Songbirds no longer take a break

With temperatures dropping below freezing again and the potential of heavy snowfall in the next days, spring is not the first thing that comes to mind. At least not to us humans. Songbirds on the other hand are already preparing for the next breeding season and spring may well be on their minds.

singing Carolina Wren

Singing Carolina Wren © CheepShot

You may have heard the song of a Carolina Chickadee or Carolina Wren outside your window, often early in the morning when the temperatures are particularly frigid. For these resident birds it is important to defend a territory and after a long, cold night let everyone know that they are still alive and yes, the territory is still taken!

Did you know that almost 80% of our songbird species that commonly breed (and thus vocalize) in Ohio, maybe even in your backyard, do not spend the winter with us? You may not notice the dramatic decline in bird diversity, because some birds are replaced by winter visitors from the north. Sometimes even within a species, such as the American Robin.

Many of our summer American Robins move south while birds from more northern populations come to our area for the winter. So next time you see a robin in your garden, remember that it may not be the familiar bird whose song you enjoyed all summer. American Robin

If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, you may be familiar with some of our regular winter visitors. Maybe you have noticed Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows among the more familiar residents such as Northern Cardinal and Carolina Chickadee. Have you seen any of the more irregular visitors yet such as Red-breasted Nuthatch or Pine Siskin? According to the Winter Finch Forecast – a report researched and written by Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists each year since 1999 and published on the World Wide Web – we should be very lucky to see either of the aforementioned irregular visitors in large numbers at a feeder in Ohio this winter because of a heavy cone crop on Balsam Fir in many areas that should provide ample food for these birds in the areas north.

A few months ago even the hardy birds, who spend the winter in Ohio, were quiet. Walking through a woodland in December, you would have noticed how quiet nature can be, hardly any animals made a sound then. Still now the bird chorus is quite limited, you can easily count the species that join in. This is a good time to practice your birding by ear skills. Find your favorite birds on the website of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics where you can listen online to hours of sounds. Or consider listening to nature’s music on one of our lab’s CDs with animal sounds – please contact the curator for details for any of the following CDs: Voices of Ohio Birds, Calls of Ohio Frogs and Toads, Sounds of Insects and Amphibiance, and for these produced in collaboration with ODNR – Common birds of Ohio, Warblers of Ohio, Waterbirds of Ohio and Owls of Ohio.

CDs by Borror Lab of Bioacoustics

Our latest production is of birds commonly heard on and around Hog Island, Maine, a stark contrast to the other CDs that focus on animals in Ohio. Why Maine?

Don Borror on Hog Island

Don Borror teaching on Hog Island in 1940s © Friends of Hog Island

Don Borror, entomology professor and founder of the Borror lab, used to teach some of the Audubon summer programs on Hog Island, Maine through his retirement in 1977. For the past two springs I have been privileged to follow his footsteps and also teach on the island in the Muscongus Bay.

I have taught participants about the skill of ‘Birding by Ear’ as well as ‘How to make Audio Recordings of Bird Sounds’ (stay tuned for more about these topics in one of our future posts!).

Angelika Nelson on Hog Island

Angelika Nelson teaching on Hog Island in 2015

To aid my instruction I put together a CD of sound recordings of species that we are likely to encounter on the island and along the coast of Maine. Each track starts with the common song of the species, followed by the identification and some more, often less commonly heard sounds. Participants have enjoyed listening to the sounds, many of them were recorded in the field by Don Borror.

I will be teaching again on Hog Island this year during the sessions Field Ornithology (12-17 June) and Hands-on Bird Science (19-24 June) – Registration is now open with an early bird discount until February 15th. Come join me on Hog Island!

Early morning view of Muscongus Bay from Hog Island, Maine

Early morning view of Muscongus Bay from Hog Island, Maine

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics at The Ohio State University. Photos taken by the author unless stated otherwise.

The Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics: a non-traditional museum collection

 

It is common for natural history museums to house collections of plants, insects and other groups of animals. The Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (BLB hereafter) is a collection of animal sound recordings, one of only about 10 collections of animal sound recordings in the world. We preserve the behavior of an animal making sounds, rather than the animal itself. Why would a biodiversity museum contain a collection of animal sound recordings?

The BLB is named after Dr. Donald Borror (1907-1988), a professor of entomology and zoology at Ohio State who early on realized the biological significance of recording the sounds of insects and birds. About 15,000 of the 45,000 recordings in the BLB were made by Borror himself. Donald Borror was a systematic entomologist, a scientist who studies the evolutionary relationships of insects, and was trained in the museum methods involved in maintaining a “traditional” collection of physical specimens (see previous posts on this blog). Upon leaving the Navy after WWII, he was among the first biologists to use a tape recorder and a sound spectrograph (a machine for making “voice prints”). These tools enabled Borror and his students to record and describe the sounds of insects and birds.

