A Reflection on Natural History (Part 2)

Before the Scientific Revolution, any attempt to ascribe order to nature was largely rooted in the study of holy texts, rather than in the nature of minerals and organisms themselves. The development of natural history as an observational science in the seventeenth century changed this entirely and lives on to be a crucial element in the study of living organisms today.

It has become popular in the modern era to dismiss natural history as “mere” classification, lacking empirical methods, but this could not be further from the truth. Accurate classification is an essential element of understanding the natural world. There is not a more essential answer to the question “what is x?” than to give the classification of x, i.e. put it in relation to other living beings. Such an indefinite number of characteristics can be inferred by an organism’s taxonomic standing alone that this serves as a sort of shortcut to ripping individual organisms to shreds and painstakingly having to analyze and reanalyze the constituent parts of each individual organism. While an understanding of the anatomy of individuals within a species is of interest to some and has intrinsic value, the understanding of organisms in context with other similar and dissimilar organisms also has value. For those with questions unconcerned with the minutia of differences between individuals and who are focused with broader themes in evolution or organismal biology, a system of classification serves as a heuristic to understanding basic aspects of the organism at hand in relation to its own or other groups of organisms. Today, rather than defining natural groups by shared characteristics, these characteristics aid in the diagnoses of natural groups, which rather are defined by evolutionary relatedness. Still a need for the accurate classification of organisms persists.

Natural history as an observational rather than experimental science is not an outdated way of conducting zoology, ecology, or botany. Research lab settings are artificial and for those concerned with ethology, ecology, and observational field studies are crucial for comprehending the life history and behavior of animals and plants. Such observational studies have formed the bedrock of the modern understandings of these subjects. Even experimental studies themselves are inspired by observational studies after all.

Carolina Parakeet specimens are among the irreplaceable extinct specimens held in the Tetrapod Collection. (Photo Credit: Chelsea Hothem 2016)

Carolina Parakeet specimens are among the irreplaceable extinct specimens held in the Tetrapod Collection. (Photo Credit: Chelsea Hothem 2016)

Natural history museums and the specimens they contain also retain both intrinsic and practical value. Far from ‘mere’ cabinets of curiosities, natural history specimens serve as physical records of organisms, vouchers, from throughout history. The tags of these specimens usually record the location where the specimen was collected, the date, the stomach contents of the organism (for animals), pre-preparation measurements, the name of the collector, the cause of death, and many other bits of information that prove invaluable for research. Each specimen is comparable to a library book brimming with information that can inform future scientists on topics ranging from biodiversity, species distribution, the changes in species over time, impacts of humans over time, genetic information, historic climates, and conservation.

A young bluebird (Sialia sialis) that died after being entangled in this plastic. This is an unfortunate reminder that what humans do with their trash has repercussions for other species.This specimen was prepared by Tetrapod Curatorial Assistant, Grant Terrell and is now housed in the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Tetrapod Collection. (Photo: Grant Terrell, 2016)

A young bluebird (Sialia sialis) that died after being entangled in this plastic. This is an unfortunate reminder that what humans do with their trash has repercussions for other species.This specimen was prepared by Tetrapod Curatorial Assistant, Grant Terrell and is now housed in the Museum of Biological Diversity’s Tetrapod Collection. (Photo: Grant Terrell, 2016)

A modern example of the utility of museum collections is the application of DDT and its effects on North American birds. Chemicals within DDT were responsible for the terminal thinning of eggshells in birds exposed to the pesticide. Not until contemporary eggs could be compared with eggs in museum collections, were scientists able to confirm why avian populations were suffering.  If naturalists had not been consistently collecting eggs from North American bird species, humans may have continued using DDT without fully understanding its effects on non-targeted species. The value of a particular specimen only increases with time. This lesson can effortlessly be learned after only a single encounter with a specimen of a recently extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon. Individuals within museum collections and the observations of naturalists are now all that remain for researchers with questions about such species. The advent of new technologies only increases the value of the work of naturalists such as Sir Hans Sloane. Researchers now sequence the DNA of specimens and compare it to that of modern individuals. It is unknowable what advances may further enhance the value of the study of natural history.

