Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

RARE: What the hellbender is a hellbender?

First things first. What on earth is a hellbender? Often called “snot otters” or “old lasagna sides”, the hellbender is a large salamander that can grow up to two and half feet long. Rivers throughout Missouri, Arkansas and much of the southeastern U.S. once supported up to 8,000 wild hellbenders, but today fewer than 600 exist because of habitat modification.

 imagePhoto by Brian Gratwicke

“Most aquatic salamanders have gills, but these don’t,” herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters explained. “They have flaps running down the side of their bodies to take in more oxygen directly through their skin. If there is silting or pollution in the water, the hellbenders have more of their body to clog than other aquatic species.” 

Because of this unique anatomy, hellbenders require fast-flowing, unpolluted rivers. The silting Watters described can be a consequence of damming, which can stir up loose particles in the water and reduce water flow. Silting and other pollutants have caused a rapid decline in the hellbender population. In fact, current populations are only 30 percent of what they were in 1990.

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Siltation of a waterway

“We are now seeing species once reported to be healthy but with small recognized ranges becoming exceedingly threatened and rarely encountered in the wild,” said Cameron Siler, herpetology curator. “Recognizing these population trends early and acting immediately to identify critical habitat for protection is necessary for the survival of rare species on our planet.”

According to Watters, the most important thing is stabilizing the hellbender population by preventing further decline and fostering conservation research and initiatives. As an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) near-threatened species, the hellbender is protected at a federal level. However, populations will continue to decline unless governmental action also protects undammed rivers. In the meantime, zoos are stepping in to help save the hellbender.

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Hellbenders developing in eggs, photo via Saint Louis Zoo

In November of 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo celebrated the world’s first captive breeding of hellbenders. The decade-long effort yielded 63 hellbenders. Since then, the Saint Louis Zoo has successfully bred an additional three populations, introducing over 214 new hellbenders to the world. The Saint Louis Zoo’s breeding success is an example of effective and applied research. 

“The more we know about every endangered species, the more we understand what conservation methods work best,” Watters said. “The more examples of endangered species that we have, the more we can better protect them in the future.”

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A hellbender from our herpetology collection

 Want a closer look? The museum’s hellbender specimen will be on display beginning Sept. 13 as part of our newest exhibit, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. For more information, check out some documentaries like the one below about this curious creature.

RARE: The end of the monarch reign?

When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards? 

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A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection 

The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!  

“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”

In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.

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Graph via www.xerces.com

Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.

 “I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”

 But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.

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Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration

“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”

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A full-grown monarch

 To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.

Racing to End Stereotypes

If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory, then you know that scientists aren’t usually known for their athleticism. Brains? Yes. Brawn? Not so much. But at the Sam Noble Museum, we’re all about busting stereotypes. Take Katrina Menard, for example. 

Menard is the invertebrate curator (a.k.a. bug chick) at the museum. She is also a competitive athlete and finalist in this year’s World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. On Monday, Menard will face off against cyclists, swimmers and racers from across the globe for a two-hour demonstration of human strength. 

The ITU bike route 

So, what does an Olympic-distance triathlon look like? A 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. All in all, that’s about two hours of non-stop adrenaline. To prepare, Menard spent anywhere from 7 to 11 hours in training per week during the winter. How does she find the time? 

“For ExplorOlogy, I had to take my bike with me to Black Mesa,” Menard answered. “I always have to take my running shoes to the field! I work for a place that is really constructive about my races, and that’s wonderful.”

 

Menard has trained in the field in countries like Africa and Australia

 Menard joined the triathlon scene three years ago after picking up cycling around Norman. Despite running track in college, Menard didn’t run her first triathlon until 2011. After her first race, the Red Man Spring Triathlon, she was hooked.

Menard means business on the track

But the transition from athlete to scientist hasn’t always been so smooth. In high school, Menard struggled with bridging the gap between jock and science-lover. Thanks to her supporting parents, Menard realized that having two passions was a blessing—not a curse.

 “You can be athletic and scientific,” Menard explained. “You can be successful at both, and it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a girl.” 

The women’s triathlon sport is gaining ground in Norman as the University of Oklahoma works to establish a team. Menard hopes to get even more involved in racing in the future as more women enter the sport. But for Menard, it’s not about soaking in the spotlight or becoming an inspiration. It’s for the love of the sport.

