Adventures in Flight Exhibit

We sent some of our specimens on a summer retreat, so that you can enjoy them. Bats, birds and their sounds are on display at the Adventures in Flight Exhibit at three parks in Delaware county: Deer Haven Park, Shale Hollow Park, and Gallant Farm

Each park’s exhibit has a different focus, at Deer Haven park birds rule – not only inside the nature center but also at the feeders outside. I did see a racoon sneak by though during my visit, but that’s a different story.

When you walk into the nature center, a friendly volunteer greets all visitors, explains that following last year’s Ice Age and dinosaur-era exhibit, this year’s exhibit showcases the only non-extinct dinosaurs, birds.

The first display highlights blue birds from all over our Blue Planet. A hummingbird from Brazil, a jay from Mexico and an Indigo Bunting from the USA. The oh so blue Cerulean Warbler greets people at the entrance desk.

display of different wings for different things

Further you will find differently shaped bird wings which allow speedy flight in some and gliding in others.

sound kiosk & acknowledgementsThe sound kiosk with various drumming patterns of woodpeckers and a snippet from BirdNote, a nonprofit radio program dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, is tucked in the corner right next to the “window on nature” with great looks at various bird species visiting the numerous feeders. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird landed during my visit and drank leisurely from the provided sugar water solution.

In the neighboring room, bird skulls illustrate and highlight the enormous variability in size and shape among birds. Compare a hummingbird skull to a Bald Eagle!

On to the next park:

Shale Hollow park is only a short drive south from Deer Haven, you actually pass it on your way back to Columbus.

The exhibit is well worth a stop: Enter a darkened room to learn about bats, fireflies and moths! Insects and bats are the theme here, including butterflies (a tent with life butterflies is soon to open!).

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display explaining Bird FlightA poster gives basic information about the anatomy of flight and why some animals fly and we do not – at least not using our arms as wings, we built machines to take us into the air. To explore man-made flight visit the third of the exhibits at Gallant Farm.

note for Gallant Farm exhibit

Can you guess what’s inside this flower?

On my way out I discovered a microscope for smartphones – obviously I still have to practice perfecting my images, but you can guess the intricate patterns of this dragonfly’s wing.

I really enjoyed the exhibits which also showcase specimens from the Natural History Museum at Ohio Wesleyan University. Thank you Liz Neroni for working with us on these displays and letting some of our specimens be part of this exciting summer exhibit – and of course there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors while you visit each of these exhibit sites. Enjoy!

About the Author: Angelika Nelson on her last assignment as the social media outreach manager for the Museum of Biological Diversity.




7/17/2023: Post edited. Broken link removed.

Theme(s) and Variation(s)

A few weeks ago Ardine Nelson, Professor Emerita, OSU Department of Art’s Photography program, and Fredrik Marsh, instructor at Columbus College of Art & Design and The Ohio State University, visited our Insect, Fish and Tetrapods collections in order to take photographs of specimens for a new series featuring specimens from EEOB’s Museum of Biological Diversity.

Why Museum specimens? To quote Ardine: “Since my first visit to an open house at the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity, I remain intrigued by the specimens. They are beautiful, terrifying, and at times even repulsive, yet they are a visual curiosity with an innate quality that draws one in even closer.”

Ardine showcases photographs of specimens, in their drawers, just like they are preserved in the museum collection. Her master piece in this show is The Research Board (last one in this slide show).

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Fred features scans of specimens, most of them larger than life-size.

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To appreciate the large photographs and scans you have to see them yourself. The first selection is on display at the Fort Hayes Shot Tower gallery where you can admire their stunning art Monday – Friday 8am-5pm until April 27 (Please note, the gallery is closed for spring break March 30 – April 8). More information about the exhibit and the artists can be found through ColumbusMakesArt.

One of Grant Terrell’s specimen sheets is featured in this photo – the remains of an American Kestrel:

A big THANK YOU to the curators of the collections, Marc Kibbey (Fishes), Luciana Musetti (Insects) and collection manager Grant Terrell (Tetrapods) for hosting the artists and providing access to specimens!

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and the social media manager for the Museum of Biodiversity.

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.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio

Dragonfly at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

Dragonfly at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

The Triplehorn Insect Collection is beginning a collaborative project to survey the dragonflies and damselflies of Ohio.

