Species of October: Eastern Hellbender

Most of the amphibian species in the Tetrapod Collection are preserved in jars and, since the specimens are rather small, many of these jars aren’t very big. For something like a frog or a toad, a large jar isn’t really needed. However, there is one species of amphibian that is so massive, we need to use our biggest jars in order to contain it. If you like amphibians, you may want to read on.

The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a salamander species that can reach up to two feet in length. Just think about the average salamander length of 4-8 inches, and then triple that! If that isn’t enough to impress you, these salamanders can have a life expectancy of anywhere

A jar containing two Eastern Hellbenders from our collection

A jar containing two Eastern Hellbenders from our collection

from 25 to 60 years! With that kind of lifespan, the Eastern Hellbender can probably outlive most of your pets. Just like their name implies, the Eastern Hellbender is found throughout the eastern U.S. with a few populations in the southern end of Ohio. They are aquatic amphibians that can be found under large stones in rocky riverbeds where there is an abundance of their favorite food item, crayfish. They have wrinkly brown skin, which is often used by observers to distinguish them from their closely related cousins, the Mudpuppy. For more general facts about the Eastern Hellbender, visit the Ohio Amphibians website.

We have eleven Eastern Hellbender specimens in the collection, the oldest of which was collected in the Ohio River near Cincinnati on March 22nd in 1901 (bottom left on the map). The last specimen to be added to the collection was from 1970, with no new specimens added since then. Given the size of these animals, coupled with the fact that more than half of our hellbender specimens from Ohio, you may wonder why you’ve

Localities where hellbenders were collected

Localities where hellbenders were collected

never seen one in the wild (if you have, then I truly envy you). Well in, addition to being nocturnal, these salamanders have become rather rare. While there has been some recent improvement, the population of hellbenders has been steadily declining in the last few decades. Threats such as pollution of rivers, disease, and stocking of game fish, have reduced the Eastern Hellbender’s numbers noticeably.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, finding an animal for research is very difficult. According to a recent paper by Olsen et. al (2012), eDNA methods could prove useful in finding hellbenders for study. The idea behind Environmental DNA (or eDNA) is that, by analyzing a sample of water or soil, you will be able to determine what species are in the area. In this study, Olsen et. al were able to detect Eastern Hellbenders by using the eDNA method on samples of water from rivers where these animals may be found. This opens up a whole new set of possibilities for scientific research since this method can make finding specimens much easier. To learn more about Olsen, Briggler, and Williams’ study, please click here.

It’s easy to see why these salamanders got the name hellbender. Thanks to their massive size, amazing longevity, and rarity in the wild, the Eastern Hellbender has earned a place in the hearts and minds of many naturalists; and if we keep our rivers and streams clean, we can ensure this will be true for many years to come.


“Eastern Hellbender.” Ohio Amphibians. N.p., 26 Feb. 2012. http://ohioamphibians.com/salamanders/Hellbender.html

“Ohio’s Hellbender Population Set Up for Success.” Ohio Department of Natural Resources. N.p., 09 Oct. 2014.


Olsen, Z. H., Briggler J.T., Williams R.N. 2012 An eDNA Approach to Detect Eastern Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus A. Alleganiensis) Using Samples of Water. Wildlife Research 39, 629-36. http://www.publish.csiro.au/?paper=WR12114

Brown Bats and Red Bats and Myotis Oh my!

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.

Species of July: Indiana Bat

Three Indiana Bat skins from the Tetrapod Collection.

Indiana bats from the Tetrapod Division

by Raymond Gonzo

There’s nothing like being outdoors on a warm summer night. The sunset, the fireflies, a barbeque all make summer nights truly magical. However, there is an important part of the summer night that you won’t hear too many people reminiscing about, bats flying overhead. Bats though play an important role in making these summer nights so pleasant and memorable, they feast on mosquitoes and help keep their numbers in check.

Here in the Tetrapod collection, we have several species of bats that have been preserved and placed in a glass container with labels for each individual so that we can show them to visitors. While any of the species that we have would make for interesting conversation, I feel that it would be most interesting to discuss a species of bat that is both unique and important to the Midwest and Ohio, the Indiana Bat.