Thus it is very important to ensure preservation of specimens for future generations. Please support our efforts through our current fundraiser.

About the Author: Grant Terrell is a second year student at the Ohio State University who is currently double-majoring in Evolution & Ecology and History. He currently works as a Curatorial Assistant in the Tetrapod Collection of the Museum of Biological Diversity and focuses on Ornithology.

About the Author: Grant Terrell is a second year student at the Ohio State University who is currently double-majoring in Evolution & Ecology and History. He currently works as a Curatorial Assistant in the Tetrapod Collection of the Museum of Biological Diversity and focuses on Ornithology.

Works Cited

Huxley, Robert. The Great Naturalists. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print.

Otter, Christopher. “Natural History.” History 3712. The Ohio State University Main Campus, Columbus. 6 Sept. 2016. Lecture.

Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012. Print.

Wintering strategies of our endangered animals

Over the past weeks we have seen that animals employ three strategies to survive our cold Northern hemisphere winters: migrate, hibernate or adapt. Many bird species migrate, amphibians and reptiles hibernate and mammals, in particular large ones, adapt. So today let’s look at how some  of the endangered or even extinct species survive(d) the winters in Ohio – only 5 more days to contribute to our campaign to purchase a new mobile cabinet for our endangered tetrapods, let’s keep them safe!

male Bachman's Warbler

male Bachman’s Warbler (Whatbird.com)

The Bachman’s Warbler, like most of today’s species in the family wood warblers, migrated south, in this case to Cuba. It is an example of how migratory birds face even more risks than their cousins who stay year-round in one place. Its populations probably declined dramatically as a result of habitat destruction both on the breeding and wintering grounds. The last confirmed breeding record of this species was in 1937, and it has not been reported since 1988.


Indiana bats in cave

Indiana bats cluster together and hibernate during winter in caves, occasionally in abandoned mines. For hibernation, they require cool, humid caves with stable temperatures, under 50° F but above freezing. Only a few caves within the range of the species (Eastern USA) have these conditions. To survive up to 6 months of hibernation they rely on their energy reserves in the form of fat. The stored fat is their only source of energy because insects are rare in the middle of winter. If bats are disturbed during hibernation and move around they use up more energy and may starve.

Hibernating Indiana bats in cave

Hibernating Indiana bats (Wikipedia)

The Allegheny woodrat is adapted to cold conditions: Its fur becomes slightly darker and longer and it caches food in small caves or rock crevices. They feed mainly on plant material which means that they need large piles of it as they eat about five percent of their weight daily. You can imagine that woodrats are busily preparing for the winter these days.


The Carolina Parakeet was rather unusual for a parrot species.

image_carolina_parakeet02First of all it was the only parrot species that ever occurred natively in the USA. Furthermore it did not migrate south in the winter but weathered the cold. This may explain why some of today’s introduced parrot species survive in the wild just fine. Did you know that the last two known parakeets, Lady Jane and Incas, lived together for thirty-two years in the Cincinnati Zoo, the same zoo the last Passenger Pigeon lived? Lady Jane died in 1917 and Incas, soon after, on February 21, 1918.

group of Eskimo Curlews

The Eskimo Curlew migrated to South America where it overwintered in wet pampas grasslands, intertidal and semi-desert areas. A long flight from the breeding grounds in the tundra of the Western Arctic.

The Passenger Pigeon established winter “roosting” sites in the forests in the southern US states, Arkansas to North Carolina south to the uplands of the Gulf Coast states. Birds timed their movements with the availability of food.

We hope this made you appreciate these species even more; please help us preserve their remains for future generations to study. Donate today!

How do mammals survive our cold winters?

