Specimen Photo Shoot: Roll it Out Specimens

Roll it Out: Specimen Photo Shoot

Curious what the extinct and highly endangered specimens we will be moving to the mobile cabinet look like? One of our student research assistants took detailed photos just for YOU. All of these specimens are considered irreplaceable and some being the last records of their species. Be sure to check out our campaign page for information on how to to support the collection and help us roll out the irreplaceable specimens represented from the photos below.

 

A research assistant shows off a tiger cub.

Chelsea Hothem, Student Research Assistant

PHOTOS BY: Chelsea Hothem, 2016

Tetrapod Collection: What Happens in a Collection?

A collection is nothing without people who use it. Our collection sees constant use by students, artists, researchers, experts and more. We conduct tours, workshops, and projects within the collection, all involving people who desire to learn more about some animals and find these in our collections. None of this would be possible without a community around us, who want to learn and appreciate all the collection has to offer.

Help us maintain our specimens and check out our campaign! We are raising money for a new mobile cabinet for our endangered and extinct species. Please spread the word about our campaign and and donate today!

Enjoy photos of visitors to the tetrapods collection:

Species of the Month: Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis)

Snakes in Jars

Tetrapod Collection Smooth Green Snakes, ©Chelsea Hothem, 2016

If you don’t think snakes can be cute, perhaps you’ve just never seen a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis).  A cousin of garter snakes and rat snakes, the smooth green snake is in the Colubridae family.  They are found throughout the continental United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico. The smooth green snake looks similar to the rough green snake (O.

Rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) look similar to smooth green snakes but have keeled scales and a more arboreal lifestyle. ( © Patrick Coin, 2003)

aestivus) but can be distinguished by its namesake smoother scales and more terrestrial lifestyle.  This slender snake only grows to around one to two feet (30-60 cm) long.  Since they are small and non-venomous, they’re harmless, unless you’re a small invertebrate.  Much like The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa, smooth green snakes primarily eat insects, spiders, worms, and snails (1,2,3,5).

 

From June to September, the female smooth green snakes lay eggs in burrows under logs, rocks, or vegetation.  Multiple females have been observed depositing eggs in one communal nest site.  The eggs can hatch anywhere from four to thirty days later.  The incubation period is thought to vary greatly due in part to the female’s ability to retain the eggs in her body, which helps speed their development.  Born with no need for parental care, hatchlings grow quickly and can triple in size within their first year of life (1,2,3).

From November to March, smooth green snakes spend the winter hibernating.  Hibernacula (places where animals hibernate) can be under rocks and logs or inside anthills and abandoned rodent burrows (1,2,3).  Individuals frequently hibernate together and have even been known to share hibernacula with other species including their close relative the garter snake (genus Thamnophis) or even skinks (genus Plestiodon) (1).

Western Smooth Green Snake, Opheodrys vernalis blanchardi

(Smooth green snakes are usually found on the ground.  (©Greg Schechter, 2009)  )

Year-round, this reptile prefers to live in moist and grassy habitats in prairies or near marshes and lakes, although they can sometimes be found in drier habitats like forests.  As prairies and marshes have given way to neighborhoods and shopping centers, the wildlife that lived in those habitats has also disappeared (1,2,3,5).  Unfortunately, the smooth green snake is no exception.  In Ohio, the smooth green snake is endangered and is only encountered in the extreme southwest of the state (if at all)(5).  However, the species as a whole is considered stable and smooth green snakes are still populous in other parts of their range for now (4).

Because this species can be hard to find in the wild and usually does not thrive in captivity (1,2), museum specimens are an important source of information for scientific studies.  At the Museum of Biological Diversity, we have sixteen smooth green snake specimens.  They were collected between the 1920’s and 1960’s and the majority were found in Ohio.   For more information about the smooth green snake and their range in Ohio, watch this video.

Abby poses with the polar bear head.

Abby is one of our  Volunteers. She works on the general collection

About the Author:

Abby Miller is a 2nd year majoring in Zoology at the Ohio State University and is a volunteer in the Tetrapod Collection.

