Preserving Past and Present in a Drawer: Specimen Preparation

By Sarah Toner November 19, 2015
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A group of Cornell students measure Pitta specimens at the American Museum of Natural History; photo Teresa Pegan

When news of the rediscovery of a rare species, the Moustached Kingfisher, went viral, public support was initially positive. However, after a fiery op-ed in Huffington Post pointed out the fact that the individual bird was collected–killed so that scientists could study and preserve the body–and argued against the collection, the topic turned into a heated debate. The scientist in question posted a justification of the collection, citing the apparent abundance of the bird and the value of having a male specimen in the future.

Although controversy surrounds the question of when to collect specimens, many universities and museums have large and useful collections of bird specimens. The most common type of specimen is the study skin, a specimen that removes the flesh and leaves the skin, plumage, and hard external parts (bill and legs) intact, so that the bird roughly resembles a live bird. Unlike taxidermy, which seeks to preserve a life-like posture and shape, preparing study skins typically involves positioning the
birds flat on their backs in order to store them more easily.

Famous ornithologists such as Audubon, Wilson, and Townsend used study skins as their primary means of discovering new species in North America because study skins could be easily transported long distances for experts to compare with specimens of known species. Study skins are now the primary method that researchers use to study extinct species such as Passenger Pigeons and Eskimo Curlews. Modern specimens frequently come from birds that hit windows or die accidentally, although in some cases, such as with new or rare species, birds may be intentionally taken for a collection. With both common and rare species, modern specimens can provide a wealth of information, enabling researchers all around the world to better understand the different factors affecting birds’ lives and conserve many species in the future.

A specimen of the now-extinct Eskimo Curlew in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates; photo Sarah Toner

A specimen of the now-extinct Eskimo Curlew in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates; photo Sarah Toner

While the question of when to take a rare bird can be controversial, specimen collections, including modern specimens, are vastly important to ornithology. As a result, students who know how to prepare specimens are in demand for many research projects. We asked several of these students about their experiences with “skinning”: Matty Hack, a senior at Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI; Nathan Martineau, a freshman at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI; and Sarah Dzielski, a sophomore at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

Where did you learn specimen preparation?

NM: I learned the basics of specimen preparation last year, at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology.

MH: I learned specimen preparation from Janet Hinshaw, my supervisor, and Aspen Ellis, a senior volunteer, at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum, in the Bird Collection within the Museum of Zoology.

SD: I learned specimen preparation at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates. I still prep specimens there today as a work study student.

Why did you want to learn? What is the value of knowing how to prepare birds? Have you experienced benefits in your career or birding from preparing skins?

NM: I knew it would benefit me as an ecologist to learn how to prepare specimens. My experience is not extensive, but it will still benefit me in my college career: starting next semester, I am set to begin a job preparing bird skins for Northern Michigan University’s specimen collection as a result of my previous experience with specimen prep.

Beyond college, I want to go into a job involving field research, and I may end up working on a project that involves collecting and preparing specimens in the field. Preparing specimens has increased my familiarity with bird anatomy and physiology, which is sure to be of value to me in both my college classes and my career.

MH: I wanted to add a scientific dimension to my experience with birds. I had already experienced birds in the field, and as someone considering ornithology as a career, I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed them in the lab as well. Specimen preparation seemed like a good way to gain some lab experience with birds.

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Prepared American Robin; photo Matty Hack

For me, this decision very much paid off. I picked up a ton of information about bird physiology and bird taxonomy during preparation. I even gained new insights about bird ecology and behavior that enhanced my experience in the field; I greatly enjoyed seeing what I had learned in the lab in action. It also affirmed my hope that I would enjoy a career in ornithology where I could study birds indoors and outdoors.

For young birders, specimen preparation is a great way to translate a love for birds into a “practical scientific skill,” and it can show you whether you are interested in pursuing birds scientifically as well as recreationally. Also, exploring the collections themselves is incredibly fun. I could spend hours in there.

SD: I originally started preparing birds as a freshman in college, when my friend was teaching the specimen prep class. I thought it would be kinda fun to give it a try! Since then, I’ve used my preparation skills on research expeditions and taught other folks how to skin. I’m into bird banding as well, and skinning birds has improved by knowledge of molt, bird anatomy, and birds in general. Skinning attracts a nerdy crowd who know a lot about birds, so when you’re stuck in a room with them for a few hours skinning, you learn a ton.

In your opinion, is it important or not important for collections to a) keep specimens, b) obtain modern specimens, and c) take and preserve specimens of rare birds? Why?

NM: Collections are extremely important to our understanding of the natural sciences. With a large number of specimens belonging to the same species, spread across various collections, taken from different areas across the species’ range and during different periods in time, we can learn a vast amount of information. We can compare physiological and morphological characteristics among specimens from different localities to understand the variation in a species across its range; we can use more advanced DNA and RNA sequencing technology to do genetic research non-invasively; and we can compare data from specimens of different species to enhance our understanding of phylogenetic relationships and evolution over time in a way that photography, banding, or field observation cannot do. Therefore, old specimens must be kept. It follows that we should continue to collect specimens, so that scientists can add to and benefit from this rich source of data far into the future.

