab.

 

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