Staff Spotlight – Grant Terrell

Grant Terrell proudly presenting a specimen of yellow-bellied marmot

Grant Terrell proudly presenting a yellow-bellied marmot

We sat down with Grant Terrell, the Curatorial Assistant for the Tetrapod Collection, to learn more about him and his role within OSU’s Museum of Biological Diversity.

Hilary: “Are you a student at OSU?”
Grant: “Yes, this is my third year at OSU. When I first started my education here, I was an evolution and ecology major in the EEOB department, but I later added a history double major and a paleontology minor.”

Hilary: “What is your job at the Museum of Biological Diversity?”
Grant: “I’m currently the Curatorial Assistant for the Tetrapod Collection.”

Hilary: “How long have you been in this role?”
Grant: “I’ve been in this role for about 6 or 7 months now, so not too long, but I’ve been with the museum for three years. I actually had my first day of work before my first day of class at OSU! I reached out to the museum before I was a student, as I really wanted to work at the museum and it was a deciding factor in whether or not there was a place for me at Ohio State, as I was so fascinated with museum life and and I wanted to be a part of it. So, eventually I was hired as a Research Assistant, doing basic curatorial tasks, then moved onto Curatorial Assistant and am now the acting Collections Manager.”

Hilary: “What is a tetrapod?”
Grant: “The modern way to define it would be a group that contains mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds – their last common ancestor and then everything in between. So, dinosaurs are tetrapods, mammoths are tetrapods, and so on. Modern biology uses these types of definitions (they’re called clade-based definitions) for groups so as to avoid the arbitrary things that you can gain or lose in evolution – like legs.”

these are tetrapods: bullfrog, turtle, hedghog, squirrel, birds

These are all tetrapods

Hilary: “Why is it important to study tetrapods?”
Grant: “The Earth is a system and it depends on the inner workings of many organismal groups. Tetrapods are only one component of this system, so I believe studying tetrapods is only as important as the study of any of these other groups. Still, it’s rather impossible for one person to comprehensively study all components of this system, and so we are forced to specialize.”

Hilary: “What is your favorite part about working in the Tetrapod Collection?”
Grant: “Being surrounded by diversity at all times of the day. For my spring break, I took a trip to Costa Rica (which is a biodiversity hotspot), but the diversity of animals in the tetrapod collection is at a magnitude much more dense than what I’ve ever experienced before, even in Costa Rica. And it is all right here in the museum – just drawers and drawers of specimens who have unique stories behind them.”

Hilary: “What is a discovery that you’ve made while working here?”
Grant: “When you start skinning and preparing the specimens, every mammal or bird, even something as common as a house sparrow – every single one is different. Not a single one is the same and when you’re with this specimen for hours preparing it, you start thinking about it’s life – about how it grew up, what it did throughout its day, what it was doing before it died – just with each individual one, you recognize that no one specimen is the same.”

Hilary: “You mention ‘skinning’ and ‘preparing’ specimens – can you elaborate on this? Is this something that you do on a day-to-day basis?”
Grant: “Typically, what I create are called study skins, which are different from taxidermy mounds. Taxidermy is more of an art form where you’re trying to depict an animal in a realistic lifelike pose, while study skins are to give you more of a general shape and visual idea of that particular individual, so you can look at things like molt patterns, color variations, differences in measurements – and they’re made to fit into a museum drawer. Preparing a specimen can sometimes feel like performing surgery, as some of the specimens that we receive have injuries, so you have to be careful with the work that you’re doing so as not to further damage the specimen.”

“Usually just about once a week at most I’ll do skinning because it’s so time consuming and once you’ve started on a skinning project, you can’t necessarily stop. But, if a specimen needs prepared, I prioritize by what I have time to do, what we have room for, and what would be valuable for the collection.”

Hilary: “Do you get these specimens as donations?”
Grant: “The majority of what we get is what we call “salvage” – specimens that are road kills or who have been victims of window strikes. In the past, people would kill the animals in the wild to add to the collection – those specimens are known as voucher specimens, which is essentially taking the species for educational purposes.”