 

Menard and her fellow triathletes 

“You should race because you’re passionate about it,” Menard said. “I never did it to inspire other people. I did it because I cared, because I enjoyed the sport.”

 For updates about Menard’s upcoming race, keep an eye on the ITU website. Good luck, Katrina!

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel.”

If you’re friends with us on Facebook or Twitter, you’re probably used to seeing unending streams of adorable children digging for fossils in the Discovery Room. But why should they have all the fun? Every year, the museum offers an adult-only fossil field trip for Paleozoic buffs, fossil collectors, paleontology enthusiasts and everyone in between. Cool, right? You can thank our sponsors—Arvest Bank, Republic Bank & Trust and Fowler Honda.

  

Here’s the 411: Your two-day journey begins at the Sam Noble Museum Friday, Sept. 19. Our invertebrate paleontology curator, Steve Westrop, will lead participants into Oklahoma’s Paleozoic past with a look at some of Oklahoma’s finest fossilized specimens. Then, on Saturday, we hit the field.

 

On Friday, see some of the museum’s finest specimens like this pentremites

“On this trip we’ll go back to the Devonian Period, about 400 million years ago, when Oklahoma was covered by a shallow sea,” Westrop explained. “We’ll collect the shells of extinct animals that lived on a muddy sea bottom.”

Even though this event is adults-only, finder’s keepers trumps all. Whatever you find on the dig, you get to take home. Talk about a conversation piece! How often do you get the chance to hold millions of years between your fingers?

A specimen collected on a previous Fossil Field Trip

“It’s the closest thing possible to time travel,” Westrop said. “We can’t actually go to the past but if you know where to look, evidence of the past is all around us.”

 So, what should you bring for the big trip? Comfortable shoes, casual clothes, a sack lunch, snacks, plenty of water and—of course—your sense of adventure. We will leave the museum at 9 a.m. and return around 4 p.m., so brace yourself for a day of nonstop discovery.

 

Past participants dig up prehistoric sea life

According to Westrop, participants will leave the trip with several interesting fossils and an appreciation of how life and environments change over time. But wait, there’s more! Don’t forget the wealth of memories and insanely cool story you’ll have to share over your new conversational piece. Are you ready for a little time travel? Enroll today!

Watch history come to life! See exhibit construction from start to finish in less than 10 seconds with this snazzy time lapse.

(Source: youtube.com)

A Letter from Michael Mares

Hello all,

As many of you know, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded a National Medal by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in April. As part of that award, the museum will have the opportunity to preserve and archive its history in the Library of Congress with the help of StoryCorps, a non-profit dedicated to collecting oral histories.

From September 19-21, StoryCorps will be at the Sam Noble Museum to record a series of interviews. Each interview takes 40 minutes and consists of a casual conversation between two individuals. StoryCorps will conduct 18 interviews with two people being interviewed at the same time, and in doing so, will record the memories and experiences of 36 individuals who have impacted or been impacted by the Sam Noble Museum. Additionally, these interviews could potentially be aired on National Public Radio. For examples of previous interviews, please click here.

Many of you have been involved with the museum for years, and your experiences here are an integral part of this community. Anyone is eligible to participate, and I want to extend a personal invitation welcoming you to share your history with the museum. If you and a co-worker, volunteer, family member and/or friend have a special story or experience about the museum that you’d like to share as part of the public record, please send an email to pr@snomnh.ou.edu.

I cannot wait to discover the many ways you have shaped this institution and community. I hope you will join me in archiving the museum’s heritage this fall, so that future generations may always remember Oklahoma’s dedication to its natural history museum. 

M. Mares

 

One Small Day for Man, One Giant Leap for Elephants

Okay. It’s time we talk about the white elephant in the room. Every day, poachers kill an estimated 100 African elephants for their meat, body parts and ivory tusks. And it doesn’t help that the price of ivory has shot through the roof. Today the street value of an elephant tusk is about $15,000, and in China a single tusk can bring in $100,000 to $200,000! Of course, poaching is nothing new—but global conservation is.

Elephant poachers circa 1900 

In 2009, the Department of Fish and Wildlife seized two carved elephant femurs at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The bones were donated to us in 2010 and added to our mammalogy collection. Unfortunately, these femurs weren’t the first of their kind. Over the years, the museum has also received a wastebasket and end table made of elephant feet, plus three ivory tusks—one of which is intricately carved like the femur below.

