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.

Striking Out: Building Strike Collections

Students and staff posing with birding binoculars and scopes

OSU students and staff participating in Biggest Week in American Birding in Northern Ohio. ©Stephanie Malinich, 2012

As a bird-watcher, spring is my favorite time of the year. Every spring millions of birds start to migrate from their wintering grounds to their summer breeding grounds. Surprising to most people, many birds migrate at night and typically you will not see large flocks of small birds traveling throughout the day. Spring migration can be a great time to see new species of birds that may not live in your state year round and this is a time for celebrating birds. But this joyous time for birders can also be an incredibly fatal time for birds that have traveled thousands of miles on their migratory pathway to their nesting grounds.

An estimated 500,000,000 bird fatalities occur in North America each year due to anthropogenic sources including collisions with building (Erickson et al 2005). Yes, this is correct, 500 million birds! This number is especially heightened by the peak migration times of spring and fall, when birds migrating at night are most likely to die: Night migrating birds have always used light to orient themselves and usually the moon and stars are the only light sources in the night sky. However nowadays brightly-lit buildings disorient these birds causing them to collide with windows in buildings. Typically, birds are trying to closely approach the light source (similar to insects around a street lamp) or circle the light source (in this case the building) until a point of complete exhaustion.

Yellow colored warbler with black bill

A Blue-winged Warbler collided with a downtown Columbus building. © Stephanie Malinich, 2016

This makes building collisions a top fatality to birds on their migratory pathway. Actions since this discovery have been taken to lower the numbers of building fatalities, e.g. through the national effort of  Lights Out programs by the Audubon society. The overall goal of the Lights Out programs are to work with building managers in major cities to reduce the amount of light at night during peak migration season. Not only will this help reduce fatalities for nocturnally migrating birds but reduce energy costs for building owners – a win-win situation.

Many of Ohio’s major cities such as Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton, and Toledo have participated in Light’s Out Programs. Active in Ohio since 2012, researchers have worked with managers of some familiar buildings such as the AEP corporate headquarters, Columbia Gas, Columbus City Hall, Grange Insurance Audubon Center, and more on reducing lights at nights during peak migration seasons. Are you curious about Columbus’s impact on bird building collisions? Columbus Lights Out monitoring report from 2012-2013 gives insights into how lights on buildings in Columbus are affecting the amount of collision death and injury in birds.

Dead bird on sidewalk

Blackburnian Warbler collected by Lights Out Columbus volunteers for a study of building collisions. ©Lights Out Columbus, 2013

What do programs such as Lights Out, which survey injured and dead birds, mean for museum collections around these major cities? For Columbus it meant that birds found dead were submitted to the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Tetrapod Collection, where they are now used as tools in teaching students and making them aware of the impact buildings can have on bird populations. In the two years when we collaborated with the Columbus Lights Out program we received over 200 bird specimens which had died from building collisions in downtown. These now remain as vouchered specimens in our collection, as physical proof, as well as scientific tool, on the impact that building collections have during migration season.

Overall as collection manager, I see a huge increase in our bird salvage intake during spring. This is primarily due to citizen scientists who find birds that have struck windows on their house, work buildings, etc., and want to make sure the birds death was not in vain. On average the Tetrapod collection receives close to 100 bird specimens with suspected death from building collision each year. This April and May alone, I have already received 15 bird species that have died from impacts with windows or buildings and spring migration is not yet close to completion. If you find a dead bird and do not  know what do with it, please visit the museum’s Contribute Specimens webpage to learn about how to donate a specimen to the Tetrapod Collection. Are you worried that your home may be adding to building fatalities among birds? The Lights Out program has suggestions on how you can stop bird collisions at your home or feel free to contact us for some suggestions.
Are you curious to find out more about what can be done to make others aware of window or building collisions by birds during spring migration? See pictures of what Ohio State University’s BioPresence project has done to raise awareness in their art exhibition last fall.


About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is Collection Manager of the OSU Tetrapod Collection.


Reference: Erickson, Wallace P.; Johnson, Gregory D.; Young, David P. Jr. (2005). “A summary and comparison of bird mortality from anthropogenic causes with an emphasis on collisions.” In: Ralph, C. John; Rich, Terrell D., editors 2005. Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas: Proceedings of the Third International Partners in Flight Conference. 2002 March 20-24; Asilomar, California, Volume 2 Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191. Albany, CA: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station: p. 1029-1042