These spectacular aerial predators are surprisingly diverse: currently 164 species have been recorded in the state. Brilliant colors and striking markings make them the songbirds of the insect world. The immature stages of all species are aquatic, and these animals are found in lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.  Although many dragonflies and damselflies are common, a number are listed as threatened or endangered.

This new Ohio Odonata Survey is scheduled to last 3 years. The work will be done together with the ODNR Division of Wildlife, the Ohio Odonata Society, and a network of avid volunteers and citizen scientists across the state.

MaLisa Spring, an Entomologist and recent OSU graduate, just joined us as coordinator for all of these efforts.  She will be working out of the Triplehorn Insect Collection in Columbus, and will be actively interacting with participants around the state.

Information on the project can be found in the newly created Ohio Odonata Survey website.  Project activities will also be widely advertised on social media.

Ohio naturalists are invited to contribute to the project. If you have images that can help document the distribution and seasonality of the various species of dragonflies and damselflies in our state, please check out the guidelines.

Finally, the Ohio Odonata Society will be holding its 2017 annual meeting, ODO-CON-17 on 23-25 June at the Grand River Conservation Campus in Rock Creek, OH.


Photos by L. Musetti (dragonflies) & Huayan Chen (damselfly).

About the Author: Dr. Norman F. Johnson is an Entomologist, Professor at Ohio State University, and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

T-Shirt Design Contest – get creative

Back by popular demand we just opened submission for a T-Shirt design contest for our annual Museum Open House on Saturday April 22, 2017. Submit your artwork for the 2017 event now until Feb 1, 2017 at 5 pm EST. The contest is open to all OSU staff, students, and faculty with an OSU e-mail address. The winner will receive recognition and an event t-shirt featuring her/his design.

Our theme this year is the Web of Life, the myriad ways in which organisms are connected to one another and the natural world.

Be creative! We are looking for original designs that highlight the connectedness of organisms from across the tree of life. The design should include organisms from each of our collections: mites and ticks, animal sounds, insects, fishes, plants, clams and snails, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Read the detailed rules before you submit, only eligible entries can be considered.

Museum Open House artwork 2016 - Living Colors theme

Museum Open House artwork 2016 – Living Colors theme

Hoosier Fish

Shown below are photos portraying our work to bring the Tom Simon Collection to Columbus.  We are so thankful to Beth Simon, Tom’s wife of 37 years, for honoring Tom’s wishes to gift the collection to the museum.  Beth was a great source of encouragement (including lots of pizza, subs, cookies and drinks and a great attitude) and brought her daugher Lia and son Zachary to assist in the move.  Tom Simon’s family exhibits the qualities that Tom himself exemplified, a true testimony to his character.  May the arrows from Tom’s quiver always fly true.

The old church that Ichthyologist Tom Simon refurbished and transformed to his laboratory

The old church near Bloomington, Indiana that Ichthyologist Tom Simon refurbished and updated to function as his laboratory and fish repository



Marc Kibbey surveys all that he is now “master” of.  The truck was loaded so heavily on the third trip that Marc and Logan had to dig 1 foot under the lift gate to be able to fold it up.  On one of the steep hills along Indiana Route 46 the truck could only muster 25mph on the nighttime drive back, no doubt making the long line of drivers behind a bit testy.


Load up! Indiana DNR NonGame Fish Biologist Brant Fisher, Indiana University and Tom Simon student Logan Shank fill up the truck

Load up! Indiana DNR NonGame Fish Biologist Brant Fisher, Indiana University and Tom Simon student Logan Shank fill up the truck.


Truck full-o'-fish

Truck full-o’-fish


Bloaters, one of several fish species new to our collection (and one of many reasons i'm excited about this gift)!

Bloaters, one of several rare fish species new to our collection (and one of many reasons i’m excited about this gift)!


These three carts hold what is numerically the biggest portion of the acquisition, approximately 7 million fish larvae

These three carts hold what is numerically the biggest portion of the acquisition, approximately 7 million fish larvae!  These vouchers were used to help develop a six volume series, “Reproductive Biology and Early Life History of Fishes in the Ohio River Drainage“, co-written by Tom Simon.


Logan Shank (aka The Modest Viking), Tom Simon's student ( right of Brant Fisher) is a gentle giant who worked tirelessly on our small crew on the Indiana side.