 

 

 

 

  1. Redder, Alan J., Brian E. Smith, Ph.D., and Douglas A. Keinath. 2006 Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys Vernalis): A Technical Conservation Assessment.” United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service: Rocky Mountain Region. USDA Forest Service, 27 Nov. 2006. Web. http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5182074.pdf

 

  1. Smooth Green Snake.” Lincoln Park Zoo. Lincoln Park Zoo, n.d. Web. <http://www.lpzoo.org/animal/smooth-green-snake>.
  2. Hammerson, G.A. 2007.  Liochlorophis vernalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T63842A12721291. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/63842/0
  3.  “Opheodrys Vernalis (Smooth Green Snake).” Animal Diversity Web. Regents of the University of Michigan, n.d. Web.  <http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Opheodrys_vernalis/>.

5. “Smooth Greensnake – Opheodrys Vernalis.” ODNR Division of Wildlife. Ohio DNR, n.d. <http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/species-guide-index/reptiles/smooth-greensnake>.

 

Intelligence in Corvidae: Crows, Jays, Ravens, Magpies

In the 1960’s, Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work with wild chimpanzees rattled the scientific world by striking down the notion that Homo sapiens alone deserves the title of “toolmaker.” Though chimpanzees have since been renowned for their human-like cognitive abilities, research over the last couple of decades of revealed that corvids (the bird family which includes crows and jays) deserve to be held in equal regard to our fellow apes.

Not only do crows use tools, some like the New Caledonian crow also make and modify them to solve an array of challenges. Since the forests of New Caledonia have a dearth of woodpeckers, the ever-ingenious resident crows have taken to crafting hooked tools in order to pull grubs and other morsels from within trees. In laboratory studies, New Caledonian crows have bent pieces of wire into hooks in order to retrieve bucket-shaped containers full of mealworms. When presented with similar tasks, human children were not able to solve this puzzle until around age 8. Such demonstrations of mental dexterity have led some researchers to referring to the corvids as “feathered apes.”

Three taxidermy Corvidae Mounts (Magpie, Crow, Raven)

Representative members of the corvid family in the Tetrapod Collection at OSU’s Museum of Biological Diversity, ©Grant Terrell, 2016

Perhaps it should not be surprising that birds generally have very large brain-to-body ratios, because flight demands a sophisticated super-computer in order to process multiple variables while in the air. Crows have especially-large forebrains, the portion of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, memory, and contemplation of sensory data. Like humans, crows possess an enlarged hippocampus. This structure of the brain is responsible for memory in vertebrates. This structure is proximal to the amygdala which is responsible for processing emotions. PET scans have shown that corvid brains use a feedback loop between these regions in order to evaluate their memories and attach them to an emotion. For example, a Common Raven may have a memory of a man who chased it from the bird feeder and while reminiscing about this event, they feel angry.

Avian behavior is far from mechanistic; for corvids especially, mental dexterity and curiosity prove to be important attributes. Wild Common Ravens have been observed surfing through the air and on snow, using pieces of bark as a makeshift sled. This behavior is not linked to any immediate reward and is instead thought to be an example of play in animals . Corvids are also extremely curious. Many crows have been observed picking up and examining human-made objects, including cigarettes. Like parrots, captive ravens can also learn to mimic human speech. Ever-adaptable, Swedish magpies have been shown that they are able to recognise friendly individuals that feed them. In one case, these magpies even learned that they could summon their friendly human for a snack by ringing a doorbell.

Corvids are an endlessly-adaptable and marvelously-sophisticated family of birds, yet they are among the least admired by the public. Perhaps this is a result of how much corvids remind us of ourselves. Their versatile nature leads them to be viewed as a weedy species, not unlike humans. Still, this adaptability makes corvids one of the few groups to thrive in the presence of humans. Rather than being feared or hated, these brainy birds should be elevated to the regard in which society now holds the great apes. At the very least, a short reflection on the intellect of corvids should finally sound the end of the “bird brain” insult.

 

Grant next to an American White Pelican

Grant is one of our Research Assistants and focuses on birds.

About the Author: Grant Terrell is a 2nd year majoring in Evolution & Ecology at The Ohio State University and works as a Research Assistant at the Museum of Biological Diversity in the Tetrapod Collection.

 

 

 

 

References:

Marzluff, John M., and Tony Angell. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave like Humans. New York: Free, 2012. Print.

Morell, Virginia. Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures. N.p.: Crown, 2013. Print.

Species of the Month: Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma magister)

Headshot of N. Magister.

Close up of N. magister. Note the large ears!

