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!


Internship, Volunteering or Job?

We at the Triplehorn Insect Collection frequently receive inquiries from students and even professionals seeking opportunities to learn about insects and insect collections. Some people are looking for training in a specific area, others have a more general interest. We also receive many inquiries regarding volunteering and research opportunities in the collection. We try to accommodate as many requests as our staff and resources allow.

In recent years we have had many undergraduate student interns in the collection. Most of them were Entomology majors at Ohio State, some were majoring in Biology, Zoology, and event in Art. We also had student interns from other colleges and universities. Some of these students spent a summer with us, others took internships during the semester for school credit. Some stayed for several semesters, others only a couple of weeks.

Because of the growing interest, we decided that it was time to make the internship offers a bit more structured. A few weeks ago we announced two internship opportunities for the fall semester, one for insect imaging and one for insect curation. As the email inquiries started arriving, it quickly became clear that there was interest (we received 25 inquiries in 10 days), but there was also some confusion on what an internship is versus an undergrad research experience, an undergrad job, or volunteering.

So what is an internship? How does that differ from volunteering? Is internship the same as research experience? What’s the deal with internship for school credit?

Here is our take:

Internship – Our understanding of internship is that it is a ‘mentored, practical learning experience in a professional environment’. Mentored, because it’s important that the experience be structured and directed. An intern, in our opinion, should not be given a task and left to fend for themselves. Our interns come in during regular hours only and are always monitored by a trained staff or experience student worker. Practical emphasizes that the intern will take what they have learned, both previously and as part of the internship experience, and put it to good use. The word experience has popped up several times: this is meant to emphasize (as does practical) that we want to do more than just talk about the work we do, we want the interns to actually do it. Finally, we mean professional environment not in terms of funds, but in terms of being serious and implementing whatever the best practices are.

There is something that is deliberately missing in that definition, though, and that is any mention of financial compensation. Some places offer paid internships. We do not. First, we simply cannot afford it. Second, what we provide is an educational opportunity in a university environment and we take the responsibility to make it a structured, mentored experience.

Beyond the practical learning experience, students can get school credit for their efforts by enrolling in formal internship course (in our department this is EEOB 3191, 1-3 credit hours; other departments offer some form of internship courses as well). And whether one enrolls for credit or not, at the end of the day the intern – we hope – has made the kind of personal connection with their mentor that makes for a substantive and useful letter of recommendation later on when they apply for a real job, grad school, med school, etc.

Note that research internships involve actively working in a research project under supervision of a faculty or research scientist. That is not the kind of internships we are currently offering. The broad goal of our insect curation internship is to familiarize students with the work involved in maintaining and enhancing a research quality insect collection. Specific objectives involve learning the basics of insect specimen preparation (sort, dry, mount, and label insect specimens). In addition, student interns are offered opportunities to learn other techniques and protocols, depending on their progress, their (and our) time availability, and their interest.

Volunteering – The core of volunteering is that the person donates their time and effort in support of an organization, projects, etc. As such, it can overlap a lot with our concept of intern. But it differs, basically, in that we’re not necessarily promising a well-rounded, holistic and mentored experience. Volunteers come to us willing to help in whatever capacity because they think our work is valuable in some way. We try to match the tasks with the experience that volunteers already have: one person might be particularly good with organizational skills, another with the fine motor skills needed to mount and label specimens. And while interns are typically young persons looking to gain skills and experience, our volunteers run the gamut in ages, from teenagers to retirees. Right now we have two amazing volunteers: Lauralee Thompson, who has just completed one year of volunteering with us on Sept 8, and Jan Nishimura.

Student Job – When we advertise a ‘undergraduate curatorial assistant’ job, it means 1) we can only hire undergraduate students (that’s what our money is earmarked for), 2) we have a particular set of goals to accomplish in a particular time and we offer training on the specific tasks related to the job, and 3) it is just the nature of an insect collection, in particular, the large number of specimens, that the tasks are likely to be repetitive and tedious.

In the end, though, students who are hired, say, to do specimen data entry, end up learning a lot about the various aspects of the curation as they will have the need to perform some of them, they also learn about geography, computers, and, no surprise, about insects. For young persons, jobs like the ones we offer are also great opportunities to learn good work habits and to foster and demonstrate attributes like reliability, honesty, diligence, perseverance, ability to learn and to work with others in a collaborative way. Then, this too can translate into the kind of reference letter that really makes a difference to a potential new employer.