Dr Donald Borror recording bird sounds with a sound parabola

Dr Donald Borror recording bird sounds with a sound parabola

To return to our original question: what is it about animal sounds that is important and merits their collection and archival storage? One of the primary tasks that museum scientists face is describing species. All of our estimates of earth’s biodiversity and much work in all of biology hinges upon being able to demarcate species differences. Traditionally, scientists relied on using anatomical characters that they could see to describe different species. In the 1960’s a common definition was adopted that defines a species as a group of individuals that can breed with one another. This definition recognized behavior as being important in drawing species boundaries. Why? Animals generally don’t mate at random; although there are exceptions, females typically are choosy and males advertise to attract females. Females prefer to mate with males of their own species (because hybrids are usually at a disadvantage), and frequently rely on sound signals to make their choice. This selective pairing leads, over time, to the accumulation of genetic differences between species.

Male birds, frogs and toads, some mammals and many insects use sound signals to attract females. In the 1950’s and 1960’s as sound recording in nature became practical, scientists documented many cases where what was thought to be one species was actually composed of two or more groups that produced different sounds and did not interbreed; that is, the groups met the definition of being different species. For example, after the first decade of sound recording and study, the number of recognized species of crickets in eastern North American more than doubled, as scientists, among them Borror and his students, described song differences. Many similar examples have accumulated in birds also, especially in the 5,000 or so species of song birds.

Of course, every bird watcher knows that a good way to recognize many species is by their song. But the scientific basis for this common knowledge derives from the recordings deposited in sound archives such as the BLB. In addition to being crucial in identifying species, animal sounds are also used to arrange species into higher categories (genera, families, etc.) and also play a role in the study of animal behavior. Many if not most songs of song birds vary geographically and over time. Collections like the BLB contain a rich array of recordings going back to 1948 allowing us to study how sounds vary between species and over time.

About the Author: Dr. Doug Nelson is Director of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics.

 

Welcome to the OSU Bio Museum blog

 

Today I have the pleasure to welcome you to OSU Bio Museum, a blog about biodiversity, research and museum work at the Ohio State Museum of Biological Diversity.  This endeavor is the successor to our newsletter. That effort lived in both the physical and digital worlds, but to keep up with the times and changing needs, the blog is a wholly digital enterprise. The purpose remains the same, though: to share with the community the happenings, news, and successes (and sometimes failures) of the Museum. Our plan is to have weekly postings during the academic semester, with the post authors rotating among the different units in the Museum. We will also feature a Media Gallery every week. My objective in this inaugural post is to briefly describe what those units are and how the Museum is organized and functions.

The Museum, let’s call it the MBD for short, coalesced in its present form in 1992 when the University moved the bulk of the biological collections from the Columbus campus to a newly renovated building on West Campus, at our current address of 1315 Kinnear Road.

Museum of Biological Diversity on 1315 Kinnear Road.

Museum of Biological Diversity on 1315 Kinnear Road

For more than 20 years the MBD has been a bit of a strange beast in that it has been a voluntary association among the collections rather than a real, defined administrative unit. Originally, most of the collections were administered by the Departments of Botany, Zoology, and Entomology. Two or three reorganizations later the primary department is Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology (EEOB for short) in the College of Arts & Sciences, and a smaller component associated with the Department of Entomology in the College of Food, Agriculture & Environmental Sciences (CFAES). The Entomology connection is a new one as of September 1, 2015, a reflection of a change in my formal appointment to 75% EEOB and 25% Entomology.

Museum IconThe overall mission of the MBD, just as the University as a whole, is teaching, research, and service. Inside the building we have, of course, the collections themselves, but also office and lab space for faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, emeriti and undergraduate students. The most glaring absence, though, is space dedicated to public exhibits. We compensate for that in two ways, our annual Museum Open House and guided tours of the facility. The tours are organized on an appointment basis only and have encompassed a wide range of groups, from elementary school kids and scout groups to University President’s Club members.  Anyone interested in scheduling a guided tour of the Museum should contact us, or contact one of the collections directly to make arrangements. It’s my personal aspiration that in the future it may be possible to develop exhibit space for the public in the building, but that’s still just a gleam in my eye!

If you have not done so yet, please visit the Museum website and follow our Facebook page.

So far I’ve referred to the units of the MBD without much explanation. What are they? Well, there are seven main collections: the Triplehorn Insect Collection (which I direct, but for which Dr. Luciana Musetti is the real driving force); the Acarology Laboratory (led by Dr. Hans Klompen), the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (led by Dr. Doug Nelson), the Herbarium (Dr. John Freudenstein), the Division of Molluscs (Dr. Tom Watters), the Division of Tetrapods (Ms. Stephanie Malinich), and the Division of Fishes (Dr. Meg Daly). The naming system, as I write this, must seem very confusing – what’s a collection vs. a division? The names are historical artifacts that, perhaps, made some sense at one time, but now they’re all basically equivalent. As you’ll see in my descriptions below and in future posts, there is a lot of variation among collections in their size, staffing, history and aspirations. So let’s go through the seven units:

Triplehorn collection icon, genus NeomidaCharles A. Triplehorn Insect Collection. The insect collection contains about 4 million prepared specimens, nearly 3,000 primary types, and one of the world’s largest leafhopper collections. The collection formally began in 1934 by Prof. Josef N. Knull, and has strong holdings in beetles (Coleoptera), Hemiptera (true bugs and hoppers), Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps), Odonata (dragon- and damselflies) and Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets). Originally the specimens largely came from the United States, but we have expanded significantly since then. Recent collecting trips have been made to Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and Malaysia (Sarawak). Ongoing research is focused on the systematics of parasitic wasps and the development of information technologies to share specimen data and images globally.