Weighing the same as approximately three pennies and with a wingspan just under one foot, the Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis) is quite small . Despite being small, these bats can have a large impact: they are capable of eating half their body weight in insects per night and when you do the math, a bat can eat 3.75 g of mosquitoes which amounts to roughly 1,500 mosquitoes at 2.5 mg each. Thus bats are highly valuable in pest control. Like all bats, the Indiana Bat will hibernate during the winter when there are no insects to be found. These bats hibernate in very large clusters and, like their Latin name (sodalis, meaning companion) implies, are very social. When hibernating bats slow their metabolism, heart rate and breathing rate to extremely low levels to conserve energy. Given that they cannot refuel during the cold months, their energy reserves are finite and any unnecessary movement will cause them to burn more of their fat reserves than they can afford to lose. Thus during hibernation, bats absolutely cannot be disturbed. This will cause the bats to starve and die before the warmer weather with replenished food supplies returns. To find out more about the Indiana Bat in particular, you can visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.

The Indiana bat, has been endangered since 1967. One of the reasons is disturbance during hibernation. There are a few different causes for disturbance of the bats’ hibernation, but the biggest threat nowadays may be white-nose syndrome.

The white-nose syndrome is a fungus that was introduced to North American caves by European spelunkers sometime in the early 2000’s. The fungus causes a white patch to grow on the bats’ nose, hence the name; this irritates the bat and may alter its behavior. Bats with this syndrome have been observed flying around in the middle of the winter, burning more fat than they normally would, which ultimately leads to death by starvation. This disease has already killed millions of bats across the U.S. and Canada and according to some researchers, it may continue to do so before we will see improvement.

According to a study conducted by Wayne E Thogmartin et al (2013) the population of the Indian Bat will be ravaged by white-nose syndrome over the next century. The study conducted was able to predict the rate at which bats will die off should conditions continue as they are, and they’ve found that the Indiana Bat will survive into the next half century, but at greatly reduced numbers. There is, however, the chance that the bats will develop immunity to the fungus, which could turn things around.

Bats of all species (the Indiana bat included) are dying due to the white-nose fungus’ rapid advancement. If we lose these bats, then we lose a very effective regulator of insect populations. The good news is that there are many ways you can help bats, starting in your own backyard in order to make it more inhabitable for bats. You can also support an organization that is working to save bats (e.g. the organization for bat conservation), and you can attend programs to learn more about bats.

At OSU Marne Titchenell, Wildlife Extension Program Specialist has studied bats and knows about their ecology and management. Marne and other naturalists periodically give talks on bat conservation at local metro parks. This weekend, join a Journey into Nature with Bats at Glacier Ridge Metro Park on Saturday July 25th at 8pm or take a bat walk at Blacklick Woods Metro Park on July 31st. Happy bat watching!


Thogmartin W.E., Carol A.S.R., Szymanski J.A., McKann P.C., Pruitt L., King R.A., Runge M.C., Russell R.E. 2013 White-nose Syndrome Is Likely to Extirpate the Endangered Indiana Bat over Large Parts of Its Range. Biological Conservation 160, 162-72. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320713000207

“Indiana Bat (Myotis Sodalis).” USFWS: Indiana Bat (Myotis Sodalis) Fact Sheet. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 18 May 2015. http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/mammals/inba/inbafctsht.html

“White-Nose Syndrome (WNS).” USGS National Wildlife Health Center –. U.S. Geological Survey, 13 Mar. 2015. http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/white-nose_syndrome/

Bruce, Heidi, and Shannan Stoll. “How to Save Bats in Your Own Backyard.” YES! Magazine. YES! Magazine, 17 July 2012. http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/how-to-save-backyard-bats

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.


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.

Birding BioBlitz for Earth Day

Earth Day is coming up (April 22nd) when people worldwide engage in activities that benefit our natural environment and/or raise awareness of environmental issues. We will kick off the week around Earth Day with an early-morning (7-9 am) birding walk through the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park on Saturday April 18th. Our goal is to see and record as many bird species as possible, hence BioBlitz.