We currently have two specimen digitization projects funded by the National Science Foundation, one for beetles, and another, that just started, for butterflies and moths. Neither of these projects would be feasible without the work of our undergrad curatorial assistants.

One thing is common between interns, volunteers, and student workers: they are all learning and they all need care and attention from the collection staff. It is important for us, staff, supervisors, faculty, to engage with them and to nurture their interest in the work we do. That not only helps to keep them motivated, but it also fosters good interactions between everyone in the collection, and provides them with a positive experience that they will hopefully remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.

Current Digitization Projects:

Digitization PEN: Integration of data from the Triplehorn Insect Collection with the Southwestern Collections of Arthropods Network. Award #1503659. Start Date: July 1, 2015, Estimated End: June 30, 2018. Investigator(s): Norman Johnson & Luciana Musetti.

Digitization TCN: Collaborative Research: Lepidoptera of North America Network: Documenting Diversity in the Largest Clade of Herbivores (LepNet). Award #1602081. Start Date: July 1, 2016, Estimated End: June 30, 2020. Subcontract from the University of Northern Arizona to Norman Johnson & Luciana Musetti.


If you would like to know more about our internship program, about the digitization projects underway in the collection, or about possible collection-based undergraduate research experience, please contact us at osuc-curator@osu.edu.


About the Authors: Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection. Norman Johnson is a Professor in the Department of EEOB and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.


Mites and moths

Following some earlier blogs about recently acquired collections I present to you here the Treat collection. This collection was assembled by Asher E. Treat a researcher at City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History, also New York. This collection is one of the best in the world for mites associated with Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Mites have been found associated with most terrestrial and many aquatic organisms, but when it comes to insect hosts, mites on Coleoptera (beetles) and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) are clearly the most numerous, diverse, and well-known. Still, Lepidoptera have a variety of associated mites.

The Acarology Collection acquired this collection 4 years ago, some years after Treat’s death. The collection consisted of about 37 slide boxes of exceptionally well labelled microscope slides and half a dozen insect drawers of pinned moths (all labelled as hosts of specific mite specimens). The Lepidoptera are being processed at the Triplehorn Insect collection, while we, the Acarology collection, have been working on processing (mostly databasing) the slides. This is proving to be a major job.


Image of a female of Dicrocheles phalaenodectes, the moth ear mite

Image of a female of Dicrocheles phalaenodectes, the moth ear mite

Treat got interested in mites associated with moths after finding mites in the ears of noctuid moths. In the process, he figured out the quite amazing life histories of some mites associated with these moths. The most famous is Dicrocheles phalaenodectes, the moth ear mite (family Laelapidae).

These mites break through the tympanic membrane of the ear of the moth and form small colonies inside the ear. By itself not too surprising, but the interesting part Treat discovered was that these mites are always found in one ear only, rarely if ever in both ears. In a way this makes sense. By breaking the tympanic membrane the mites make the moth deaf in that ear. Moths need their hearing to avoid predators (for example bats) so a deaf moth would be easy prey. However, a moth with one functional ear is still able to avoid bats, perhaps not as well as if it had two functional ears, but close enough. Which leaves the question: how do the mites manage to limit infestations to one ear?

Treat did many careful observations and follow-up experiments on this aspect and found that the mites have a very specific set of behaviors ensuring only one ear will be parasitized. The first female to get on a moth (nearly always a fertilized female, the immatures and males do not colonize) crawls to the dorsal part of the thorax, explores a little, after which she proceeds to one ear. Any future colonizers will first go to that same dorsal part of the thorax of the moth and follow the initial female to the same ear. It appears the mites lay a pheromone trail that guides newcomers to the already infested ear, and away from the uninfested one.

Drawing of relative positions of mites in a moth ear

Drawing of relative positions of mites in a moth ear

To complete the cycle, young females leaving the ear initially wander around the hosts body (mostly the thorax), congregating around the head at night. They leave the moth by running down its proboscis when it is feeding on flowers. On the flowers, the mites wait for their next host.
Another mite family that is specialized on Lepidoptera, the Otopheidomenidae, is also parasitic, and they will also show up near the ears, but they do not pierce the tympanic membrane, so they do not cause deafness. Unfortunately, we know much less about them, Treat was never able to study their behavior. A range of other mite families have representatives that are regularly found on Lepidoptera, but they are not specialists at the family level: Ameroseiidae, Melicharidae, Erythraeidae, Iolinidae, Cheyletidae, Acaridae, Carpoglyphidae, and Histiostomatidae. That list excludes the occasional “vagrants” that can be found on moths, but that are unlikely to be living on them for extended periods of time. All in all, quite a diverse community.
For those interested in knowing more, Treat wrote a book “Mites of Moths and Butterflies” (1975, Cornell University Press) that is a rare combination of good scholarship (especially natural history) and readability.