Logan Shank (aka The Modest Viking), Tom Simon’s student ( right of Brant Fisher) is a gentle giant who worked tirelessly on our small crew on the Indiana side.

Fish Slingers on the Dock

Fish Slingers on the Dock.  Thanks you guys, and to all the rest that helped us in Indiana and at the Museum of Biological Diversity!

A time of giving – 10 million specimens

The Fish collection has undergone a dramatic growth spurt, more than doubling in size, through the gift of a collection of fishes held by Dr. Tom Simon. Our colleague served as an expert in fish and crayfish biodiversity for Indiana and taught courses on larval fish biology at OSU’s Stone Lab. The transfer of specimens was planned with Tom upon his retirement, but happened more quickly because of his sad, sudden passing.

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The relocation of the collection was spearheaded by Division of Fishes Curator Marc Kibbey, who served as logistics coordinator  and chief box mover for our three trips to the Bloomington facility where the material had been stored. Like so much of what we do, this move depended on the help of our students, volunteers, and colleagues, who showed up over several weekends to help us move thousands of boxes of specimens.

boxes organized for pick up

The students and friends helping in Bloomington organized boxes in advance of our arrival.

The Simon collection includes a synoptic collection of Indiana fish diversity plus extensive holdings of larval freshwater fish from across the US. It also contains historical collections that had been “orphaned” when institutions closed or experts retired. Unpacking and integrating the more than 10 million specimens we have acquired through this gift will occupy us for years to come. The tasks of accessioning, rehousing, and databasing the specimens are leavened by the opportunity to see so many fish, and to find some real gems within the collection.


About the Author: OSU Professor Meg Daly

Dr. Meg Daly is the Director of the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity, Professor in the department of Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology and manages the Lab of Marine Invertebrate Diversity.



Pre-Asian Carp Invasion: Muskingum River Survey


Photo of the Muskingum River from the National Weather Service

A little over two years ago a test of the Muskingum River using eDNA techniques showed positive results for Bighead Carp, one of several Asian carp species, and Northern Snakehead.  Although the Ohio Division of Natural Resources (ODNR) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sampled the Muskingum River extensively neither of these invasive species was actually caught.  It may be that the highly sensitive eDNA technique picked up genetic material from bird feet or boat bottoms that traveled from areas where the invasive species were well established, but that has yet to be proven conclusively.

The OSUM Fish Division is currently carrying out a project to survey the Muskingum River watershed from top to bottom under the supervision of project leader Brian Zimmerman, with a grant from the Ohio DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife, overseen by Associate Professor and MBD director Meg Daly. Fifty-five sites above, below and in each of the nine pools between the locks and dams of the mainstem, and 5 each along the two major tributaries of the Muskingum River, Muskingum River lock and dam Photo from the Ohio Canal Society, the Walhonding and the Tuscarawas Rivers, will be sampled.

Muskingum River lock and dam, Photo from the Ohio Canal Society

Muskingum River lock and dam, Photo from the Ohio Canal Society

The sampling techniques will include

  1. Electroshocking: as the name implies, this technique involves the application of electrical current to stun fish, causing them to remain immobile for crew members with pole nets to retrieve them and place them in a large tub in the boat.
  2. Seining: The use of 6’ tall x 8’ wide seine nets by two or three people in this project to sample shallow areas.
  3. Benthic Trawling: We take an 18’ flat bottomed John boat with two 25 horsepower outboard motors and drag a small “otter” trawl net along the bottom of the river.
  4. Hoop Netting: This method uses 3 sets of large mesh nets supported by iron hoops. The hoop nets are left out for two days after which we return and remove the fish from the nets. Read more about this technique on our fish blog.

With all of the methods the catch is identified, counted, measured and weighed, and returned except for any invasive species we may catch (fortunately no Silver or Bighead Carp have been caught!…yet…). We see a very high rate of survival of the captured fish and these are returned to the river.

The project will extend over two years, from July to September of 2016 and 2017, and will culminate in a final report providing an assessment of the Muskingum River fish community.  This information will provide a baseline for use in potential remediation efforts should the silver and/or bighead carp become established above the Devola Dam.

Technically all carp (Silver, Bighead, Grass, Common, Black, and Prussian carp, and Goldfish are the species currently established in the United States but there are at least four more – Crucian, Catlan, Mrigal and Mud Carp- are recognized as valid species) are Asian in origin.  Common Carp, by the way, are believed to have originally come from the Caspian Sea.  Back in the 1880’s the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries intentionally distributed Common Carp in rail cars across much of the United States to serve as a food fish, but the idea never caught on as extensively as hoped due to the habit of wild carp to scavenge the bottom of water bodies.

