Ryan Norris needed a time machine. The Canadian ecologist wanted to know why a pigeon-sized seabird called the marbled murrelet was tumbling toward extinction. Since it nests high in the trees of old-growth forests, extensive logging of those forests throughout the Pacific Northwest was a likely culprit.
But Norris thought there was more to the story. Accounts from the early and mid-1900s said the stubby-tailed birds ate small fish. More recent accounts described them eating shrimp-like creatures known as krill. Had their diet changed? If so, could that be contributing to their decline?
Photos by Robert Hubner
Good questions–but how could Norris answer them? Finding out what marbled murrelets are eating now was no problem. Finding out what they ate 50 or 100 years ago seemed impossible.
Norris needed a time machine.
He found one, in Washington State University’s Conner Zoology Museum. [Sidebars below]
THE FIRST THING YOU SEE when you approach the Conner Museum is the glassed-in room where the moose stands. The room also holds display mounts, in natural-looking poses, of an elk, some deer, a few dappled fawns. But it’s the moose, with his massive antlers and doleful face, that holds your gaze.
Just down the hall from the moose, three more rooms display birds, mammals, and reptiles from Washington and beyond. This is the public part of the Conner Museum.
In the hallway, Conner Museum curator Kelly Cassidy (’91 Ph.D. Botany) beckons with a tilt of her head. “What we call the real museum is the research collection back here,” she says.
“Back here” is a vast room at the far end of the hall. Other than a couple of computers and the low-slung fluorescent lights, it looks as it might have 100 years ago. Articulated skeletons of a chicken and an owl perch on a bookcase; a fully-feathered owl in strike pose hangs from the ceiling. Most of the room is occupied by rows of dark green metal cabinets that reach over seven feet high. Each cabinet is filled with wooden drawers holding skulls, animal skins that have been stuffed with cotton (“study skins”), and boxes of bones.
It doesn’t look like a time machine. But thanks to new techniques and well-preserved specimens, scientists can now analyze the DNA, diet, and other attributes of animals and plants that died more than 100 years ago. Meanwhile, scientists continue to use “old” techniques like microscopy and careful observation to ferret out answers about biodiversity and species distributions. If you want to see a successful partnership between traditional skills and hot new techniques, go to a natural history museum.
WSU is home to three superb collections: the Conner Museum, Ownbey Herbarium, and James Entomology Collection. All three began almost as soon as Washington State College opened its doors in 1892. Herbarium director Larry Hufford says they were considered central to the school’s land-grant mission to help farmers identify weeds and pests and to document the native flora and fauna of the state.
The collections soon grew beyond their teaching role. What makes them research collections, says Hufford, is “sheer numbers.” The Conner has about 69,000 specimens, the Herbarium about 375,000, the James more than 1.25 million. A museum’s reputation rests in part on the size of its holdings, and these numbers make WSU’s collections among the best in the nation. The Conner houses one of the biggest collections of birds in the Pacific Northwest (about 15,000) and one of the largest collections of mammals in the country. Of 25 peer institutions nationwide, says Conner director Mike Webster, only two (Cornell and Louisiana State) have substantially larger collections.
The numbers are important, says Webster, because having multiple specimens of each species gives us a chance to understand the full extent of a species’ range and the diversity within a species. Individuals of one species are not duplicates; they may have been collected in different years or different seasons, or from different locations. Even individuals collected at the same time from the same population differ from each other; and those differences are important to understanding a species as it is now and how it came to be that way.
The glory of the museums is their regional coverage; from half to two-thirds of their specimens come from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
“That’s where we make a really important offering to the rest of the world,” says Hufford. “We have a really good collection of those three states. In particular, we have the best dryland collections of all three of those states.”
As for insects, director Rich Zack says the James Entomology Collection has more specimens from the Northwest than any other institution.
“The main reason someone would write to us is not to see insects from Malaysia, but to see insects from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and the western United States,” he says.
And yet, the museums also have some surprising strengths, thanks to the idiosyncratic interests of major collectors. The Herbarium, for instance, has a fine collection of Central American bromeliads, contributed by former director Amy Jean Gilmartin, and one of the world’s best collections of sedges, brought in by curator Joy Mastrogiuseppe.
All three museums maintain a steady traffic of specimens on loan to scientists elsewhere. In 2007, the Herbarium got requests for material from 59 research institutions all over the world. Logbooks at the Conner and the James tell a similar tale.
Hufford, Webster, and Zack are trying to get their specimens into the hands of even more researchers by taking their collections virtual. Hufford has a federal grant to help him digitize all the Herbarium’s specimens from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Zack will have key parts of the James collection online within the next year. At the Conner, Cassidy recently finished digitizing the birds–all 15,000 of them–and is now making her way through the mammals.
“We’re trying to get our entire collection online, so it can be accessed by anybody in the world,” says Webster. With a few mouse clicks a researcher in Patagonia who is interested in rosy-finches will be able to find out that the Conner has one of the three biggest collections of rosy-finches in the world. She could then request that some of WSU’s rosy-finch skins be sent to her, or arrange to come to Pullman to examine them.
The collections also get hundreds of “service” requests every year: faculty wanting specimens to show their classes, gardeners trying to identify plants or insects, birdwatchers hoping to figure out what kind of hawk they saw floating over the highway. The Conner Museum’s public displays are especially popular. In 2007 they drew at least 23,000 visitors, only 6,000 of whom were part of a class or campus tour group. The rest came in on their own to view the animals.
Despite their value to researchers and the general public, natural history museums all over the country have struggled in recent decades. They take a lot of space and they don’t bring in a ton of grant money, which often is the main measure of a facility’s worth. Many have had to close, their space given to more high-profile labs and their specimens given to other museums or simply thrown away.
The Conner had a close call when the building that houses it was renovated in the 1980s. The museum had occupied an entire floor plus a mezzanine in Science Hall (now Abelson Hall). Richard E. Johnson, who was director at the time, says partway through the renovation he was told that some of the museum’s space would be turned into laboratories. He’d have to get rid of either the display collection or the research collection; there would no longer be room for both.
Johnson faced an impossible choice. He wouldn’t consider giving up the research collection, and dumping the displays didn’t make sense to him either.
“We were the second-biggest attraction on campus, next to football,” he recalls. Besides, getting the larger mounts out of the building would have been an enormous (and expensive) task. Former director George Hudson had prepared most of the Conner’s display mounts inside the museum, and some, like the moose, were too big to fit through the already-rebuilt doorways.
Enterprising graduate students took the museum’s case to the public, and Spokane TV news crews came to campus to film their protests. Finally the college relented. The museum still lost space; it could no longer acquire large numbers of specimens, and about a third of its display mounts had to stay in storage. But both collections remained intact, to Johnson’s great satisfaction.
“The moose never left the building,” he says.
WHETHER SCIENTISTS A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW will be able to use WSU’s collections to learn about today’s plants and animals will depend on which collection they consult.
The early 2000s will be well-represented at the James Entomology Collection. Zack is adding between 10,000 and 30,000 specimens a year, mostly from projects to document the insects of native Palouse prairie, the moths and aquatic insects of the Pacific Northwest, and the insects of Guam, where former Cougar Ross Miller (’84 Ph.D. Entomology) works.
The Herbarium is growing by about 2,500 specimens a year. That’s a modest pace Hufford says he can sustain for 20 years, given the space available. He’s targeting his acquisitions to record the changing flora of the Northwest—the spread of invasive species, increasing rarity of some natives, and shifts in species distribution due to climate change.
The Conner is not growing. “We are full to the brim,” says Webster. Occasionally someone brings in a bird that flew into a window or a road-killed rodent, but there’s been no systematic collection for many years.
That’s unfortunate, he says. By not adding present-day specimens, the museum is not storing up potential answers for the questions researchers will ask in the future. We don’t even know what we’re losing by not collecting, because we don’t know what information scientists decades from now will be able to glean from the specimens. As Webster points out, Hudson and the others who made the collections the superb resources they are today never foresaw techniques like stable isotope or genetic analysis.
“They didn’t even know what DNA was when they were collecting these specimens,” he says. “That’s going to be true in the future, too– people are going to ask questions that we can’t even think of right now. They’re going to use techniques that we have no comprehension of, to get all sorts of insights about the environment and the world and plants and animals. And if these collections aren’t being maintained, they won’t be able to do that work.”
The one place the Conner has a little bit of elbow-room is in the walk-in freezer where animals are stored until their skins and skulls can be prepared. Like a handful of other museums around the country, the Conner has begun freezing tissues for future genetic and chemical tests–tests that haven’t been invented yet.
When a new animal comes in, Cassidy cuts fingertip-size samples from it and freezes them in small vials. She doesn’t know which tissue will be most useful, so she takes several: muscle, brain, liver, fat. She also freezes the carcasses, in hopes the museum proper will someday have room for them. Traditional skins and skulls are still needed, she says; without them, researchers cannot verify that the species identification on a tissue label is correct, or compare their molecular findings with the preserved form of the whole animal the tissue came from.
“Some of the features that you might consider minor at the time you collect them, somebody down the line might consider important,” she says. “You’re trying to collect something that you hope will be of value.”
SO THE VIALS of frozen tissue wait along with the skins and skulls and boxes of bones and pressed plants and pinned and pickled insects. They have much to tell now, and will have even more to say when someone decades hence figures out how to read more of their secrets.
In the big room of the James Entomology Collection, Rich Zack looks down the orderly rows of cabinets filled with the dried forms of thousands of insects.
“This is like a library,” he says. “All the specimens in here are little packets of information.”
Larry Hufford likes that comparison.
“The uses of a herbarium are limited only by imagination, and that’s very much like a library,” he says. “I like to think that when a creative, imaginative person walks into a herbarium, they find a way to use it.
“You open any cabinet, there are stories there.”
On the Web
Saved by Science
Artist Justine Cooper’s large-format photographs of the scientific collections at the American Museum of Natural History document the intersection of science, curation, and human curiosity. Her work was noted in SEED Magazine, New Scientist, and the National Academy of Sciences. (Blurb—flipbook preview)