Title page of Treat's book on moth mites

Title page of Treat’s book on moth mites

Treat was very careful and noted things like host specimen numbers (if available), which allows current researchers to track down the exact moth from which a given mite came.

This is currently a common approach, but Treat started this in the 1950-ies. And there is more. Based on Treat’s label data we know not only the name of the hosts and the specific locality, but also gender of the host, whether the left or right ear was infested, and the exact part of the body the mites were found on. So we have excellent information, directly from the slides, showing that Proctolaelaps species (family Melicharidae) are nearly always found near the base of the palps [as an aside, Proctolaelaps is a bit of an unfortunate generic name, combining “procto-” = anus and “laelaps” = hurricane; presumably the name

Microscope slide from the Treat collection

Slide from the Treat collection

refers to a relatively large anal shield]. Such complete data are fantastic for future research, but they also mean a lot more work processing these slides, as every slide has lots of unique data. I want to thank George Keeney, part-time curator of the acarology collection and a series of volunteers, Ben Carey, Rachel Hitt, Mitchell Maynard, Ben Mooney, Jake Waltermyer, and Elijah Williams, for their hard work in accessioning this material.


About the Author: Dr. Hans Klompen is professor in the department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology and director of the Ohio State University Acarology Collection.

On the accessibility of collections

“Natural history collections are virtually inaccessible to everyone.”

This statement, in one form or another, can be found in many recent publications, online articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, and many comments on other social media outlets. To be absolutely honest, this irritates me greatly and there’s no better place to vent frustration than in a blog post!

Up until the late 1990’s the term ‘accessibility’ as applied to natural history collections, and insect collections in particular, had two basic components:

  • Collection organization – with millions of specimens and many thousands of species, the material must be carefully organized, labeled, and catalogued so it is accessible when there is a request for information or for a loan.
  • Services to scientists – scientists can access the specimens for the purpose of study, either through loans (upon request our staff selects, packages and ships specimens to scientists for study) or by visiting the collection.

Nowadays, we receive weekly requests that go more or less like this:

  • Can I have the specimen data and images for each species of all your (name of insect group here)?
  • Can you please take photos of the following (30 species) of (name of group here) for my (book, thesis, website, publication, database, etc.)?

Collections have quickly taken advantage of new computer and imaging technologies to provide new services to our user base, but with the advent of the Internet, browsers, most notably Google, and now mobile technology, collections are facing new, and I argue sometimes very unrealistic, expectations of services by our existing users, new users, and even funding agencies.

Augochlorella pomoniella OSUC 128046

Augochlorella pomoniella OSUC 128046

There is a strong and fast-growing demand for high resolution images of specimens and of specimen label data that can be easily plugged into studies of global climate change, evolutionary biology, conservation, etc. Please don’t get me wrong! This is awesome! We have been saying for many years that collections are an enormous resource of precious information and we stand by it! However, this relatively recent demand did not come with funds to support much needed basic collection curation or for hiring and training of permanent curatorial staff.

Accessibility‘ today goes way beyond old-fashioned physical access to specimens or even online catalogs. It includes the expectation (and demand really!) of having all the specimen level data captured and remotely accessible now. Collections continue to incorporate new technologies into our curatorial protocols to provide the best service we can to our users. But what is reasonable? What’s possible, particularly with the reality on the ground?

Collection curation (= maintenance and improvement) takes 1) people, 2) time, and 3) money. Maybe one day technology will eliminate the need for humans handling collection specimens, but that does not look very likely in the near future. In the meantime most collections are chronically underfunded. In our case, we do not have a centrally supplied operating budget.

In university settings, most of our work force are undergraduate students and, as a consequence, highly temporary in nature. No matter how smart and dedicated our undergraduate students are, they usually have no prior curatorial experience and must be trained from scratch. The constant training and management of part-time workers is very time-consuming and stressful for the few permanent staff.

