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.


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The holy grail of sound recognition: a birdsong recognition app

Listen to the cacophony of bird sounds at dawn. Does it make you want to be able to tell which species chime in? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an app “listen” with you and list all the bird species that are vocalizing? You are not alone, this is what researchers have been and are still working on. If you are somewhat familiar with bird song, you can imagine that it is not an easy task. Every species has its own characteristic sounds. But even within a species every individual most likely sings more than one rendition of the species-specific song and does so with variations.

Listen to the songs of the Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler, three species in the wood warbler family, that commonly sing in Ohio in spring.

Here is an example of two different song types sung by the same Yellow Warbler male:

Training software

To develop a bird song recognition app, software needs to be trained with real bird songs. An animal sound archive that houses thousands of recordings is an ideal resource for this endeavor. The Borror lab has provided many of our 47,000+ recordings to different researchers. Recently, Dr. Peter Jančovic, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Birmingham, UK collaborated with us. He and his colleagues developed and tested an algorithm on over 33 hours of field recordings, containing 30 bird species (To put this in perspective, to-date 10,000 species of birds have been described and half of them are songbirds – so 30 species is really only the tip of the iceberg). But, his results are promising, the developed system recognizes bird species with an accuracy of 97.8% using 3 seconds of the detected signal. He presented these first results at the  International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing in Shanghai.

Sonogram of Yellow Warbler, not Yellow-throated Warbler song

The software correctly identified this sonogram as song from a Yellow Warbler.

Birdsong recognition apps

Some prototypes of birdsong recognition software and apps are already on the market.

bird song recognition apps: Warblr, Chirpomatic, Birdgenie

These are some of the already available bird song recognition apps that you may want to try.


Think of them as the Shazam of birdsong (For those of you not familiar with Shazam, it is an app that identifies music for you). Instead of sampling audio being played you record the bird’s song in question. The software will then compare features of the recorded sound against a database based on pre-recorded, identified sounds, a sound library.


Challenges and problems

This simple sounding process has challenges and problems: You need to get a really good recording of the bird you want to identify, i.e. no other birds singing nearby, no traffic noise, people talking or lawn mowers obscuring your target sound. Once you have managed this, a good app takes into account where in the world, even within the USA and within Ohio you recorded the song. Birds sing with local variations. Research in our lab has focused on this for many years: Birds learn their songs by imitating conspecific adults where they grow up and will incorporate any variations these birds sing in their repertoire. Thus the recorded sounds need to be compared to geographically correct songs of each species. Once the location has been set, the app needs to compare the recording to thousands of songs, because most of our songbirds sing at least 5 types of typical song, some sing over 100. Some like the Northern Mockingbird imitate the sounds of other species.

Geographic variation in song of Yellow Warbler YEWA

Listen to and compare Yellow Warbler songs from Ohio, Maine and Mexico, Baja California and Sonora.

I hope I have not completely discouraged you from trying one of the bird song recognition apps. They truly are an innovative application of the thousands of songs that have been recorded, archived and can be listened to for free. Have you already tried one of these apps? We would love to hear your experiences!


About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics.



Jančovic, M. Köküer, M. Zakeri and M. Russell, “Bird species recognition using HMM-based unsupervised modelling of individual syllables with incorporated duration modelling,” 2016 IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing (ICASSP), Shanghai, 2016, pp. 559-563. doi: 10.1109/ICASSP.2016.7471737

Bird song ID apps

Bird Song Id USA Automatic Recognition and Reference – Songs and Calls of America


A comparison of Chirpomatic and Warblr for birds recorded in the UK.