The word "strike" is spelled out of bird study skins

“STRIKE”-An art installation created to represent building fatalities in birds. ©Amy Youngs, 2015

Hilary: “What projects are being worked on now?”
Grant: “One of the biggest projects we’re working on now is to rebuild a relationship with the zoo to try to get future deceased specimens from them. The museum used to have a relationship with the zoo many years ago, but as the years went on there was a breakdown in the relations and we haven’t been getting regular specimens from them since the 70’s, so we’re currently working on building that relationship again. A lot of the animals at the zoo are critically endangered, so we want to preserve as many endangered specimens as we can for study, data collection, and genetic analysis for future generations.”

barbet specimens from the Columbus Zoo

Barbets from the Columbus Zoo

“There’s also a lot of active research going on in the collections, and one of the big things that troubles us is space – we never have enough space and so we are working on acquiring more storage units – and we’re also undertaking projects to optimize space – such as pulling some of the older specimens that don’t necessarily have any data and trying to make room for the ones that do, so that we can add more to the collection.
I am also working on supervising weekly mammal preparations. I myself have only recently been trained in this- bird prep remains my forté – but I recently prepared a Douglas Squirrel and a Yellow-bellied Marmot, the first of its species in the collection. I plan to prepare a porcupine which we have in our freezer and I am expecting this to be quite the undertaking.”

tree squirrel specimens prepared by Grant Terrell

Tree squirrels prepared by student volunteers

Hilary: “Is everything in the collection used for research?”
Grant: “Most of it. There’s also what we call a “teaching collection” – a lot of which is stuff that is older and outside of Ohio and it’s not as valuable for research, so we usually use it for teaching and outreach.”

Hilary: “What is the craziest thing you have found in the collection?”
Grant: “A dried sheep’s stomach inside of a manila envelope. It was just sitting in a random drawer and I was going through the collection one day, trying to catalogue items that hadn’t been catalogued and I opened up the envelope and there’s this sheep’s stomach. It didn’t have any information associated with it, except a tag that said “ovis,” which is the genus that sheep’s are in.”

“Another one is a raccoon specimen that we received, who had died after getting its head caught in a mason jar and the person who had prepared the specimen had left the rim of the jar around the neck of the specimen as a reminder to how the animal had died. I like that one because, to me, it symbolizes what I was saying earlier about every one of these individuals having a story and a life behind it. It reminds you not to take all of these specimens that we have here for granted.”

Hilary HirtleAbout the Author: Hilary Hirtle is the Faculty Affairs Coordinator at the OSU Department of Family Medicine; her interest in natural history brings her to the museum to interview faculty and staff and use her creative writing skills to report about her experiences.

Squirreling in the Pacific Northwest

You may have heard that researchers discovered a new species of flying squirrel. These squirrels had lived in plain sight for decades but only recently did Brian Arbogast and colleagues investigate the DNA of some of these animals. Their findings were revealing: The Pacific squirrels cluster separately from the northern and southern flying squirrel. The researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA as well as microsatellite data to reveal this new evolutionary relationship.

Note: Mitochondrial DNA and microsatellites are parts of a species’ genome that are regularly used to construct evolutionary trees. In addition to the DNA in every cell’s nucleus in our body, mitochondria, the energy powerhouses in our cells, have their own genome. This mitochondrial genome is relatively small, is inherited from the mother only and has relatively high mutation rates. It is like a small clonal lineage within an organism which makes it ideal for evolutionary studies.   Microsatellites are short sequence repeats in the nuclear genome that do not produce proteins. Thus they are free to mutate at a higher rate than coding sequences – mutations will not mess up protein production- and they frequently vary in length and thus reveal relationships among organisms. 

A few weeks ago, before this study was published, 2 species of flying squirrels were considered to exist in North America, the northern and the southern flying squirrel. Here in Ohio the northern flying squirrels is resident – it is nocturnal though, that’s why you probably have not seen one yet.

Map showing distribution of now 3 species of flying squirrels

Map showing distribution of now 3 species of flying squirrels

DNA analysis showed that the coastal squirrels in Washington and Oregon are distinct from their northerly relatives and that they actually only co-occur with them at 3 sites in the Pacific Northwest. Northern and the newly described Humboldt’s flying squirrel do not interbreed at these sites. By the way, the researchers named the new species Glaucomys oregonensis because the specimen that was used to describe the species was collected in Oregon.

You may recall from a previous post, that Dr. Andreas Chavez in our department of EEOB studies relationships among squirrels in a different genus, Tamiasciurus, the red squirrel T. hudsonicus and the Douglas squirrel T. douglasii. These two species share habitat in the Pacific Northwest and they do hybridize.