Extra-mural funding options for collections are limited to donations, and, on occasion, grants for special projects. Our day-to-day operations (specimen preparation, loan-related activities, visitor support and infrastructure, and much more) are basically self-funded and therefore done if and when we have money, personnel and time to do it.

We at the Triplehorn Insect Collection continue to be committed to making collection information available online. We were one of the first insect collections in the world to make specimen data remotely available: our website has been on-line since 1994, and dynamic access to specimen data since 1997.  Our state-of-the-art web interface serves all but one of the collections here at the Museum of Biological Diversity as well as various partner institutions across the country and abroad.


Our level of commitment, however, is running up against the limits of our resources. We’re trying to think of new and productive ways to generate financial support, and as much as we dislike it, everything is on the table. Some museums charge “bench fees” to visitors (we don’t yet); perhaps we should consider a virtual bench fee. Can the data and images that we create be monetized in other ways as well, particularly for commercial purposes? So far all our data have been made freely available online, and we like it that way. But how long will we be able to afford it? This is all very complicated and made more difficult by the fact that we work within the context of a taxpayer-supported public university.

Speaking of taxpayers, the general public can help collections by supporting our efforts. Volunteers, donations (our Friends of the Triplehorn Insect Collection fund is 100% used for the care of the collection), and just word-of-mouth are all critical to the cause.

More information about the Triplehorn Insect Collection is available on our (soon to be revamped) website. The collection Facebook page brings recent updates & fun stories. Also, check out our collection blog, Pinning Block, for a view of the collection, our people and the work we do.


About the Authors: Dr. Luciana Musetti is Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at Ohio State University.  Dr. Norman F. Johnson is Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection and Moser Chair in Arthropod Systematics and Biological Diversity in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, & Organismal Biology and Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University.

Follow us, @osuc_curator@baeus2 on Twitter for our more personal views & commentary.

Liggers, snails and the Everglades


Among the most beautiful snails are the Florida Tree Snails of the genus Liguus. Few groups of molluscs have such a storied past. Liguus, or Ligs, are arboreal snails occurring in southern Florida, Cuba, with a single species in western-most Haiti. The number of species involved depends on the people asked and the amount of beer consumed. Most people agree that Cuba, with an abundance of named species, was the ancestral home of the group. It was probably only a short hop for Guantánamo’s snails to the Haitian shore via hurricane-driven foliage. And many, including this writer, believe that Ligs were also the original Cuban refugees to Florida – rafted from Cuba to the Keys and the Gold Coast. And from there, all heck broke loose.

Delicatus form

Delicatus form

The situation is this: the snails live in hammocks, which are islands of trees surrounded by sawgrass and other soggy vegetation. To the tree-hugging snails this intervening area might as well be the ocean. They cannot, by themselves, get from Hammock A to Hammock B unless they are blown there on vegetation during hurricanes or perhaps rafted during floods. It is what happens next that is important. In all likelihood only a very few snails will make it to the next hammock. Should they survive and there are enough individuals to mate (they are hermaphrodites) or they are already pregnant, that next generation, now isolated, will have only a small fraction of the genetic variation of the original populations. The result is an enormous variety in shell coloration where specific patterns only occur in a single hammock or group of hammocks. Fifty-nine patterns have been named.


Barbouri form

Barbouri form

In Florida the Ligs occurred in three general areas: the Keys, the Gold Coast, and the Everglades. Collecting them, particularly in the Everglades, could be an adventure. And those adventurers called themselves Liggers. On foot, on horseback, in Model As, some of America’s most famous malacologists ventured into the chigger-infested, cotton-mouth crawling, gater guarded, sawgrass cutting landscape in the early 1900s. Long before GPS or even decent maps, these intrepid collectors produced hand-drawn maps and named and numbered hundreds of hammocks and cataloged the Ligs they found there. Archie Jones, perhaps the most experienced of the Liggers, once remarked that a Ligger needed two qualities: high stamina and low IQ.



Lignumvitae form

Lignumvitae form

These were not just shell collectors. They were conservationists. They quickly realized that many of the hammocks were being destroyed and others would inevitably be lost as well. The Keys were being cut-over for houses. The Gold Coast was being paved in concrete for posh hotels. The hammocks, and their unique snails, would soon be lost forever. But by 1957 snails were being transplanted out of harm’s way into the newly formed Everglades National Park where they would be protected. Most of the 59 “forms” still exist today but perhaps not in their original location. That’s where the Division of Molluscs comes into the picture.