Common Carp are invasive, but are considered naturalized.  They can be deleterious to stream and lake bottoms, and do impact other fish, bird, and mollusk species as well as plants, but at this point the damage has been done, so to speak.  After nearly 140 years native fish and other animals have adapted to Common Carp.  Some fishermen and environmental agents prefer to kill Common Carp whenever they are caught, in many cases simply throwing them on the stream bank to suffocate, but in truth this has little if any effect on the population since their recruitment rate is extremely high.

Silver and Bighead Carp were brought to the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and escaped into the Mississippi River watershed from their state, federal and privately run facilities following extensive rains that overflowed the hatcheries.  In the Mississippi River and many tributaries they are securely established in abundances that impact native fish species and interfere with local trawling concerns.

Adult fish species that are known to be adversely affected by Silver and Bighead Carp are Gizzard Shad and Bigmouth Buffalo.  The dietary overlap of the carp with these native fishes has been shown to reduce the adults’ size and health.  In addition the high volume planktonic grazing employed by these carp is likely to compete for that food source with larvae and young-of-the-year of most other native fishes, ultimately causing a reduction in native populations.

Grass Carp are established in lakes and rivers across the State of Ohio.  Deleterious effects from this invader include removal of macrophytes (large aquatic plants) from stream bottoms with concurrent increases in turbidity.  The macrophytes provide cover and spawning habitat for many native organisms.  The carp only digest about 1/2 of the plants they eat, so the large amounts of fecal matter cause algal blooms.  The OSUM crew has caught several Grass Carp already, euthanizing and saving samples from them.

It is not known at this point what the remediation would consist of if Bighead or Silver Carp do invade the Muskingum River.  Similar to many other invasive species it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to completely eradicate them from waterways like the Muskingum River that have connections to other rivers that contain the species.  Short of completely damming the river (which carries its own set of ecological problems), or installing an electric barrier as has been done between the Illinois River and Lake Michigan, eradication would be short-lived.  It may be that the best approach would be to simply utilize the pests as a food source as has been done in Kentucky and other states, since their flesh is much more palatable than that of common carp.  If we catch any Bighead or Silver Carp (electroshocking works well for larger Silver Carp, while hoop netting is one of the best methods for Bigheads) they will be euthanized with samples taken for DNA analysis, but we really do hope that is not the case.


About the Author: Marc Kibbey is Associate Curator of the Fish Division at the Museum of Biological Diversity.

The call of the wild

Even though it’s the middle of the political crazy season, the call I’m referring is not a primal scream from a lectern, but a chorus of insects with only one thing on their mind. The 17-year cicadas have returned!

Here at the Triplehorn collection we’ve been fielding questions and visits for weeks now about the scheduled simultaneous emergence of the three species of Brood V. Finally, we couldn’t resist any longer, and we decided to go to see them. Actually, I guess they’ve been here all along, but it is the mass emergence of adults that attract all the attention. The rest of their lives, the cicadas live as nymphs in the soil, slowly and steadily feeding on the roots of trees. But then, every 17 years, for our local species, the nymphs crawl out of the soil and climb up trees to molt into the adult stage.

Norman Johnson at Clear Creek Metro Park

Norman Johnson at Clear Creek Metro Park

My reference to the brood hints at some of the intriguing complexity that surrounds these humble creatures. First, there are two types of periodical cicadas: those with 17-year life cycles and those with 13-year life cycles. Both are unique to eastern North America. (How cool is that!)  The 13-year variety is more southern, and the 17-year variety is more northern in distribution. Within cicadas with those two life-cycles there are multiple species: four of the 13-years, and three of the 17-years. Even more, there are 15 different “broods” in different areas, and each brood times their emergence for different years. So this year (2016) Brood V is emerging in eastern and southern Ohio (and beyond); Brood VIII will emerge in the easternmost counties of Ohio in 2019; and the big and widespread emergence right here in my own back yard will be Brood X in 2021. In each 17-year brood there are the three different species: with a little training they’re easy to distinguish both by eye and by their song.