For most people, encountering a rat is an unpleasant, if not traumatic, experience.  They associate rodents with dirt, nuisance, and swarms.  None of those things apply to the Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma magister– also called the Appalachian Woodrat).  The bothersome species that many associate with the word “rat” are brown rats (Rattus norvegicus- also known as Norway rats) and black rats (R. rattus), both of which are

Allegheny Woodrat tail, covered in fur.

Unlike the bald tails of “pest” rat species, the tail of N. Magister is covered in fur.

invasive in the United States.  Although these rodents might look similar at a glance, there are a few ways to distinguish them.  The Allegheny Woodrat’s tail is completely covered in hair while other rats have a bald tail.  They also have larger ears and longer whiskers than the nonnative rats. (1) This clip provides a closer look at their morphology.

Unlike their pesky cousins, the Allegheny Woodrat typically avoids associating with humans.  Rocky areas, such as cliffs and caves, in the Appalachian Mountain region are their natural habitat.  Primarily nocturnal, they venture out at night to search for food like plants, seeds, fruits, fungi, and insects.  Similar to squirrels, they store food in caches, which they depend on during winter or other times when food sources are limited. (1, 2)  Amusingly, they have even been known to cache other items like Band-Aids, gun cartridges, and glass. (3)  Their life expectancy is around four years. (1)

        Historically, this rodent was found in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, western Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and southern parts of Ohio and Indiana.  Now they have been extirpated from many places and are endangered here in Ohio.  According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Allegheny Woodrat still remains in Adams County but has not been seen anywhere else in Ohio for several years. (1, 4, 5, 6)

        Loss of habitat is one of the primary reasons for the Allegheny Woodrat’s decline, but disease also takes a toll on their population.  Raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) is often fatal to them.  They accidentally ingest the roundworm eggs found in raccoon feces and become infected, leading to loss of muscle control, lethargy, and potentially death. (1, 2, 4, 6)

Allegheny Woodrat specimens on a specimen tray

N. magister specimens from our collection.

In the Tetrapod Collection, we have eighteen Allegheny Woodrat specimens, most of which were collected in Ohio.  The oldest one was collected on December 15, 1923.  Decades later, you would have a hard time finding an Allegheny Woodrat here.  Hopefully, museums won’t become the only place in Ohio to find the Allegheny Woodrat.

References

  1. “Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma Magister).” ARKive. Wildscreen, n.d. Web. <http://www.arkive.org/allegheny-woodrat/neotoma-magister/>.
  2. Stanesa, Lindsey. “Neotoma Magister (Allegheny Woodrat).” Animal Diversity Web. Regents of the University of Michigan, 2012. Web. <http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Neotoma_magister/>.
  3. “Journey with Nature: Allegheny Woodrat.” The Nature Conservatory. The Nature Conservatory, n.d. Web. <http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/journeywithnature/allegheny-woodrat.xml>.
  4. Linzey, A. V., G. Hammerson, J. C. Whittaker, and S. J. Norris. “Neotoma Magister (Allegheny Woodrat, Appalacian Woodrat).” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2008. Web. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/14581/0>.
  5. “Allegheny Woodrat- Neotoma Magister.” Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife. Ohio DNR, n.d. Web. <http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/species-guide-index/mammals/allegheny-woodrat>.

6. Monty, Anne-Marie, and George A. Feldhamer. “Conservation Assessment for The Eastern Woodrat, (Neotoma Floridana) and The Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma Magister).” U.S. Forest Service. USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region, May 2002. Web. <http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsm91_054316.pdf>.

Abby poses with the polar bear head.

Abby is one of our new Volunteers. She works on the general collection

About the Author:

Abby Miller is a 2nd year majoring in Zoology at the Ohio State University and is a volunteer in the Tetrapod Collection.

Bats with White-nose Syndrome: Makes jump to West Coast of the United States

Each Autumn, cave-goers cannot help but notice large groups  of bats roosting in caves throughout the winter months, or at least they used to. For the past decade, bat populations in the Eastern United States have plummeted in the presence of an invasive fungus responsible for what has been coined “white-nose syndrome.” Last month, officials from the US Fish and Wildlife services stunned biologists by announcing the first observed bats with white-nose syndrome on the West Coast. The current threats facing American bats are unprecedented in recent history, and unless human intervention succeeds, many once-common bat species may vanish altogether.