Objections to skinning sometimes rest on the misconception that scientific collecting is  heartless and outdated–a sort of a “trophy hunt.” While collecting in the time of Audubon was often overzealous, the scientific community has since progressed; collecting is now done according to strict permitting and ethics guidelines. Another misconception is that scientific collecting contributes to the endangerment and eventual extinction of species. Truth is, the careful collection of small numbers of specimens never produces mortality high enough to significantly impact a species’ population. If it does, the species may already be too far gone. However, even that concern is moot point, since the guidelines for ethics and population size prevent specimens from being  taken from populations in such imminent danger of extinction, which is instead caused primarily by unsustainable hunting, invasive species, and habitat loss/degradation. All in all, keeping old specimens in collections and trusting scientists to collect modern ones responsibly are clearly important. Here’s a link to a good opinion piece co-authored by a number of qualified scientists discussing why scientific collecting is necessary.

A tray of different specimens from around the world in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; photo Matty Hack

A tray of different specimens from around the world in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; photo Matty Hack

MH: In my opinion, keeping specimen collections is extremely important for several reasons. First, specimen collections provide a wealth of scientific data for anyone who wants to study the anatomy, morphology, evolution, and taxonomy of the specimens. Specimens are crucial for continuing to make taxonomy more accurate. Even fields that seem less directly connected to specimens, like conservation biology, can benefit from specimens. One of the pieces of information for my birds was location and (if known) cause of death; this can be used for conservation research.

Modern specimens are also important, in part because this research can be especially effective when studying specimens obtained over a broad period of time. Also, we can’t predict all the ways in which humans are going to change the natural world, so obtaining modern specimens demonstrates what our wildlife is like at this point in time for future generations, who may be seeing a very different world.

Taking and preserving specimens of rare birds poses a bit of a moral dilemma. While I won’t weigh in on whether museums ultimately should or should not do this, there are definitely benefits of taking specimens of rare birds. These specimens provide critical information about species that we might know very little about. We could potentially apply this information to the species’ advantage to plan conservation efforts for the bird. For example, if we use the data to learn which ecological niches the rare bird favors, we could direct conservation efforts to those niches.

SD:  Yes! It is definitely important for museums to keep specimens, and collecting is important for environmental monitoring. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big supporter of animal rights and a vegetarian. I completely disagree with the inhumane treatment and unnecessary killing of animals. However, collecting is for a purpose. It has saved species from extinction in the past and continues to be used for conservation research to this day. Here’s a past example we’re all familiar with: the pesticide DDT. Its role in the thinning of raptor eggshells was discovered by examining eggs in egg collections, an important study that helped raptors bounce back after the ban of this pesticide. It’s also important to collect modern specimens (humanely and in reasonable numbers!). With climate change and human development spreading into biodiverse areas, it’s essential to monitor bird populations in these areas. Taking a small number of birds from these regions has little effect on that ecosystem and can help preserve these regions later. For example, a recent Cornell collecting trip went to the Honduras and collected a number of birds for the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates from many regions in danger of deforestation; in a few years, the bird populations would be extirpated from those areas because of development. Better to take samples now for research before the entire population is lost later on. I know it’s a difficult thing for a birdwatcher, nature enthusiast, or animal rights activist to sacrifice a bird’s life for science. However, the benefits outweigh the costs. I am more a conservationist than anything else, and when it comes to preserving our ecosystems, research and hard evidence will help the cause.

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Finishing up the preparation of an American Goldfinch; photo Matty Hack.

Was it challenging to find a place to learn to prepare specimens or to arrange the opportunity? What advice would you give to a student interested in learning to skin?

NM: The opportunity presented itself to me in the form of another young birder who happened to work at the University of Michigan’s collection. I think that the best approach for those searching for such an opportunity would be to find nearby museums and/or natural history museums and contact them, expressing an interest in learning how to skin birds and perhaps becoming a regular volunteer. From what I’ve seen, museums often need another pair of hands.

MH: For me, finding a place to learn to prepare specimens wasn’t a challenge, but I am lucky enough to have a first-rate natural history museum just ten minutes from my house. Arranging the logistics was a bit more difficult, but still very doable; Janet was willing to help, and I just took the bus from school to the museum.

Realize that there is a learning curve; you won’t get it right by yourself on your first, or even your fifth try, and that’s okay—there will be people to help who won’t expect you to know everything right away. Your skills will start to develop after you put in enough time. The story in my lab was that the best preparator who ever worked there spent six hours on her first bird ever, and ultimately tore off its head (accidentally). The process actually isn’t as nauseating as it’s purported to be; my lab was always pretty tidy.  

SD: Nope! Cornell rocks. If you’re looking to start skinning, come to Cornell and hang out with the Friday skinning class!!! Or, for a more local option, find the nearest museum and email them about volunteering as a skinner or about specimen preparation classes.

-Sarah Toner

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