Brood V consists of all three species of 17-year cicadas: Magicicada cassinii, Magicicada septendecim, and Magicicada septendecula

Map of Clear Creek Metro Park

Map of Clear Creek Metro Park

Last week we drove from Columbus southeast to Clear Creek Metro Park. We’d heard the cicadas there were out in good numbers. It wasn’t until we got past Lancaster that we began to be able to hear the cicadas singing, even though we were tooling down the highway at the posted speed limit. As we drove along the main road through the park, following the valley carved out by Clear Creek, we could clearly hear them singing. Instead of being surrounded by a steady drone, though, the cicadas seemed to be clustered in smaller patches. They were more up the sides of the hills than in the floor of the valley, so we headed uphill. Part of this park used to be owned by Ohio State where there were teaching and research labs at a place called Barneby, an area is situated on the hills above little Lake Ramona.


One of the few adult specimens we saw that evening

One of the few adult specimens of Magicicada we saw that evening. Photo by NF Johnson

At six in the evening the cicadas were still actively singing, but we actually saw very few adults. At this time of day they seemed to all be up in the tree canopy. The nymphs usually come out at night, crawl up the vegetation, and molt into the adult stage. The plants in the area had lots of evidence of this because the skins that were shed remain attached to the plants. They truly do look like little aliens and maybe just a little bit dangerous, with their enlarged front legs that look like they could grab hold of you. In fact, though, they’re harmless.

Exuviae: remains of cicada exoskeleton after they molted to adult stage

Exuviae: remains of cicada exoskeleton after they molted to adult stage

Many have probably seen these cast skins (exuviae) that are left behind by the common dog-day cicadas, the ones that are present every year, emerging usually in the second half of the summer. The 17-year cicadas are smaller. Also, I’ve usually seen dog-day cicada exuviae on the trunks of trees.  In contrast, the ones we saw this week were much more common on leaves and even on grasses. It looks like the cicadas crawl up as far as they possibly can, and when they get on a leaf their weight makes the leaf droop downwards. At that point the nymph’s head would be pointed toward the ground. They then turn around 180 degrees, and it’s in this position that they molt.

I must say that the flurry of reports in the newspapers and on television have been a real mixed bag of fact and fiction. Amidst the facts there are little nuggets that make me scratch my head and sigh. Some headlines have reported the emergence of a “plague.”(!) Now it is true that cicadas are also called “locusts,” but locust plagues are actually huge swarms of grasshoppers, not cicadas. These real plagues are particularly damaging because the grasshoppers are ravenous feeders and consume almost every plant in sight. Adult periodical cicadas, on the other hand, don’t feed at all. The only thing they do is mate and lay eggs to produce the next generation. If there’s any damage that the cicadas do, it’s with their egg-laying activity.

One newspaper article I saw claimed that the eggs were laid in the soil, but to that I say “Nay, nay.” At the tail end of a female cicada she has a needle-like appendage that she uses to insert her eggs into tree twigs. When there are high densities of cicadas, then, the incisions made in the twigs can be so abundant that they damage that year’s growth of the tips of the trees.

To learn more about periodical cicadas, there are lots of resources.  There are websites devoted to them. A couple of the more prominent are (Magicicada is the scientific name of these animals) and Both of these also have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. You can contribute data from sightings that will help us understand the finer details of the distribution of the different broods.

There’s a Facebook public group dedicated to the Ohio Brood V. There are lots of videos available online where you can both see and hear these fascinating beasts. I particularity enjoyed Return of the Cicadas, a short film by Samuel Orr, who’s been working an a documentary on cicadas since 2007.  Also, yesterday the Columbus Dispatch has a nice spread with pictures of various species of cicadas deposited here at our very own Triplehorn Insect Collection (see the online version here.)

There are more than 3,300 species of cicadas in the world (over 190 found in the USA), and we still have a lot to learn about them.

Walking the trails

Walking the trails and listening to the cicadas call

As a biologist, I learned that there are many truly fascinating environments in which we find the most amazing plants and animals. Most of these, though, are far away: tropical rain forests, deserts, cloud forests, karoo, etc. But here, literally in our own back yard, we have some of the most fascinating animals in all the world. Don’t miss out on the periodical cicacdas, because if you do, they won’t be back for a long time!


About the Author: Dr. Norman Johnson is an Entomologist, Professor and Director of the C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection at Ohio State University. Photos by L. Musetti, except when indicated otherwise.