Little Brown Bat with white nose caused by White-nose Syndrome, hangs from its roost in a Vermont cave.

A Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) with White-Nose Syndrome (Source: Bloomberg via Getty Images, 2009)

 

Around October and November of every year, North American bats like the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) flutter into caves called hibernacula where they wait out the winter. During this period, they enter a state known as torpor; their heartbeat slows to a near stop, and their body temperature drops to just above freezing. In March 2007, biologists from Albany, New York, set out to do a routine census of the local hibernating bats. Upon reaching the first hibernaculum, they were floored at the site before them: they found  dead bats everywhere. Peculiarly, the bats looked as if they had dunked their faces in a white powder. When spring arrived, the surviving bats left the hibernacula, and the pandemic seemed to have ended. However, by the next winter, it became clear that this disease did not just go away.

A map of the United States charting the spread of white-nose syndrome

The spread of White-nose syndrome (Source: Lindsey Heffernan, PA Game Commission, 2016)

 

In 2008, white-nose syndrome was reported in 33 caves in four states. By 2009, five more states started experiencing massive bat die-offs. Spreading in an ever-expanding bullseye, 25 states and five Canadian provinces were losing bats to white-nose syndrome by 2015. Only last month, officials in Washington have confirmed that the disease has made the  leap across the great plains. It is unknown whether or not this fungus was carried west by human cave-goers, or if infected Eastern bats made rare forays to the region.

The condition has since been linked to a cold-loving fungus dubbed Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It is not known exactly how this fungus kills the bats, but it has been shown to disrupt their torpor during hibernation. The bats, perhaps irritated by the fungus, fly out of the hibernacula during the Winter months. There are no insects for them to eat during this time and so these flights turn out to be costly, depleting vital energy stores, leaving the bats likely to succumb to starvation and respiratory complications caused by the fungus. Similar fungi have been found on European bats, although they do not experience adverse symptoms. These bats likely coevolved with the fungus, and so gained resistance. P. destructans was likely introduced from Europe by way of human activity. Unlike in Europe, North American bats exposed to P. destructans experience mortality rates approaching 100%.

Bat skins from the Tetrapod Collection.

Bats from the Tetrapod Collection, Museum of Biological Diversity © Stephanie Malinich, 2015

Many affected areas have experienced declines in bat populations by more than 90%. In some places, there just are no more  bats to kill off. In what were populous hibernacula, there are now bodies of dead bats, piling up like snow drifts. Often, biologists conducting a bat census find it impossible to navigate the caves without stepping on carcasses. In 50 years from now, if populations have not recovered, the only place to study North American bat populations may be in natural history collections. Museum collections, such as the one at the Ohio State’s Museum of Biological Diversity, contain physical records (specimens) that continue to yield valuable information about biogeography, and serve as a template against which modern populations may be compared. It is through using such records, that changes within species can be detected. Museums are a natural starting place in the attempt to solve issues such as those currently threatening North American bats.

 

Grant next to an American White Pelican

Grant is one of our Research Assistants and focuses on birds.

About the Author: Grant Terrell is a 1st year majoring in Evolution & Ecology at The Ohio State University and works as a Research Assistant at the Museum of Biological Diversity in the Tetrapod Collection.

Domestic breeds: Fancy Traits Come at a Price

Afroduck

Afroduck swimming in Mirror Lake at OSU
(©Abigail Smith)

Afroduck was Ohio State’s beloved unofficial mascot because of a unique trait that set him apart from the other ducks, a crest of feathers on his head that looked like an afro. Many have wondered if this is a kind of rare genetic mutation never before seen in ducks. As it turns out, his fluffy little afro is a genetic mutation, but it is far from rare.

Crested Mallard

Many duck varieties can have the crested trait, like this Mallard Duck. (©Heather Paul, 2011)

Afroduck was a breed of domestic Crested Duck. This means that he was specifically bred to have a fluffy crest atop his head. The crest trait has been selected for by breeders in many different duck species. These ducks are considered ‘fancy breeds’ and are bred for show, not for their eggs or meat.

17th Century Dutch Painting of a Crested Duck

Breeders have been selecting for this trait for centuries. Crested ducks even appear in 17th century Dutch paintings.