To know more about the Triplehorn collection, visit the website and follow the collection’s lively social media presence, which include the Pinning Block blog, a Facebook page, a Flickr image site & a Twitter feed.


Yellow mite (Lorryia formosa)Acarology Laboratory.  Initiated by George W. Wharton in 1951, the Acarology collection is considered one of the best and most extensive insect and mite collections in North America. Over 150,000 identified and considerably more than one million unidentified specimens are included, preserved either in alcohol or on microscope slides. The geographic range is worldwide. The collection gets extensive use during the annual Acarology Summer Program, the foremost training workshop in systematic acarology in the world.

More information about the Acarology Lab can be found on their website. They also maintain the Acarology Summer Program website.


Borror Lab iconBorror Laboratory of Bioacoustics. The Borror lab is one of the leading collections of animal sound recordings in the United States. The Laboratory is named for Dr. Donald J. Borror, and entomologist and ornithologist who was a pioneer in the field of bioacoustics. He contributed many recordings including the first sound specimen in the archive, a recording of a blue jay in 1948. Today, the sound collection contains over 42,000 recordings, the majority of which are birds. Donald Borror also contributed many recordings of insects. Mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and even fish are part of the collection. The recordings are widely used for research, education, conservation, and public and commercial media.

Visit the Borror Lab website for more information and make sure to check their audio CDs.


Ohio Buckeye in bloom

Herbarium. The OSU Herbarium was founded in 1891 by Dr. William A. Kellerman,well-known botanical explorer of Central America, pioneer mycologist (that’s fungi!), and the University’s first professor of botany. It serves as a source of botanical data and as a base of operations for a wide variety of taxonomic, evolutionary, phytogeographical, and biochemical research programs; preserves specimens as vouchers to document present and past research studies or vegetation patters; serves as a reference point for the precise identification of plants, algae, protists, fungi and lichens; and serves the public by identifying plant specimens, providing morphological, systematic, and other information about plant species, and answering questions about plants, their properties and uses. The Herbarium currently holds over 550,000 specimens, including over 420 type specimens.

For more information about the Herbarium visit their website.


Molluscs icon

Molluscs. The Mollusc Division is really a collection of collections, containing over 1 million specimens in 140,000 lots. Over the years a number of private and institutional collections have been organized into the collection here today. The earliest large accession was that of Henry Moores (1812-1896) and was worldwide, both fossil and recent. Moores assembled one of the most diverse collections of labeled shells of that period. The University purchased this collection around 1890, added several private collections to it, and cataloged the material as part of the holdings of the first organization of the Ohio State University Museum in 1891. This collection and others were given to the Ohio State Museum on Campus in 1925, maintained and enlarged for nearly half a century, then returned to the administration of the University in 1970.

The Division of Molluscs has an interesting blog, Shell-fire and Clam-nation, and a website.


Tetrapod icon

Tetrapods. The Division of Tetrapods (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) is a repository of Ohio and North American species and some worldwide research expeditions. The collections were established shortly after the founding of The Ohio State University in 1870 and grew through the collecting efforts of OSU faculty. Specimens date as far back as 1837 and include many now-protected species as well as extinct species such as the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, and Passenger Pigeon. The collection houses more than 170 amphibian, 200 reptile, almost 2,000 bird and 250 mammal species.

To learn more about the OSU Tetrapod collection, visit their website and their blog, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals.


Bowfin (Amia calva) skeleton

Fish. The Fish Division began with the collections of D. Albert Tuttle, OSU’s first zoologist. Officially recognized in 1895, the fish collection grew and moved from the Botany and Zoology Building to OSU’s Biological Station at Cedar Point, to the Ohio State Historical Society, to the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory on Gilbraltar Island, to Sullivant Hall, and finally (whew!) to its current location as part of the Museum of Biological Diversity. The collection is primarily used as a resource for systematics research, laboratory teaching, and public education. It is also a resource for state and federal scientists who use it as a basis for comparative studies, document the geographic ranges of fish, and conduct ecological assessments and environmental impact statements.

Visit the Fish Division website for more information about their activities.

We hope you enjoy the blog and please send us your feedback!

 

About the AuthorDr. Norman F. Johnson is a Professor with appointments in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology & the Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University. He is also the Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection. Norman studies the systematics and evolution of parasitoid wasps in the family Platygastridae (Hymenoptera).