field tripWinter 2010
“What we have at the museum is a giant lending library of unread volumes. And each one of those volumes is a specimen waiting to be read.”
- John Rawlins, head of invertebrate zoology


Oh, the Places They Go

Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s treasure trove of collections—millions of specimens strong—travel far and wide in the name of science, education, and even art.    
By John Altdorfer

Whether it’s a stuffed toucan once again taking wing to Brazil or a slimy slug slithering off to the American West, a   large portion of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s 20 million specimens are in big demand.

On any given day, science staff can be found selecting, packing, and shipping the insects, mollusks, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles that make up the majority of the museum’s nearly 500 annual loans. While some may consist of a single item—a turtle the size of a hubcap transported in a five-gallon container filled with alcohol—others may run in the tens of thousands—think 30,000 snout moths packed in enough boxes to fill a panel truck. Each transaction, despite the number of specimens, is considered a single loan.

 “We regularly lend the genitalia   of insects,” notes John Rawlins, the museum’s head of invertebrate zoology. “The main reason is that you might have a big moth that is very delicate and would break apart if you shipped it. However, you can remove and send its little genitalia which contain all   the information a specialist needs.  This kind of loan isn’t at all out of  the ordinary. But it does get people’s attention when you talk about it.”

With nearly 19 million specimens under his care, Rawlins and his staff get plenty of attention from fellow scientists, other museums, government agencies, teachers, graduate students, and artists who annually make dozens of requests to borrow the likes of moths, crane flies, butterflies, and beetles. While swarms of bugs account for a large chunk of the museum’s loans, every science section—from paleontology to botany—makes them.

The museum’s collection of 195,000 bird specimens of roughly 5,700 species regularly take flight to destinations as close to home as Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh and as far away as Latin America, says Steve Rogers, collection manager for birds, reptiles, and amphibians. One of the most frequent borrowers might come as a surprise: he’s a Pittsburgh-area avian artist whose studio is just about a mile away, as the crow flies, from Powdermill Nature Reserve. The  museum’s biological field station in Ligonier is home to one of the oldest bird-banding stations in the United States.

“I probably borrowed my first bird from the collection in 1973 or 1974,” says Larry Barth, who is world-renowned for his realistic carvings of birds in their natural settings. After nearly 40 years of borrowing, he still experiences the thrill of finding the perfect specimen to spark his creativity.

“The quality of the birds is amazing,” he says. “I can’t explain the feeling of searching the specimen drawers and finding an immaculate bird. When that happens, you can see the respect and reverence with which they were prepared. Every one of those birds is dead. But to an artist, they still have so much life to them.”

If the search for nature’s beauty is the reason Barth and other artists turn to the museum, many more dig into the collections to protect the natural environment birds and other living things inhabit. As he prepares a Montana jumping slug in a small glass vial for a loan, Tim Pearce, head of the 1.8 million-specimen-strong section of mollusks, recounts a story worthy of a CSI episode that literally involved shelling out a few clams to prove a point.

“There was an investigation of a river in Virginia to see if elevated levels of mercury in the water were caused by a factory operating nearby,” says Pearce. “The company claimed that the mercury levels were high before it set up business there. So researchers borrowed our clams that were pulled from the river before the factory started operating, and compared them to clams they got from the river while the factory was running. Our ‘before’ clams had much lower mercury levels than the ‘after’ clams, so with this help, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the company was responsible for the pollution.”

Generally, loans serve a higher scientific purpose, providing information and context when, say, an invasive species strikes, or there is a need to understand why a species is either rapidly expanding or trending toward extinction. But Rogers recalls the time a Pittsburgh ad agency borrowed a stuffed parrot to sit on the shoulder of a “pirate” as part of a marketing campaign. Despite that rare odd example, not just anyone can borrow a specimen, and the bulk of the museum’s loan requests come from established research professionals and students working towards advanced degrees.

In Ames, Iowa, Chelsea Berns is studying how the beaks of hummingbirds evolved to precisely fit the specific flowers they feed on. The Iowa State University doctoral candidate turned to the museum’s collection to support her thesis. 

“Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a giant, diverse, and amazing collection of hummingbirds,” she says. “So far, I’ve borrowed specimens four or five times, with as many as 100 to 130 birds in some loans. Getting that many birds at once is very efficient and gives me more specimens to study and learn from.”

And learning is what the borrowing process is all about. Best of all, the exchange of knowledge is often a two-way street.

“What we have at the museum is a giant lending library of unread volumes,” says Rawlins. “And each one of those volumes is a specimen waiting to be read. By lending specimens outside the museum’s walls, we are helping to share our knowledge with others and enhancing our reputation as a valuable research resource.

“But a funny thing happens in return,” he continues. “When we lend specimens of unknown species, they come back identified. That enables us to bring the knowledge of the world’s best experts back to Carnegie Museums.”



Also in this issue:

Putting the Magic in the Miniature Railroad  ·  The Things They Carried  ·  The Expressionist  ·  In Search of the Arabian Horse  ·  Directors' Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Marilyn Russell  ·  Science & Nature: A Walk with the Dinosaurs  ·  Artistic License: Finding Joy in the Moment  ·  The Big Picture