We have one of the largest collections of Florida Liguus in the world, much of it purchased directly from Archie Jones. We were interested in zoogeographic patterns between the color forms. We used the powerful but complicated mapping software ArcIMS to plot the various distributions. But first we had to georeference the hundreds of Liguus hammocks – whose location you may remember was in the form of hand-drawn maps nearly a hundred years old. With the invaluable aid of several students we found and plotted the hammocks. Using a layer for each color form it was possible to compare distributions with each other and other environmental factors such as land type. The effort is available on line through our Division website. It is the first of its kind to map these snails (and the only one as far as I know). Go here and select “Maps:”


Septentrionalis form

Septentrionalis form

Original range

Original range

Original range under concrete

Original range under concrete

Castaneozonatus form

Castaneozonatus form

Original range

Original range

Besides being beautiful shells the Ligs beg several very interesting ecological and phylogenetic questions. The elephant in the malacological room is: “Are they all the same species, just local variations, the product of a single Cuban introduction?” I suspect not. My pet hypothesis, lacking any data whatsoever, is that our Floridian Ligs are the product of several introductions of several species. “Are they color forms, species, subspecies, or something else?” I suspect something else. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for some student to investigate this complicated problem using emerging phylogenetic methods.

As a parting word, the Olde Tyme Liggers were not averse to a little ad hoc experimentation. “I wonder what would happen if we took this snail from Hammock A and this snail from Hammock B and put them in a snail-less Hammock C? Whaddaya think?” Well, they form hybrid color patterns, all dutifully named after colleagues and wives.

About the Author: Dr. G. Thomas Watters is Curator of Molluscs at the Museum of Biological Diversity.

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.

A State Treasure: Gone But Not Forgotten

Although Ohio has some 180 freshwater fish species living in the State’s lakes and streams, it is home to only one endemic species:  the Scioto Madtom, Noturus trautmani.

In November of 1943, when OSU Museum of Zoology Curator Milton Trautman captured the little catfish from his favorite locality, he recognized that it was not a form that he’d encountered during his multitudinous collecting trips.

OSUM 5914 Noturus trautmani right lateral 3 no label


OSUM 5914 – Noturus trautmani


These fish, which were later described and named in his honor, are similar to the Elegant Madtom, Noturus elegans.  A study carried out by W. Ralph Taylor (1969) recognized those similarities in describing the Scioto Madtom and placing it close to the Elegant Madtom phylogenetically (substantiated in a 2009 publication by Egge and Simons), although osteologically the two are quite different.  Icthyologists postulate that the Scioto Madtom may have speciated from an elegans population following a glaciation event.

OSUM 9575 Noturus trautmani C&S 1 with arrows pointing to anterior pectoral spine and humeral process



OSUM 9575 – Noturus trautmani – Cleared and Stained preparation.




Note arrows showing anterior pectoral fin spines and humeral process significantly shorter than those characters on the Noturus elegans specimen below (vertebral counts also separate the two species)

OSUM 18913 Noturus elegans head and trucnk C&S microscope shot with arrows pointing to anterior pectoral spines and humeral process



OSUM 18913 – Noturus elegans – Cleared and Stained preparation.



Although anatomical features and a unique color pattern were used to justify recognizing the Scioto madtom as a distinct species, several local fish enthusiasts have wondered whether the Scioto Madtom population were simply hybrids between the Stonecat Madtom Noturus flavus, which resembles the Scioto Madtom in coloration and in possessing a low adipose fin, and Noturus stigmosus, which has long pectoral barbs and humeral processes but strong saddle markings on its body. However, no instance of hybridization between these species has been reported, although other hybridizations are reported among madtoms.

The length of Big Darby Creek from which Milton captured almost all of what was later called the Scioto Madtom are recorded in our catalog book as 100-200’ above the State Route 104 bridge.  The first Scioto Madtom specimens collected were found in Riffle No. 3 of a series of four riffles and runs called “Trautman’s Riffle”.

Scan of drawing of Trautmans Riffle from Ohio Conservation Bulletin 1963


Drawing of Trautman’s Riffle from Gilfillan, Merrill C.  1963.  The Fishes of Trautman’s Riffle.  Ohio Conservation Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 5.  pp. 22-24.


20140711BigDarbyCkRM3_4Trautmansriffle photo by Anthony Sasson


Trautman’s Riffle on Big Darby Creek upstream of State Route 104. Photo by Anthony Sasson of The Nature Conservancy.



