In the research museum business, especially in the biological sciences, we’ve long been seeing declines in the number of positions being filled. This is something to be worried about because a) we have a lot to learn about biodiversity still, b) we’re losing said biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, and c) collections need to continue growing because they document so many important aspects of the environments we humans depend on. It’s not like other disciplines in research museums are getting fat at the expense of those disciplines losing positions; it seems to be an industry-wide phenomenon. Vicki Funk of the Smithsonian Institution recently posted an article outlining the dire situation in botany at a global scale.
On the other hand, the rising U.S. economy seems to have opened up a number of new vacancies, leading Michael Ivie of Montana State University to write an email to TAXACOM entitled “What A Great Time to be a Young Systematist”, using his observations of openings in entomology. I agree with Mike from an ornithological perspective: there are a relatively high number of positions opening up this year. Mike’s message has generated a long discussion, however, probably because we recognize that the numbers, while relatively high, are still very small in relation to the magnitude of the issues. In short, a long-declining trend is showing a brief halt and upward bump — and we all hope that collectively at least we see the decline stop and that perhaps we even regain some of those historic losses. There certainly is plenty of work to do, both in traditional biodiversity pursuits and in the new ways that collections are being used to study changes in diseases, contaminants, populations, and environmental and climatic changes.
Increasing the scientific bang for every research dollar spent is important, especially in museums, where funding levels are perennially low. When we do get into the field and get our hands on a bird, it costs about the same to bring it home with us as it would to return with just a few drops of blood or a couple of feathers. While there is little difference in the initial cost, there is a huge difference in the scientific potential of the effort’s product: many more scientists can do a lot more things with a whole bird preserved as a specimen than with only a tiny sample likely to be quickly depleted. And the vast majority of bird populations can easily withstand the relatively small amounts of scientific collecting that are done these days.
A recent opinion paper in Science by a group of authors more concerned with human ethics than with science and biodiversity used a rather broad brush to paint scientific collecting in a negative light. Perhaps through their lack of intimate familiarity with biodiversity science, they made a number of errors in their effort to urge field biologists to stop collecting voucher specimens. Setting aside the issue of why a prestigious journal like Science would publish what is a rather weak contribution, the appearance of this piece does provide an opportunity to again help people understand why scientific collecting is important, why it does not pose a threat to populations of wild organisms, and why in a time of global change adding specimens to collections is now more important than ever. There is a substantial body of peer-reviewed literature on this topic; I will just summarize some of the main points here.
The UAM Bird Collection is used for a lot of interesting research, and we always enjoy the resulting products, especially when researchers push back the frontiers of human ignorance in new and important directions. In this case, some researchers (see Haynes et al. 2013) arrived on the scene at the bitter end (for the birds) of what we might call an avian Jonah experiment. Yes, birds were swallowed by a whale. We were sorry to learn that, unlike Jonah, the birds did not live through the experience, but instead emerged later, much the worse for wear, from the wrong end of the whale.
Our longtime friend and research associate Kevin McCracken has left the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a new position at the University of Miami. Before he left, his last specimen deposit into the UAM Bird Collection was a cryptic box of pickled bird parts. It was a duck dick dropoff.
Duck intromittent organ specimens
As of 1 January 2014 the list of avian taxa known in Alaska included 501 naturally occurring species in 64 families and 20 orders. The new edition of the checklist can be downloaded as a pdf here or through the checklist link in the right margin of our main web page.
Formal Alaska Checklist Committee reports are published at 4- or 5-year intervals in Western Birds. The most recent report discusses 15 species and three subspecies added to the checklist and one species and one subspecies deleted from the checklist during 2008-2012, resulting in a net total of 499 species and 117 subspecies recognized at the beginning of 2013 as occurring or having occurred naturally in Alaska.
When we set up a Google Scholar profile for the collection about a year ago (see a note on this here and our methods in creating it here), we began to pay more attention to publications that had cited articles that the bird collection had directly contributed to in some way. You might think of these as second-generation contributions accumulating downstream from the direct use of this collection. Usually, these once-removed, downstream uses are papers on familiar subjects, contributions to the science of birds or to evolutionary biology and zoology.
But imagine our delight to come across a wonderful paper by Dr. Debby Herbenick and colleagues entitled “Erect Penile Length and Circumference Dimensions of 1,661 Sexually Active Men in the United States”.
Our favorite open house event is from 4-7 p.m. on Halloween evening. Everyone has loads of fun, and lots of people come through the lab to see what we do here. This year we had 887 visitors to the Museum, and it seemed like every one of them came in to see us (in costume) turn dead birds into museum specimens. Here are just a few of the memorable moments…
Thanks to early Museum Research Apprenticeship program (MRAP) student and world-class volunteer Barbara Logan, we kept up our weekly “skinning night” throughout the summer. And so it was with a considerable head of steam that we rolled on into the fall semester, adding five MRAP students to the fun. Preparing bird specimens and studying the morphology, anatomy, and other amazing attributes of birds is wonderfully stimulating. With MRAP students and volunteers, we’re preserving the birds of the present for the scientific research and education of the future. And we’re having a lot of fun in the process! If birds aren’t the most exciting things to study in the world, we missed the memo.
Brandi Ringgenberg prepares a Black-footed Albatross specimen