Putting History into Natural History


People often remember what they were doing when a historical event occurred. Were you sitting in the living room watching TV when the first man walked on the moon? Were you at work when the Titanic sank?

In the Tetrapod Collection, we often find specimens collected on days of historical importance and here we share some of our favorites with you:


Photo Credit: Abby Miller, Volunteer in the Tetrapods collection

Art meets science at the natural history museum


When you walk into the tetrapods collection at the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity a typical reaction is to “Ohhh” and “Ahh” over the specimens around you.

Northern Cardinal - plate in Birds of America by John James Audubon

Plate of the Northern Cardinal, Ohio state bird, from Birds of America by John James Audubon

Depending on your background though you may be amazed by the scientific value of these specimens (some date from the late 1800s as indicated on their labels) or you may see the artistic beauty with which some of these specimens have been preserved. Many of the early naturalists who collected specimens were artists and natural history collections have inspired artists ever since. For example, the beautiful drawings of the birds of America by the well-known American ornithologist John James Audubon.

These artworks are not only beautiful to look at, they have a scientific purpose: they provide evidence of new species described in the field and depicted in detail. Similarly field notebooks of scientists are full of drawings and illustrations, but it can be hard to capture detailed features of fast moving animals. Thus the study of preserved specimens in a museum setting has advantages and can lead to some beautiful artwork. The perfect synergy between science and art at a museum.

Drawing of a Hooded Pitohui by Stephanie Nelson

Painting of a Hooded Pitohui by EEOB graduate student Stephanie Nelson (c) 2015


The role of art in natural history collections has changed over time. During the Victorian era (1837 – 1901) the study of natural history was very popular and naturalists along with museums developed new ways to showcase their findings and make science accessible to people. Many private collectors preserved animals and plants and artfully displayed them at their homes to impress guests. Later some of these private collection would materialize into the natural history collections that exist today.

Victorian Era Specimens on Display at the Ohio History Connection.

Angelika Nelson next to a Victorian Era Display case with specimens at the Ohio History Connection.

In the late 19th century naturalists called for the help of artists as they started placing animals into a background of their natural environment: the natural history diorama was born. These displays are characterized by 2- and 3-dimensional elements such as a background painting depicting the habitat of the animals and taxidermied mounts of birds and other creatures placed in the foreground.

Some of the original dioramas have been preserved and you may be lucky to see one during your next museum visit. But even in today’s technological age displaying specimens in an apparently natural setting, i.e. in front of a painting of natural habitat can bring back the charm of old days. For a visual treat and to learn more about native Ohio species visit the Beaver Creek Wildlife education center in East Liverpool, Ohio.

Student showing off her texture drawing of a skull

Student showing off her drawing of a skull

Even in a place where we do not artfully show off specimens to the public, art can meet science. Today’s artists, too, are aware of the treasure trove natural history collections present. Bring in a textual artist and they will admire the textures of nature, the smooth egg shell, the feathery bird, the wrinkled skin on a bird’s leg, the smooth surface of a bone. Over the years numerous students in OSU art classes have explored the artistic value of our specimens and many were inspired.

Art has changed over the years and today technology is an important element in creating artworks. We have embraced this in our latest project in collaboration with artists here at OSU: BioPresence aims to document animals that we share our spaces with on campus. Everyone is encouraged to take a photo (or make a drawing if this post has inspired you) of an animal that you encounter on campus and post it on a social media site with #animalOSU.

This project will culminate in an art exhibit on campus and in town during early December. Details will follow soon!

About the Authors: Dr. Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics; her research interests are in acoustic behavior and female choice in songbirds; she teaches a course on Ohio Birds at OSU each spring.

Stephanie Malinich is the Collection Manager for the Tetrapod Collection.

Remembering Carol B. Stein — Tetrapod Collection


Carol B. Stein, an Assistant Curator for the Natural History Department at the Ohio State Museum passed away this past March 2015 on 6 December 2010. Though her primary focus was in the Molluscs, she provided over 400 specimens to the Tetrapod Collection. In remembrance of all the collecting she did for the museum, we dedicate this post to her and her contribution to the Tetrapod Collection.



About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is the Collection Manager for the Tetrapod Collection.


Preparing the Dead – the Dying Art of Preparing Mammals and Birds


Looking at the mammal and bird skins in the OSU Tetrapod Collection, visitors commonly have some questions:

“Where did the specimen come from?”

“What did you do with the insides of the specimen?”

“Why are the specimens’ eyes white?”


To properly answer these questions, we need to go back in time to when naturalists, such as Charles Darwin or John James Audubon, went out into the field to collect specimens. When they captured a bird, they would remove the insides of the specimens to ensure that the skin would not spoil and rot before other naturalists could view and study it. Today, we continue to use very similar methods to preserve specimens, as well as new methods such as freeze drying. – Now going back to the visitors’ questions:

“Where do the specimens come from?”

Trays of brown and white waterfowl laying out on trays to be reorganzied.

Trays of prepared waterfowl specimens laid out to be reorganized.

In the past collecting birds and mammals was a very active process, very similar to today’s trophy hunting. Collectors would go out with shotguns, mist nest and traps to catch animals and collect them. Today, the most common way of getting specimens for collections is by salvaging already deceased animals. To do this, our collection possesses special permits (known as salvage permits) allowing us to salvage birds and mammals from all over the state of Ohio.

“What do you do with the insides of the specimen?”

The tendons found inside the tail of a North American Beaver.

The tendons found inside the tail of a North American Beaver.

We remove most of the bones and tissues of specimens during preparation, and the carcass is used in two ways: Most carcasses we examine internally to determine the sex of the specimen and to look at the animal’s last meal. This will provide some information about the ecology of the animal, what and where it has been feeding. Once that information has been recorded the carcass is disposed of. Rare specimen carcasses are put in a tank of dermestid beetles for a couple weeks till only the bones remain. Once cleaned, the bones are added into the collection for future research use.

“Why are the specimens’ eyes white?”

A row of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks males.

A row of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks males.

To ensure that our specimens will last 500 years or more we remove as much of the organic material as possible. This means that we remove the eyes, brain, body and a majority of the muscle tissue. After removing the organic tissues and matter, we fill the now empty skin with white cotton to represent the body 3 dimensionally. Since the eyeballs have been removed the white cotton in the inside of the head is visible through the eye sockets – hence the white eyes. By removing most of the organic material, we reduce the potential for attracting museum pests, such as the dermestid beetle also known as the flesh-eating beetle – you can imagine what this beetle would do to a specimen with intact insides.

Today, the traditional method of preparing specimens by skinning is slowly being lost. Newer methods of freeze drying specimens, using large freeze drying machines that pull all moisture out of the specimen, have become more popular. Freeze drying allows for more organic material to be preserved which in turn provides more material to use for DNA testing of specimens. In our collection, we do a combination of freeze drying and traditional methods of preparing specimens, depending on size and overall condition of the specimen.

How Can You Help?

To add to our collection we need citizen scientist, like yourself, who find a dead bird or mammal, write down the day and place where they found it, and donate it to the collection. On average, we get 10-15 new birds a month, which we put in a freezer to prepare at a later date. These specimens once accessioned will “live” in the collection for a century or longer.

Something to note: without proper permits, a citizen is not allowed to possess a deceased migratory bird, due to the Migratory Bird Act (more info at http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/migtrea.html).


About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is the Collection Manager for the Tetrapod Collection.