Trautman and his successor in the OSUM Fish division, Ted Cavender, both searched extensively for populations of Scioto Madtoms outside of the type locality. These collections led to the discovery of other species of madtoms, but failed to unearth another population of Scioto Madtoms (the last one collected was in Autumn of 1957).

My introduction to Trautman’s Riffle didn’t happen until the mid-1990’s.  Although I’d spent many a day on lakes, reservoirs and rivers fishing with my grandfathers, my fishing experiences had not included seining until I took Ichthyology at OSU with Ted Cavender.



Ted Cavender (center), OSUM Curator 1970-2005, with his OSU Biology of Fishes class at the Scioto River fishing access just east of the Big Darby Creek confluence, ca. 2002.


In the 20 years since this introduction, I have personally observed some of the riffles in the vicinity of Trautman’s Riffle moving, due to the “flashy” flooding character of the stream.  One such riffle downstream from Trautman’s Riffle headed up under the State Route 104 bridge to about 50 yards downstream, and some of the structure appears to have moved down to an area at the next major bend in the stream’s course.  Despite the dynamism of the Big Darby in this stretch, Trautman’s Riffle remains mostly intact, although it seems to have been better defined when Milton collected the Scioto Madtom back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

The increased propensity for flooding and the increased impact of these floods in Big Darby Creek is due at least in part to anthropogenic changes to the topography of the watershed as well as to its hydrology.  Clearing of the riparian area right up to the edge of the creek removes the trees, brush and grasses that serve as a natural filter for pollutants like smothering silt loads from farm field tillage and removes tree roots that hold the upper layer of dirt and enable the stream to create undercut areas where fish hide.  A natural riparian buffer also furnishes woody debris that falls into the stream, creating more habitat and egg laying areas for fish.

Could a flooding event, other weather conditions, or impacts such as siltation of substrates from agricultural tillage, have affected the Scioto Madtom population severely enough that they were unable to propagate?  A catastrophic release of silage on Little Darby Creek in the 1980’s wiped out an otherwise healthy population of Least brook lampreys at Mechanicsburg Ohio, demonstrating the potential impact of a rare event.

Since the Scioto Madtom was only ever found in a very small population, and subsequently not found for many years, the species was listed for decades as an endangered species. Several governmental and private monitoring agencies have sampled the site and conducted exhaustive sampling of other localities in the Scioto River and other major Ohio River tributaries, especially those that focused exclusively on habitats where Madtoms could be expected.  One such effort was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 3-year project to sample the major Ohio River tributaries within the state for Madtoms turned up nets full of Northern Madtoms, Mountain Madtoms and Stonecat Madtoms, but unfortunately no Scioto Madtoms.  Because of the lack of results despite intensive expert searches, many suspected it was extinct. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Division of Wildlife concur, and have recently declared the Scioto Madtom extinct. This new listing notwithstanding, we can’t help but keep an eye out every time we are in suitable habitat for the elusive, endemic, endangered Scioto Madtom.


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

Digitizing your Mussels


Museum accessibility has proceeded by leaps and bounds in a relatively short span of time. When I was working on chitons for my Masters Thesis I routinely made the pilgrimage to the National Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and many others to examine material. Outside of the occasional loan or (God forbid!) an actual letter, there was no other way to get information out of a collection. This quickly changed with the advent of the world-wide web. Coupled with electronic databases, it was now possible for scientists to view catalog data without ever leaving the office. While in some ways this is unfortunate (every systematist should at some point visit these historical collections), the result was millions of records available at the touch of a keyboard. The OSU Division of Molluscs joined this effort early on by placing their freshwater mussel collection catalog online. The freshwater gastropod collection will be next to be uploaded for an estimated total approaching 2 million specimens – the largest freshwater mollusc collection in the world.

But still, these are only records. How do you know the specimen behind the record is correctly identified? What color is it? In what condition is the specimen? Is there some unusual feature that might be of interest? Enter the next phase – the creation and uploading of digital images of the specimens, and associated labels. With the image(s) available online, now a worker can see nearly everything he/she would ever want to know about the specimen – again without ever leaving the office. Sounds great. But to the people who actually curate the collections this is a quantum leap in effort. Specimens must be retrieved, set up for imaging, photographed, incorporated into the database, and uploaded.