Puffin time on Eastern Egg Rock

Have you heard of the Atlantic Puffin, a species of seabird in the auk family? It is the only puffin native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Two Atlantic Puffins on Eastern Egg Rock

Atlantic Puffin on Eastern Egg Rock

I have been lucky to see this bird on both, the eastern and western   coast of its breeding range. In 1996 when I studied at Bangor University in Wales, UK I first encountered Atlantic Puffins off-shore from Puffin Island, an uninhabited island off the eastern tip of Anglesey, Wales. The island, as you may have guessed, was named after a breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins. Unfortunately puffins no longer breed on this island after the introduction of a fierce predator of eggs and chicks, the brown rat. On the other side of the Atlantic Oceans puffins faced similar problems, they were extirpated from many areas by a combination of egg collection, hunting for meat and feathers, and displacement by expanding Herring and Great Black-backed Gull populations. Now, thanks to Dr. Stephen Kress, I have seen Atlantic Puffins off the coast of Maine, on a small island named Eastern Egg Rock.

Eastern Egg Rock is a small, treeless island in the outer Muscongus Bay area. It is designated the Allan D. Cruickshank Wildlife Sanctuary in honor of Allan Cruickshank, a Maine ornithologist and photographer.


In 2015, when I taught at one of the Hog Island Audubon camps, I was lucky to land on Eastern Egg Rock as the instructor of a group of teenagers enrolled in the Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens.

Crossing in DoryWe landed on the island in one of the traditional fishing boats, a dory.

Access to Eastern Egg Rock is strictly limited, a small group of researchers spends the summer in the single hut on the island monitoring the numerous birds that breed on the island. Common Terns and Laughing Gulls are probably the most common species on the island that establish nests. Less common breeders are Arctic and Roseate Tern, Black Guillemots, Common Eiders and also Atlantic Puffins.


The Atlantic Puffins are a success story for conservation, the world’s first restored seabird colony. When Dr. Stephen Kress started the project in 1973 the last puffin breeding on the island had been seen in 1885. He was determined to bring a population back to this area and with the translocation of nearly 1,000 young puffins from Newfoundland, and social attraction through decoys and mirror boxes he succeeded!

Atlantic Puffin and decoy on Eastern Egg Rock

Atlantic Puffin (right) and decoy (left) on Eastern Egg Rock

The first pairs of puffins began nesting on the island in 1981, now more than 100 pairs nest regularly on Eastern Egg Rock and can be seen in the waters of near-by islands.


When we visited the island for the day, we each had the opportunity to spend some time in a small hut (bird hide) of which numerous are distributed across the island. There you sit in solitude, well hidden from the breeding birds that surround you and get to absorb views and sounds.


I brought my recording equipment (a Audio Technica 8035 microphone connected to a Marantz PMD670) and captured the multitude of sounds:

Listen to this recording of Laughing Gulls (note the gull chicks calling in the background!):


Listen to this recording of Common Terns (also with chicks calling in the background):


It is a truly unforgettable experience to become part of this fragile ecosystem for a few hours! You can visit Eastern Egg Rock on a puffin cruise which leaves from New Harbor, ME daily during the summer months and circles the island to provide amazing views of the Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds.


About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the Curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and instructor of Hog Island Audubon camps.

Ohio Young Birders visit

Eight Ohio Young Birders visited the insect and tetrapods collections at the Museum of Biological Diversity on Saturday (April 9) morning.

Ohio Young Birders - group photo

Ohio Young Birders with Assoc Prof Jackie Augustine (holding a robot Prairie Chicken) and curator Angelika Nelson

Jackie showed the students a comparison of the innards of a Cooper’s Hawk, Blue-winged Teal, and Mourning Dove, species that use quite different food sources. The students were a captive audience and got really excited when we discovered the remains of a House Sparrow in the stomach of the Cooper’s Hawk.

Crop content of Mourning Dove

Crop content (black sunflower seeds) of a Mourning Dove

Angelika presented some displays of bird eggs and specimens which Stephanie Malinich, curatorial manager of the collection, had set up, to the students. Both the extinct species tray and the tray with wood warbler species seen in Ohio were very popular.

Luciana fascinated students with stories about insects, how and why they were collected, what we can learn from them, etc. The students asked many interesting questions. They were particularly curious about the meaning of the term ‘biodiversity’, about invasive species, and about the impact of climate change on insects.


calosoma-scrutator Cicindela-obsoleta -sml









About the author: Angelika Nelson is curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and co-organized this visit with Darlene Sillick.

