Anyone who’s spent time at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., or just about any other natural history museum knows how mesmerizing it can be. Dinosaur skeletons that reach the ceiling, cases upon cases of animals, plants and other specimens, and engaging displays showcasing Earth’s geologic processes have inspired more than one person I know (including myself) to study science. With Duke Conservation Society, I recently had the opportunity to visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum is the largest of its kind in the Southeast. It contains four floors of collections, live animals, exhibitions and digital displays showcasing North Carolina ecosystems of past and present, paleontology and fossils, DNA, weather, oceans, and a hands-on naturalist center filled with skulls, furs, microscopes and specimens preserved in jars. Walking through the museum, you can peek into the labs of researchers studying genomics, mammalogy, astronomy and a variety of other fields.
We spent the majority of our visit in the basement of the museum, where we were lucky to receive a private tour of the research collections. This floor houses approximately 25,000 specimens that are used for research by museum staff and loaned out to researchers at other institutions. We started out by talking with Lisa Gatens, the mammalogy research curator. They hold an impressive collection of study skins, hides, skulls, bones and complete skeletons—from the tiniest of shrews to full-sized polar bears. In addition to preserving research specimens, the mammalogy department conducts an extensive research program using camera traps and animal tracking. Working with citizen science projects like eMammal and GPS tracking technology such as Movebank, they investigate the spatial ecology of animals and factors that affect abundance.
In the ornithology department, we met with curator John Gerwin and collections manager Brian O’Shea. We also saw a variety of preserved birds, including warblers, birds-of-paradise, penguins and emus. John primarily studies habitat uses by birds on coffee farms in Nicaragua, particularly looking at the effect of bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee farms. Brian studies the distribution, community dynamics and spatial ecology of birds in lowland rainforest and coastal secondary forests in Guyana and Suriname. He works closely with local biologists, local communities and NGOs on survey expeditions to collect data. John and Brian illustrated the importance of long-term data records and the preservation of specimens for looking at changes over time. For example, by having eggs from both the late 1800s and the 1960s, researchers were able to determine the negative effect that the pesticide DDT was having on the width of raptor egg shells. They were able to measure the width of shells from both time periods and determined that the width was significantly smaller, leading to higher mortality during nesting.
With the growth of non-invasive sampling and surveying techniques in recent years, such as camera traps, GPS tagging and drone surveying, it is easy to forget that much of what we know about species today started with collections like this. These collections are still relevant and widely-used for research today, where physically handling and sampling specimens allows for determining hybridization among species, the effect of pesticides over time and more. Meeting with the researchers, it was easy to see their respect and care for each and every specimen in the collection, as well as their love of their professions. If you’re ever looking for something to do in Raleigh, I highly encourage a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences!