IB 291: Museum and Field Techniques in Vertebrate Natural History

Faculty in Charge: Craig Moritz
Instructors: Chris Conroy and Carla Cicero

Description: A seminar series on the role of systematic collections in diverse fields of biology, the history of the MVZ, methods of museum specimen capture and preservation, methods of data collection and database structure, basic methods of museum functions (e.g. cataloging, accessioning), specimen preparation, and discussion of the future of systematic collections, including the MVZ.

Seminar Series: This course initially will be offered in the 290 series to make it more flexible the first time. Ultimately, the goal is to make this into an official course open to any graduate or advanced undergraduate student. MVZ students will be encouraged to attend. If there is conflict over enrollment, preference will be given to A) MVZ grad students, B) other biology grad students, and C) advanced undergraduates who have at least taken 104. All students will be asked to write a brief essay on why they want to take the course.

Format: One and a half hours per week for seven and a half weeks, plus one weekend field trip. Each session will have one or more lecturers and/or leaders of discussion. We expect to have computers available for demonstrations of the database, image curation, archival collections, etc. Lecturers may use digital projection of slides of tools and techniques in their fields. The field trip will be used to demonstrate methods in specimen acquisition and preparation, field note taking, and geographic information recording among other techniques.

Suggested/Recommended Reading: On Her Own Terms, B. R. Stein; The Naturalists Field Journal, S. G. Herman; Collecting and Preparing Study Specimens of Vertebrates, E. R. Hall; selections from Grinnell's writings; On taking field notes, J. V. Remsen, Jr. Other suggestions are welcome.

Museum Tour: Collections (wet and dry), fur vault, large bone room, curation, herp (fluids) lab, dermestid colony facility, GIS and bioinformatics lab, front office, illustrator's office, molecular lab and frozen tissue collection, working collections lab (morphosis room), dark rooms, map room, Grinnell-Miller library, reprint collections, sound lab, computer facilities, and student offices.

General Topics:

  • Some basic history of natural history museums.
  • Basic history of the MVZ. A. Alexander, J. Grinnell material. History of collecting trips by the MVZ. Context of MVZ in museums of the world.
  • Role of systematic collections in conservation.
  • Relationships between museums, universities and state/federal agencies or NGO's.
  • How to collect data - Grinnellian philosophy.
  • Tissues vs. specimens. Vouchered vs. unvouchered tissues.
  • Ethical/philosophical issues. Euthanasia, sample size, power tests. What research requires specimens? When are they necessary or not? What are some basic reasons for collecting specimens?
  • Permitting - specifics for states, countries. Who is covered and why. How to get permits. How museums are permitted.
  • Flow chart of accessioning/cataloging/installing traditional specimens and tissues.
  • Curation of misc. materials. Field notes, GPS data, digital pictures, sound tapes, digital video, scanning pictures, photo only specimens.
  • Collection use - loans, destructive sampling, scientific vs. educational and public use, historical archives, copyright issues.
  • The future of museums and the future of specimen collecting.

Organismal Topics:

  • Overviews of the history of each collection, trends in its growth, prediction for the future, role of curators and other staff.
  • Methods of capture.
  • Tools in the lab and field.
  • Description of the kinds of preps and their various utilities (e.g. why we fix animals in formalin, not just ethanol).
  • Miscellany of what to preserve in addition to standard specimen preparations (e.g. which tissues and why, endo- and ectoparasites, stomach contents, chromosome spreads, eggs, nests).
  • Overview of the types of data to record for different vertebrate groups (e.g., snout-vent length, mammalian measurements, sex, molt pattern, reproductive condition, fat). If a herpetology student decides to prepare a salvaged bird or mammal in the field, they will have a basic idea of what data to record.

Field topics:Tentatively, we are planning one weekend field trip to Hastings. Ideally it would involve collecting, depending on animal use protocols and permits. Collecting should not be avoided just because it may be difficult. Overcoming this hurdle should be a part of the course.

  • How to be thorough - a long list of what can and/or should be recorded/captured/preserved in the field.
  • Lists of field equipment - general. What items are most often forgotten.
  • Comparison of modern field supplies to those from 1907: digital, video, liquid nitrogen, batteries, laptops, GPS units.
  • Flow chart of bringing specimens to the museum.
  • Particulars of field gear for different fields - mammals, herps, birds. Appropriate field seasons for different groups.
  • Specifics of materials collected - DNA, allozymes, endoparasites, ectoparasites, karyotypes, sound recordings, transporting hazardous materials.
  • Handling of specimens, tissues and other material after a field trip - fumigation, storage of live and preserved animals, completing preservation, curation (accessioning, cataloging, installing, data entry and georeferencing, including error estimation).


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