Today we explore how mammals spend the winter. Some of them migrate, though often not in response to the cold but rather to changes in rainfall, some hibernate, but many adapt to cooler temperatures. To keep warm, they grow thicker fur, they may collect and store extra food to eat it later and they find shelter in tree holes or burrows. Some may even huddle close together to benefit from each others body heat.

bank voles huddling underground

bank voles huddling underground

Some sixty species of mammals call Ohio home. The ones that you are probably most familiar with, because they are fairly large in size, active during the day and frequent your garden, are the Eastern gray squirrel and white-tailed deer. At dawn and dusk you may catch a glimpse of a racoon or an opossum. The latter two can be seen looking for food at times, while they sleep through periods of bad weather.

Eastern gray squirrel

Eastern gray squirrel study skin

If you have an acorn-producing oak tree in your garden you may have noticed squirrels foraging busily and collecting acorns that they store in safe places so they can retrieve them when the ground is frozen and covered with snow. Squirrels do not hibernate, they slow down their activity and may sleep for days when a snowstorm hits. They build nests out of twigs and leaves in the top of trees where they hide and stay warm.

Their close relative, the Eastern chipmunk, also does not hibernate. These little creatures are now busy collecting food that they scurry down into their newly dug burrows. They do not hibernate even though you may not see them until spring. They sleep in their burrows and wake up periodically to feed on their stores. On a warm winter day you may even be lucky to see one run across the snow.

The Eastern chipmunk has a close relative in Ohio, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, also known as the striped gopher. It inhabits grasslands and prairies in North America and as these habitats are disappearing makes use of substitutes, such as cemeteries. They often are not welcome guests though due to their extensive digging habit in these and other open areas such as golf courses. Their burrows are important though as they hibernate in them. In fall, these little creatures put on a layer of fat and prepare to sleep through winter. They truly hibernate, i.e. their body temperature, heart rate, breathing and metabolic rate drop below normal levels. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels can spend up to 6 months of the year in hibernation!

Next week we will reveal how some of the species associated with our current fundraiser survive(d) the winter, so please check back to find out about the Bachman’s Warbler, Indiana Bat, Allegheny Woodrat, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, and Passenger Pigeon. If any of these species are dear to your heart, consider donating for their preservation!

Reptiles in winter

Last time we talked about how birds spend the winter, many of them leaving our state and moving south. But what do animals do that cannot fly or move long distances? How do lizards, snakes and turtles stay warm in the cooler temperatures? Birds are endothermic homeotherms, animals that keep a constant body temperature and maintain this temperature through metabolic processes. They face the problem of not finding enough food in winter to maintain their high body temperatures. When our fields are covered with snow, frost has turned the soil rock-hard and trees and bushes have lost all leaves and berries there is not much left for birds to feed on (unless they rely on you filling your bird feeder all winter and some of them do take that risk).

Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus at a feeder in Wayne County, Ohio on December 5th, 2015 (© Ed Wransky, ML21615071)

Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus at a feeder in Wayne County, Ohio on December 5th, 2015 © Ed Wransky, ML21615071

Reptiles face an even greater problem, they not only have to worry about food but also about their body temperature dropping drastically, maybe even below temperatures that allow normal metabolic processes. As ectothermic poikilotherms they gain heat from the environment and their body temperature changes with the surrounding temperature. You have probably seen lizards and snakes basking in the sun, particularly early on a cool morning in spring or fall. The last mornings were good examples with temperatures in the low forties but the sun quickly warming up the ground. These reptiles are also warming up and most of the time, when disturbed, are only slowly moving out of harm’s way. Their sensory cells and muscles are not working well at low temperatures.

Eastern garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis

An Eastern garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis basking in the sun


So how do cold-blooded animals survive winter’s cold which comes with reduced daylight hours and little sun – at least in Ohio? Let’s look at turtles, for example. Do you remember the big snapping turtle that spent the summer in your garden pond and fed on all living creatures that would come close?

The recent colder temperatures have slowed the turtle’s metabolism. This means that it needs less oxygen and food. Once the water temperature drops (not quite yet, as you may have seen fog over your pond in the early morning indicating that the pond water and immediate air are warmer than the surrounding cool air, and the water appears to steam), the turtle will look for a sheltered area of your pond and descend to the bottom of it. It will hibernate below the frost line where the water temperature stays constant and the turtle’s metabolism can adjust to a constant rate. (Snapping turtles are actually hardy creatures that have been reported to be active and moving around below the ice on frigid winter days).