Dr. Chavez was not available for an interview for his thoughts on the new species description of flying squirrels, because he is currently pursuing his own fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest. He and his field assistant Stephanie Malinich are collecting data to better understand the hybrid zone dynamics between the Douglas and red squirrel.

We will give you an update on Dr. Chavez’ research once he returns.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and writing this post for Stephanie Malinich, collection manager of the tetrapods collection. Stephanie is currently doing fieldwork on the red and the Douglas squirrel in the Pacific Northwest.

Samsara – Cyclicality of life

Another video of re-animated life produced by a student in the Moving Image Art class organized by Amy Youngs, Associate Professor of Art:

Samsara – Cyclicality of life by Yuntian Zang: Inspired by the antlers on the wall, a deer goes wandering …

THANK YOU Stephanie Malinich, collection manager of Tetrapods, for facilitating the students’ visit.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the outreach and multi-media coordinator at the Museum of Biological Diversity and facilitates visits of school classes and students.

*** Which of these animals is your favorite? ***

Our big day is tomorrow

Tomorrow, Saturday April 22, from 10 AM – 4 PM we will open our doors and welcome all of you to visit our hidden treasures in the natural history collections of The Ohio State University. Stop by and talk to the curators who meticulously keep these specimens and make them available to students and researchers for study throughout the year. This is your chance each year to see what we do and to support our efforts.

The event is FREE and so is parking. We will have many activities for children including face painting, the very popular bugs-in-goo, a live arthropod zoo … and this year new, for anyone over 15 years, guided sessions on scientific illustration, drawing natural history specimens.

Enjoy some photos from last year events

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The set-up for tomorrow is in full swing, here is what I have seen so far

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About the Author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and coordinates social media and outreach at the museum.

*** We hope to see you tomorrow ***

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.


*** Do you have any questions? We would be happy to answer them ***


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.


*** We would like to hear from you – please leave a comment ***

Variety in a museum collection

While working in the collection or giving tours, I often find myself quoting Disney’s The Little Mermaid:

“Look at this stuff!
Isn’t it neat!
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?”

We have thousands of specimens, many of them multiples of the same species.  You may wonder what the value of having hundreds of examples of the same species is. What can we learn from multiple American Robins (Turdus migratorius) or Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that can’t be learned from just one?

To help answer this question let’s think of the collection as a library. And each species is a single book on a shelf. Each specimen represents an individual page within that book telling it’s own story of the what, when, who, where and why it lived it’s life. As a species begins to change over time we can show that process through the multiple individuals of a species in our collections. Our collections may never be complete but as you examine trays of species you learn the story of what makes that species unique.

Now when you look at the examples of our multiple specimen species trays, try to see if you can see how we get generic descriptions or illustrations of species. Also look at how different each individual looks when compared to others on the tray.

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Stephanie Malinich, collection manager Tetrapods

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


*** We would like to hear from you – please leave a comment ***

End-of-year stats

As we near the end of 2016, you probably read various statistics about events that happened during the past year. We at the museum of Biological Diversity are, for example, interested in how many species have become known to science and how many have gone extinct during the last year.

I came across a list of 13 bird species that had to be declared extinct during 2016. A quick search on VertNet – an online database that aggregates occurrence records from many natural history museums around the world and is accessible to everyone for free over the Internet – so check it out! – reveals that at least some of these extinct species will live on as specimens in natural history collections. These birds all lived on islands and have actually only recently become known to science as distinct species. They will not live longer in the wild, but some will be accessible in museum collections. Here researchers can study them to find out how these species lived and their findings may help prevent extinctions of related species in the future. That’s why we need to keep preserving our specimens!

Below are some photos of the Vermilion Flycatchers in our collection, the males have bright red plumage with black, the females are more subtle in their coloration. Metadata are important with each specimens, including where the bird was found. When some island populations of a species get split off into their own species we can then update our database. We do not have what is now known as the least vermilion flycatcher, our specimens are from Brazil, Texas, Colorado and one skin from Ohio. You may have guessed, the latter was prepared by Milton Trautman in 1958, collected by William G. Porter in Clark county. Only few records of this species exist in Ohio. On eBird, an online database of bird observations, I found only four additional sightings in 1956, 2001, 2009 and the latest in 2010.