More eyes will spot more birds, so please come and join us and help us assess the bird diversity. This is the best time to watch for birds along the Olentangy rivers, as migrating birds follow the river as a landmark. All 37 species of colorful Wood warblers that occur annually in Ohio have been reported at the OSU wetlands. Will we be able to see them all?

Students bird watching

You may want to refresh your memory of what they look like with the detailed information provided in the ODNR bird booklets, accompanied by a CD of their songs.

Whether you are new to birdwatching or a veteran, come join us on Saturday, we will meet in front of the Heffner research and education building; parking is free! Please bring a field guide and binoculars if you have some!

If you have any questions about the event, please contact Angelika Nelson at nelson.794@osu.edu.

Blackburnian Warbler adopted!

Recently a Blackburnian Warbler was adopted as part of our Adopt-a-bird program.

Millions of birds across North America are killed every year by collisions with windows and other man-made structures. Migrating birds are particularly vulnerable on their long-distance journeys. Birds in your backyard may spend the winter in South America!  It is important to document the incidence of window kills, so that actions can be taken to prevent them.

Museum collections of bird skins are accessible to scientists all over the world and each specimen holds a wealth of information: sex, age, nutritional status etc. Modern technologies allow us to gain information about feeding habits and genetic relations. Thus specimens contribute significantly to our knowledge of biodiversity.

If you adopt a bird for a year, you will receive

  • Your name displayed with the bird skin in the Museum for one year
  • Photo and detailed life history description (including sounds) of the sponsored bird
  • Photo documentation of the process of preparing your bird for the museum

Follow the preparation process of the Blackburnian Warbler:

Blackburnian Warbler in freezer bag

Blackburnian Warbler in freezer bag


Measuring wing length

Measuring wing length

Shaping the body with cotton

Shaping the body with cotton

The final specimen

The final specimen will be added to the collection

This program is in collaboration with the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative, a non-profit group that works with businesses and citizens to prevent collisions of birds with buildings.

For a complete list of currently available species e-mail the collection manager.

A Week of Shadowing–Brought to you by Sara

Museums are magical, wonderful places filled with dead things, and a seemingly endless array of shelves and cabinets. It’s amazing.

My first experience with The Ohio State University (OSU) was a campus tour in the midst of junior year’s frantic, college-search during summer. But when that haze settled and senior year rolled around with the spring time shadowing, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: OSU Museum of Biodiversity (MBD). Natural museums and specimen preparation had always piqued my interest. There was a place where I could go through archives and archives of animals and potentially skin a dead bird? Count me in.

I didn’t live in the area, though my relatives did, so getting to the museum took some arrangement. (I live in Alabama, so readjusting to this foreign phenomenon of “snow” took time). But when I did manage to straighten everything out, I was incredibly excited. I walked into the Tetrapod Collection to be greeted by a labyrinth of shelves and dead things.

Picture of Tetrapod shelving units full of their mounted bird specimens

The labyrinth of shelves and dead things

As enthusiastic as I was and am about museums, I certainly didn’t know everything they did or how they stayed organized. Stephanie and Emily (MBD’s Tetrapod Collection Staff) were quick to remedy that for me. There was running around and sorting aplenty: I learned about shelf life, databases, how to sort specimens, sew tags, create loans, and pick out the most appealing animals for classes (i.e. the taxidermy that isn’t glaring at you).

Picture of mounted mink specimens barring their teeth.

Not sure if you are judging me or not…

Many classrooms, organizations, and artists borrow items—ranging from images to boxed-up owls—from museums, and with good reason. Museums are interactive, interdependent systems that rely on each other and the community to remain operational. They are constantly growing and changing catalogs with an infinite supply of valuable information. The more people that recognize museums importance, the better. While museum work has its fair share of tedium between fun, I’m now confident that I want to work in one. The hard work needed to run a museum is worth it.

A drawer full of skinned shorebirds.

A drawer full of skinned shorebirds.