Early morning fog over pond

Early morning fog (CC0 public domain)

The turtle slowly uses up its energy reserves and keeps breathing. To sustain the latter turtles have evolved to breath directly through their skin and retrieve oxygen from the water itself. Amphibians survive the same way.

How did we find out about this amazing behavior of hibernation in reptiles? Imagine you are a scientist observing turtles, you watch them in spring, summer and fall and then they suddenly disappear until they resurface in spring. Your first thought may be that they die in fall, maybe right after they had laid some eggs which somehow survive the winter and develop into new life in spring. But the animals that you observe in spring are not young ones. You collect a few and take them to your local natural history museum, where you find many more specimens in the collection and you can compare them with each other. It turns out they are indeed adults and must have survived the winter.

Turtles in glass jars stored in ethanol

Turtle specimens in ethanol

A quick search of our collection database reveals that of the 609 specimens of some 35 species in the turtle family Testudines only one specimen was found alive in February, a Mexican mud turtle Kinosternon integrum that Ted Cavender, then curator of fishes at OSU, collected  in a stream 20 miles west of El Naranjo along Highway 80 in San Luis Potosí county, Mexico on Sunday February 7th. The year was 1971. This was two days after the crew of Apollo 14 started exploring the moon, but probably more important for the turtle, it was a very warm February, with temperatures in the low eighties and even into the nineties in southern California (Wagner 1971 – Weather and Circulation of February 1971). Maybe the turtle was fooled into an early arrival of spring? If such warm weather continued over several weeks, maybe the water temperature rose, increasing the metabolism of the turtle which would use up its energy reserves much faster and would require it to resurface to replenish its reserves. Given the exact data on location and date with this specimen we could investigate further.  If the scenario I laid out above is true, this turtle may even give us a hint at what may happen to turtles across the USA should temperatures continue to rise due to recent climatic changes. I hope you can see how a museum specimen can be a treasure trove of information helping us to understand today’s fauna and in some cases may even help us predict changes into the future.

Mexican mud turtle Kinosternon integrum

Mexican mud turtle Kinosternon integrum

We are still in the middle of our campaign to raise funding for the purchase of a new cabinet for our not-so-lucky animals, species that went extinct because of over-hunting, habitat loss and other mainly human-caused changes in their environment. Please help us spread the word and donate today.

Cool fact: The oldest turtle specimen in our collection is a common musk turtle from Franklin Co, Ohio collected in June 1896.

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:

How can museum collections help us understand bird migration?

Millions of birds migrate south every fall. You may have noticed some recent changes in your backyard bird community. Most of our summer residents have left by now, Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds will be back next spring. Some birds will not succeed on their long journeys, because we have put up many obstacles for them to overcome, such as buildings with clear, shiny windows. Birds try to fly right through them. Thousands of volunteers like you pick up these window-killed birds and take them to their local natural history museum. We prepare them into specimen skins and preserve them for future research.

Window-killed birds collected in downtown Columbus in spring 2013

Window-killed birds collected in downtown Columbus in spring 2013

Over the years these specimens paint a picture of certain routes particular species take, the timing of their migration etc. We have learned that not all individuals of a species migrate at the same time, often young birds migrate later than adults, females differently from males.

To find out when to expect migrating birds in your area visit the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. We can learn so much from our museum bird skins and studies will help us make migration safer for today’s birds.

Sometimes birds get blown off track on their long journey and end up in an unusual location. With so many bird watchers today, these birds usually stir quite a bird watching frenzy. In the past some of them have ended up in our collection like this Magnificent Frigatebird that Milton Trautman collected in Morrow county, Ohio on October 2nd in 1967, almost 50 years ago.

Natural history museum across the country help with these efforts. Read about this student’s project “What can we learn from 30+ years of bird migration data?” at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Before you get involved you may want to read this testimony from volunteers at the Field Museum who collected and prepared many of the specimens for the above study.

Watch this video: