Monday, March 31, 2008

Why do you need so many?

Collection Manager, Jim Dines, shows off some bats

Thursday I visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and was treated to a behind the scenes look at the ornithology and mammalogy departments. Kimball Garrett, Collection Manager, Ornithology and James Dines, Collection Manager, Mammalogy, took us through drawers full of well preserved birds and mammals of all shapes, sizes and colors.

The ornithology collection was started in 1913 with 250 specimens and has grown to more than 104,000 over the years. Mr. Garrett admitted that now a days, most of the birds are donated from zoos and rehabilitation centers and citizens turning in "window kills" rather than full scale collection trips. Each specimen is meticulously preserved with information about the location found, behavior prior to death, stomach contents and a staggering number of measurements.

The Pelt Room

So why do they need so many? Science, that big amorphous entity which encompasses both people and ideas, is constantly evolving, developing new methods and techniques. Every new discovery opens more doors to be explored. Mr. Garrett told us about a newly developed test that is allowing researchers to track migration routes based on contaminants in the tissues of a bird. With access to carefully prepared and cataloged collections like those at the Natural History Museum of LA County, researchers are able to map how migration patterns have changed over a larger period of time thus identifying trends that span further than one human life time.

Collection Manager, Kimball Garrett reads about a yellow-bellied sapsucker

The down side is that the process is destructive. A feather plucked here and there might not seem like much but over the course of 50 years, no more feathers will be left. The challenge is to selectively allow specimens to be used and yet preserve the collection for whatever tests science comes up with in the next 100 years.

My visit was just a little bit creepy but mostly fascinating, educational and inspiring.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers all in a row

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