The following three species exist in natural history museums, mostly in large collections such as the American Museum of Natural History, but also in smaller ones like the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History where one of the Laysan Honeycreepers can be found. Here are the numbers:

19 specimens of Laysan Honeycreeper Himatione fraithii
166 specimens of Least Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus dubius
2 specimens of Marianne White-eye Zosterops semiflavus 

You may remember from our fundraiser last October that the OSU tetrapods collection also holds specimens of several extinct species. Let’s hope that we do not have to add any new bird species to our already extinct species in 2017.  Happy New Year!


Successful Fundraiser allows specimens to be rolled into safety

Have you ever wondered how natural history museums store some of their priceless and unique specimens?  Though all museum specimens could be considered priceless and unique, some specimens may be the last representation of their species, known as extinct species. Other specimens are the very first of their species to be described, known as type specimens. Both of these groups of specimens are truly unique  in collections, some museums may never have any of these rare specimens. Our Tetrapod Collection does possess irreplaceable specimens of extinct species and  in October we ran a campaign to raise funds to better store and preserve such exclusive specimens.

We dedicated the month of October to tetrapods and filled it with social media posts about wintering strategies of various animals, thoughts on natural history, photo galleries, and videos illustrating what our collection means to the students, staff, and faculty of The Ohio State University. With the help of Devon Olding Videography, we made several short films highlighting our extinct species, storage of specimens, how we make specimens. Stephanie gave public outreach talks for Columbus Audubon and at the Ohio Avian Research Conference highlighting the importance of natural history collections.

Some specimens of extinct bird species in their current cabinet

Some specimens of extinct bird species in their current cabinet

A special thank you goes out to our students who worked on blog posts, helped with social media posts for Instagram and Twitter, and assisted with the design of our handouts to publicize the event.

Flier advertising Roll it out to safety campaignAt the end of our campaign, we exceeded our goal of $5,500! With the raised funds we will purchase a new cabinet on wheels, trays, and acid free tray liners to ensure that our extinct species will last for hundreds more years. Very different than a cabinet found in your kitchen, a museum-quality heavy-duty metal cabinet is made to last and protect the specimens from hazards such as pests or water. Additional funds will go towards a new display cabinet to allow us to show-off our species of the month during tours.

We want to thank all of you who helped share our posts and videos and a special thank you to those who donated to the campaign. We hope you had fun learning about tetrapods, The Ohio State University’s Tetrapod Collection in particular and what our collection means to our students, faculty and staff – more about this in Friday’s post.


Stephanie Malinich, collection manager TetrapodsAbout the Author: Stephanie Malinich is collection manager of the OSU tetrapods collection.

Views from a student intern in the tetrapods collection

Intern Josh after taking down some old shelving units – all as planned

Interning this summer at The Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity has been an eye-opening experience that allowed me to take part in the day-to-day tasks that keep the museum up and running. I was lucky enough to work in the tetrapod division which contains some of my favorite animals such as birds and amphibians.

catalog scan

Sample of a Catalog Scan

My first project of the summer was scanning our entire specimen catalog so that we can access the information electronically. Although it was a little tedious to scan hundreds of pages, I was able to make all of that information easily accessible on the computer. This should help the collection be more efficient as well as help researchers who are using the museum’s specimens.

A sparrow being examined before becoming a study skin ©Malinich, 2016

A sparrow being examined before becoming a study skin © Malinich, 2016

I also prepared multiple bird specimens during my internship including a couple of House Sparrows, American Robins, and an American Tree Sparrow. Prior to the internship I had only prepared one specimen, so I was able to learn some useful techniques that helped me improve my skills. It was a privilege to learn hands-on from an expert in the art of skinning.


Another one of my duties this summer was georeferencing. I was responsible for determining the latitude and longitude of each specimen for a specific state. I did this by using the locality description that was provided by the collector of the specimen and a map program on the computer. Having a specific location for each specimen will be more helpful for researchers.

The final task of the summer was taking down the old shelving units that were rusting. This involved a lot of physically moving specimens around and trips to the loading dock.

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Getting rid of the rusty old shelving units cleared space for the new ones that match the rest of our collection. This job made the collection much cleaner and more ascetically pleasing.


Overall I had a great experience here this summer, I learned a lot about all the ins and outs that keep a research museum functioning. I look forward to returning for an open house in the future.


About the Author: Josh Elger was a Summer 2016 Intern for the Tetrapod Division. He is currently working on a B. S. from Ohio Dominican University.