Do Domestic Breeds have a place in a Museum?

Afroduck in a box

Retrieval of Afroduck, a doemstic white duck from OSU Mirror Lake © Chelsea Hothem

The recent death of a white, domestic duck with curly feathers on its head (lovingly named “Afroduck” by many OSU students) raised an interesting issue: should this specimen be archived in the tetrapods collection at the Museum of Biological Diversity (MBD)? At the MBD, we focus our research on systematic studies of organisms worldwide. Our research includes species discovery and delimitation as well as studies of the evolutionary relationships among species. Does “Afroduck” meet these criteria?

Obviously this duck was not a wild animal even though it seemed to survive on the pond for several years (though it can be questioned whether it truly was the same duck throughout that period). It was a curiosity, and isn’t that what started many natural history collections during the Renaissance? Aristocrats in Europe were proud of their cabinets of curiosities, collections of objects that could be categorized as belonging to among others natural history, geology, or archaeology. Objects that stood out seemed most worthy of collection. Our collection is witness of this based on the number of white aberrant squirrels, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, etc., that we house. These forms clearly do not reflect their natural abundances.

“Afroduck” though is not just a white form (albino or leucistic form) of its wild relative the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). It is a domestic breed, an animal that has been selected for characteristics that we humans like or can benefit from.  In Afroduck’s case it would be the curly feathers on its head. The fact that it was able to survive for some time in the wild though is proof that it still shares some genes and characteristics with its wild ancestor that enable it to find food, seek shelter and who knows maybe even breed?

Domestic species play a large role in the study of evolution. Did you know that Charles Darwin used domestic pigeons to support his theory of evolution? After he wrote the Origin of Species he  wrote  a book about The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Though he wrote about all types of domestication he suggested that the pigeon was the greatest proof that all domestics of one species descended from one common ancestor. In his own words:

Domestic Pigeon

Domestic Pigeon © Stephanie Malinich

Domestic Pigeon

Domestic Pigeon © Stephanie Malinich

“I have been led to study domestic pigeons with particular care, because the evidence that all the domestic races have descended from one known source is far clearer than with any other anciently domesticated animal.” – Charles Darwin

In his book, he described detailed measurements from study skins of over 120 different domestic breeds. These skins were later donated to the Natural History Museum in London, UK. In 2009, those same study skins received again research attention. In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species scientists compared the specimens that Darwin studied to living pigeon breeds today to examine any changes in artificial and natural selection. This study concluded that the same changes continue today due to artificial selection exactly as Darwin saw in his time.

How does this relate to our collections at The Ohio State University?

In the Tetrapod Collection we possess many domestic breeds to represent the evolutionary relationships of their ancestral species. We use these specimens to educate people about Darwin’s research and evolution in general. When you look at a domestic species next to their ancestor you can see the subtle similarities of how they feed, move, and more.

Here is an example of an ancestor and some of its domestic descendants:

Going back to our question, should the domestic white duck from Mirror Lake have a place in the collection? We think it should. During our annual Open House on April 23rd, 2016 you will be able to see it as an example of artificial selection, the Mallard and its domestic descendant “Afroduck”. Even though the White Crested Duck has a tuft of feathers which makes it look quite different, it descended from the Mallard. In fact, almost all domestic breeds of ducks descended from the Mallard with the exception of the Muscovy Duck which is of South American origin. Join us during our  Open House to see the White Crested Duck, “Afroduck,” next to its ancestor the Mallard and observe the similarities for yourself!

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

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.

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


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

“Where did the specimen come from?”

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

“Why are the specimens’ eyes white?”


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

“Where do the specimens come from?”

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

Trays of prepared waterfowl specimens laid out to be reorganized.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are the specimens’ eyes white?”

A row of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks males.

A row of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks males.

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

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

How Can You Help?

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

Something to note: without proper permits, a citizen is not allowed to possess a deceased migratory bird, due to the Migratory Bird Act (more info at


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