Melchior d’ Hondecoeter. A Hunter’s Bag near a Tree Stump with a Magpie, 1678. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, www.rijksmuseum.nl

When humans breed animals for a specific trait we call this  artificial selection. Artificial selection has allowed us to domesticate wild animals into livestock like pigs, cows, and sheep. Unfortunately, selecting for a certain trait and attempting to exaggerate that trait as much as possible can have unintended consequences. For example, dog breeds with smashed-in faces, like bulldogs and pugs, have respiratory problems because of their small nostrils, elongated soft palate, and narrow trachea. Selectively breeding for a crest in ducks also comes with negative consequences.

The crest forms on the head of the duck because of a malformation in the skull. These ducks develop with a gap in their skull which is filled in with a mass of fatty tissue. The feathers growing from this area of the head are fluffy and create the crest. Studies have found that the fat bodies cause motor incoordination in some ducks. A 2009 study conducted by J. Mehlhorn and G. Rehkämper tested coordination in crested ducks by placing them on their backs and timing how long it took for them to right themselves. Ducks with larger fat bodies were more likely to have bad coordination

Brain Fat Body

This diagram shows where the fat body develops inside the skull. (Julia Mehlhorn and G. Rehkämper, Brain alterations, their impact on behavior and breeding strategy in Crested Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos f. d.), 2010)

The crested gene is potentially a lethal gene as well. If two ducks with the crested trait are bred there is a 25% mortality rate for the ducklings. Ducklings who receive the crested gene from both parents are likely to die in the shell. The gap in the skull will cause the duckling’s brain to develop outside of the skull.

Humans have used artificial selection for hundreds of years to genetically modify and domesticate plants and animals. In the case of Afroduck and other fancy ducks, humans have selected unusual genetic mutations that they find visually pleasing. Breeding animals in order to exaggerate a single trait often creates unintended and detrimental side-effects. While we might consider Afroduck’s best phyiscal trait to be his fully afro, he might not agree.

 

 

Chelsea holds a baby tiger skin.

Chelsea is one of our student workers and does general collection work

About the Author: Chelsea Hothem is a 3rd year majoring in Evolution & Ecology at The Ohio State University and works as a Research Assistant at the Museum of Biological Diversity in the Tetrapod Collection.

 

Meet the Staff- Autumn Semester 2015

Meet the Staff that makes the Tetrapod Collection Great

 

Stephanie next to a Turkey Vulture

Stephanie is the Tetrapod Collections Manager and works with every part of the collection.

Stephanie Malinich:

  • Tetrapod Collection Manager
  • Graduated in Evolution & Ecology from OSU, May 2014
  • Manages all projects, staff, and events that occur in the Tetrapod Collection
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Brown Kiwi
Ray poses next to an American White Pelican

Ray is our Writing Intern and works on our blog.

Raymond Gonzo:

  • Writing Intern
  • 4th year Zoology major
  • Writes for blog and does general website maintenance
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Bengal Tiger

 

Sarah poses with the Asian Elephant skull

Sarah is one of our Research Assistants. She works with the Amphibian Collection

Sarah Doyle:

  • Research Assistant
  • 4th year Zoology major
  • Works on geo-referencing, editing our various databases, and general collection work
  • Favorite Tetrapod: African Elephant
Grant next to an American White Pelican

Grant is one of our new Research Assistants and focuses on Birds.

Grant Terrell:

  • Research Assistant
  • 1st year Evolution & Ecology major
  • Works on our freezer lists, scanning field notebooks, and general collection work
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Maniraptora clade
A profile of a snow bunting.

Rebecca is one of our expert skinners and works as one of our Prep Lab Assistants

Rebecca Price:

  • Prep Lab Assistant
  • 6th year Zoology major
  • Works in the prep lab preparing various avian specimens
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Pangolin
Profile of White eye

Olivia is one of our new Prep lab Assistants.

Olivia Smith:

  • Prep Lab Assistant
  • Graduate Student
  • Works in the prep lab preparing various avian specimens
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Bridled White-Eye
A profile of a Marbled Salamander

Vicki is one of our volunteers and works with our Amphibian Collection

Vicki Ramsey:

  • Tetrapod Volunteer
  • 5th year Zoology major
  • Works on geo-referencing, making labels and collection work pertaining to amphibians

Favorite Tetrapod: All tetrapods

 

Chelsea holds a baby tiger skin.

Chelsea is one of our new Volunteers and does General collection work.