I also learned that when skinning a bird, cornmeal is the answer to everything. In fact, it’s so eager to share its knowledge and worth that will get everywhere. There will be cornmeal in your dreams twenty years from now. Accept it. Aside from the omnipresent cornmeal, I learned how to put a round skin together from top to bottom, and went through the entire process of inverting and re-stuffing a bird. My subject was a House Sparrow. Although he lost weight during the ordeal, after all the brain-scooping, measuring, humerus trimming, and stuffing, he was back to his fluffy plump self.

Picture of a House Sparrow

The beginning of the process

A picture of a House Sparrow with it's sternum exposed, and it's body covered in cornmeal.

The beginning of the process

A picture of the house sparrow carcass almost completely detached from the specimen's skin

Removing the carcass

A picture of an empty House Sparrow skin.

A fully inverted skin!

A fully skinned, House sparrow specimen that has been re-stuffed making it a round skin.

All finished, time to pin the bird so it can dry.

A bird wrapped in cheese cloth, pinned to a styrofoam board to dry.

The pinned specimen, which will dry and be put in the collection.

While the Tetrapod Collection was amazing, it wasn’t the only part of the biodiversity building I visited. Thanks to Dr. Angelika Nelson (Curator of the Tetrapod and Borror Lab collections), I also got to see the Borror Lab of Bioacoustics, and go on a birdwatching trek. I watched the lab digitize animal calls and transfer them from cassettes to the internet, where they would be available for anyone to access. Birds are giving mammals a run for their money as my favorite animals after my visit to the MBD. Besides just listening to birds, I saw many of Ohio’s local avian residents with my own eyes through a pair of binoculars. The Red-winged Blackbirds are out in full this season, noisily perching atop any shrub they can find and displaying. The wetlands, as a whole, are teeming with life.

A round skin of a Red-winged Blackbird male.

Red-winged Blackbird, a species that is alive and well in the wetlands.

Sadly, my week-long shadowing experience at OSU is drawing to an end. Though I stayed in the Tetrapod and Borror Biacoustic collections, the Triplehorn Insect, Acarology, Ichthyology, and Mollusk collections are all wonderful as well. I owe lots of thanks to Dr. Angelika Nelson, Stephanie Malinich, and everyone at the museum for making this possible and showing me around. It’s dismaying that I won’t get to visit the museum again for a long time. But this visit was amazing in every regard, and reminded me why I love museums.

I’m probably still going to find cornmeal in my pockets after I’ve left…

Second life of a manatee

You may have seen the newest addition to the tetrapod collection, a manatee skeleton, during the Open House (7-Feb) or read the previous blog post. Last Sunday the manatee was in the news again: reporters from the Columbus Dispatch had interviewed Andy Calinger-Yoak, EEOB Ph.D. candidate who articulated the skeleton. He told the detailed story of manatee Willoughby’s short life, how she was sent from St. Lucie River in Florida to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to recover from injuries from a boat incident, her death two years later and how she ended up well preserved in our museum collection. Andy took on the challenge, recruited a team of helpers and articulated Willoughby’s full skeleton so that visitors can learn about peculiarities of and adaptations to a manatee’s lifestyle.

You can read the full article and hear an interview with Andy here.

Andy talking about the manatee skeleton

Andy talking about the manatee skeleton


Curator of tetrapods

As the curator of the tetrapod collection I am often being asked what the collection is used for and who uses it. The answer is simple, specimens are used for research and teaching as well as art projects and the users come form a wide range of agencies, organizations, schools and universities.

So what are tetrapods anyway? For those of you who speak Greek or Latin, this is no mystery, tetra means four and pedes means feet, so all animals that have in their current or ancestral state four limbs. Yes, birds are included too, wings being their second pair of limbs.

How old are the specimens? Some of them, especially among the birds, are from the 18-hundreds, others are very recent. Just today an American Woodcock was added to the collection. Not quite added yet, this bird must have hit a window and died, so we put it into our freezer where it joined hundreds of other birds that are awaiting their promotion to museum specimen.

You will learn about techniques how we prepare birds and other animals in some later posts.

dead American Woodcock

American Woodcock found by Oleksandr Zinenko