The freshwater bivalve collection is in this laborious phase of producing digital images of specimens. With over 90,000 lots to image, this will not be a quick project. To speed up the effort we image not individual specimens, but individual lots. Scale bars are included in the photo to indicate approximate size. Labels are also imaged. These are incorporated into the catalog database so that all information may be viewed online – collection record, locality map, lot image, and label image. In our version, a button on the catalog screen will take the viewer to the images. The upload of this digitized catalog is some ways off, but stay tuned.

Proposed catalog with link to images

Proposed catalog with link to images

Digitized specimens and label

Digitized specimens and label










About the Author: Dr. G. Thomas Watters is Curator of Molluscs at the Museum of Biological Diversity.


Museum specimens going online


Skipper butterflies (Erynnis martiallis) are some of the specimens being digitized and imaged at the Triplehorn Insect Collection

Skipper butterflies (Erynnis martiallis) are some of the specimens being digitized and imaged at the Triplehorn Insect Collection

We open the doors to our collections once a year for the Museum Open House and thousands of people from all over the state and beyond stream through our building to marvel over our specimens. Many of them express interest in re-visiting soon.

How amazing would it be to allow people access to our specimens every day at any time? With easy access to the World Wide Web it is possible and natural history museums are digitizing their collections and making their specimens freely available online.

Digitization of plant specimens in the OSU Herbarium.

Digitization of plant specimens in the OSU Herbarium.

Curatorial staff take high quality, ideally 3-D images of each specimen, add metadata and upload them to an online database. This process is labor- and time-intensive, but well worth the effort.

You can read about Museum Specimens Find(ing) New Life Online in this recent New York Times article (10/20/2105.)  And please stay tuned to learn more about specific digitizing efforts going on right here in the collections housed at the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity.


About the authorsAngelika Nelson (Borror Lab of Bioacoustics) & Luciana Musetti (Triplehorn Insect Collection) collaborated on this post.

Old collections, new tricks


Research collections are built through two primary avenues. Many specimens belonging to a single genus or family may be collected from a broad geographic area as part of a research project into the diversity, distribution, or biology of that lineage. Alternatively, specimens belonging to multiple lineages may be collected from a single place as part of studies into the diversity of a geographic region or drainage.

Field team leader Brian Zimmerman in his natural habitat: a boat!  His expertise with the diversity and distribution of fish is invaluable as we survey new habitats. Photo by Paul Larson

Field team leader Brian Zimmerman in his natural habitat: a boat! His expertise with the diversity and distribution of fish is invaluable as we survey new habitats. Photo by Paul Larson

Our collaboration with the Ohio Division of Wildlife (https://obcp.osu.edu/) to assess the diversity of fishes in Ohio has followed both of these paths, exploring the distribution and genetic diversity of species of particular conservation concern across Ohio and capturing the diversity of particular rivers or drainages.

One of the “tricks of the trade” for our surveys has been to use diverse techniques. To make sure we have sampled all of the microhabitats within a waterway, we use everything from electrofishing to seines to trawls to snorkels.

This week we demo’ed a new net system in the Muskingum River and were pleased with the biomass and diversity of fish and other animals that we caught, including some HUGE flathead catfish as well as bycatch of softshell and snapping turtles. This is a new sampling method to us but has long been used by commercial fisherman and fisheries professionals alike. These nets will be part of our arsenal of methods as we establish baselines for the species diversity of the Muskingum River.

Collections manager Marc Kibbey mans the nets. The snapping turtle (left) and spiny softshell turtle (top) are released back into the river.  The Northern Pike (middle) and Bowfin (bottom) are measured and recorded. Photo on left by Paul Larson; photos on right by Brian Zimmerman.

Collections manager Marc Kibbey mans the nets. The snapping turtle (left) and spiny softshell turtle (top) are released back into the river. The Northern Pike (middle) and Bowfin (bottom) are measured and recorded. Photo on left by Paul Larson; photos on right by Brian Zimmerman.

Our electronic database and tissue voucher collection means that we can record occurrence, size and abundance, and sample animals with the safest, most effective methods.

Most of the fish we catch are identified, measured, photographed, and released. Specimens belonging to species whose distribution, diversity, or identity are questioned and species not well represented in museum collections are brought back to the museum for further study.

A global database called “Fishnet” (http://www.fishnet2.net/aboutFishNet.html) integrates our database with those of other museums, making these collections visible, searchable, and accessible to scientists around the world.


About the AuthorDr. Marymegan Daly is an Associate Professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology and Director of the OSU Fish Division.