Chelsea Hothem:

  • Tetrapod Volunteer
  • 3rd year Evolution & Ecology major
  • Works on imaging of specimens and general collection work
  • Favorite Tetrapod: Axolotl

 

Dan holds a baby jaguar skin

Dan is one our new Volunteers and works with our Amphibian Collection

Dan Hribar:

  • Tetrapod Volunteer
  • 2nd year Environmental Science major
  • Works on making labels and collection work pertaining to amphibians
  • Favorite Tetrapod: African Cheetah

 

Abby poses with the polar bear head.

Abby is one of our new Volunteers. She works on the general collection.

Abby Miller:

  • Tetrapod Volunteer
  • 2nd year Zoology major
  • Works on Social Media projects and general collection work
  • Favorite Tetrapod: African Painted Dog

Brown Bats and Red Bats and Myotis Oh my!

Bat skins from the Tetrapod Collection.

An evening walk, in search of the Ohio State University’s only flying mammal, the bat.

 

BioPresence and the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Tetrapod Collection presents an evening with Count Dracula’s counterpart and the only flying mammal found in the world, the bat. Come learn more and follow around some of Ohio’s most unique and fascinating mammals. With the use of a bat detector we will be recording what species we are finding and documenting as much of the local campus bat life as possible.

 

All are welcome: Bat Walk will occur Tuesday August 25th 2015 at 8:15PM and meeting location to be announced closer to event.

From billions to none – and only a few preserved

Picture of a male Passenger Pigeon

A male Passenger Pigeon. One of only a few Passenger Pigeons found here at the Museum Of Biological Diversity.

By Raymond Gonzo

About a century ago, a bird named Martha was found dead in her cage at the Cincinnati zoo. The death of that one lone bird would mark the end of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), a bird that had been relentlessly hunted to the point of extinction. In honor of both Earth day and the recent anniversary of Martha’s death, I thought it would be a good time to write about the Passenger Pigeon and remember its iconic extinction.

I realize that the centennial of Martha’s death was last year (last September to be exact) and that there has been an extensive amount of coverage and reflection on the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Since this will be the Tetrapod collection’s first “Species-of-the-Month” post however, one cannot think of a better animal in our inventory that showcases the broad scope of diversity and history of the collection. Not to mention a species that ties into Ohio’s wildlife conservation history.

What makes this extinction so significant is that, at one point, the Passenger Pigeon was probably the most numerous bird species in the world. That is not a fact to be taken lightly, these pigeons could actually block out the sun when a flock flew overhead. When he was making sketches for his famous Birds of America book, John James Audubon recounted how he had encountered giant flocks of these pigeons flying overhead. Many scientists and historians estimate that the Passenger Pigeon had a population of about 3-5 billion individuals. And yet, these birds are extinct. There are only 20 specimens preserved in our collection. How did mankind single-handedly wipe out the most numerous bird species in the world? With reckless abandon, as people killed Passenger Pigeons without restraint for food, sport and to make an accessory in ladies’ fancy hats. Coupled with the uncontrolled destruction of the hardwood forests that provided the pigeons with food and nesting sites, it looks as though the blame lies solely on us.

However, timing may also have played a role for the demise of the pigeons. According to a new study, conducted by Chih-Ming Hung et al. (2014) from the University of Chicago, the pigeons’ population numbers may have been declining in the late 1800s. According to this new study, the pigeons’ numbers have always been fluctuating due to the varying levels of abundance of resources that pigeons need for survival such as food and nesting sites. In this study, Hung hypothesizes that a downward trend in population size occurred simultaneously with human exploitation and that the combination of the two triggered the pigeon’s rapid extinction. While this new information does explain how the species could disappear so rapidly, it doesn’t excuse our careless actions that lead to its extinction.

We hope to have learned so much about wildlife conservation since the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. We have been able to spare the Bald Eagle, the gray wolf and the American bison from the same fate and we have entered an age where we can start thinking about resurrecting once extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon. Cloning techniques and the DNA of the closest living relatives may allow us bring the species back. So there is a chance that we’ll see these pigeons in the wild again.

References

Hung C, Shaner P.J., Zink R.M., Lui W, Chu T, Heung W, and Li S. 2014 Drastic Population Fluctuations Explain the Rapid Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. PNAS 111.

Audubon, John J. The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Terriories. Vol. 5. New York: G.R. Lockwood, 1870. 25-35. Print.