One of two carved elephant femurs

 We didn’t share all of this to ruin your Tuesday. Actually, today happens to be World Elephant Day, a day for elephant-lovers, scientists and everyone in between. Today is all about spreading awareness and taking action to save wild elephant populations—before it’s too late.

 In case you didn’t know, the Sam Noble Museum is all about conservation. Our curators are constantly working on new research to help foster biodiversity in the wild. And as a vehicle for science education, we’re also big on spreading awareness about wildlife endangerment and protection. On Saturday, Sept. 13, we will welcome our newest exhibit Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. Through museum specimens and photos by Joel Sartore, this exhibit tells the story of America’s endangered and extinct species. The elephant femurs above will also be displayed within this exhibit.

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, Brachylagus idahoensis

c. Joel Sartore, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species

 Whether it is an elephant or one of the species featured in Rare, wild animals need our help. As you can see from our collection, poaching is alive and well—even in Oklahoma. Whether you sign a petition, spare a dollar or tweet to all of your followers, we hope you take a minute to get involved in World Elephant Day. They say an elephant never forgets, but how will we remember them after extinction?

How Did We Get 10 Million Specimens?

Want to hear something incredible? We house around 10 million artifacts at Sam Noble Museum. Crazy! Even though we’ve been around for over a century, you still might be wondering—where did it all come from? In Journey of the Shells, we mentioned how private collectors sometimes donate specimens and artifacts to museums. This integration is called adopting a collection, and it’s pretty common in the museum world. Take the University of Memphis mammalogy collection, for example.

 Former OU student Michael Kennedy began his relationship with the Sam Noble Museum as a PhD student of retired ornithology curator Gary Schnell. In the 80s, Kennedy became a renowned field mammalogy professor and even mentored current staff curator Janet Braun. Throughout his career, he developed an extensive collection of mammal specimens from the southeastern United States.

University of Memphis collection

The University of Memphis housed the collection, but as Kennedy neared retirement he knew his collection required a long-term home. Because of his long-standing relationship with OU, Kennedy proposed that the Sam Noble Museum adopt the collection.

“I’ve known Michael for more than 30 years,” said head curator Janet Braun. “I learned about mammals from him in class and on field trips, and the first specimens that I prepared were in the Memphis collection. This project was very personal for me, and I was committed to seeing the collection saved for the future.”

Specimens from the Memphis collection

To help accommodate the costs of acquiring 25,000 specimens, Janet Braun and director Michael Mares submitted a National Science Foundation grant. In 2011, they received three-year funding of $445,303 to catalogue and finish processing the collection.

“This is possibly one of the largest orphan mammal collections adopted by another existing collection,” said Brandi Coyner, current mammalogy collection manager. “Michael was very proactive in finding a home for these specimens, which is what makes this story so unique. It isn’t always like that.”

According to Coyner, abandoned collections are not uncommon. These orphan collections do not belong to any museum or institution and may be neglected when their caretakers pass away, retire or change jobs. Unfortunately weather, pests and other damaging forces often destroy these collections before they can be adopted.

But thanks to Kennedy’s proactive nature, we successfully acquired the University of Memphis collection in the summer of 2011. Despite record-breaking temperatures, museum staff spent 14 days loading specimens into a freezer truck for cross-country transport.  Was it worth it? Definitely.

Staff and movers take 65 boxes downstairs

“We never want to lose specimens,” Coyner said. “Natural history museums are nonrenewable resources, and if a specimen is lost, it’s as if that animal and research never existed.”

With the University of Memphis collection now almost entirely catalogued, the Sam Noble Museum’s mammalogy department contains approximately 65,000 specimens. We also now have the largest collection of Tennessee mammals anywhere in the world with 19,669 specimens. 

The acquisition of museum and personal collections is a common way museums grow and expand their collections. By adding additional or new species, researchers can cross-examine traits of individual specimens to gain insight into the lives of animals. In doing so, the museum grows one step closer to fulfilling its vision—to inspire understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the earth and all its people.

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

In the Words of Taylor Hanson

As you know from Digging Deep for Leadership, each year 12 high school students from across Oklahoma participate in Paleo Expedition - a hands-on two-week paleontological experience in Black Mesa. This year Taylor Hanson and Zane Woods, two of our Board of Visitors members, decided to visit the site to do a little digging of their own! And of course, we were thrilled to have them.

Wait! It gets better. Hanson has chronicled the experience in a four-page story that will appear in the summer edition of Tracks, the museum newsletter. And today, we’re offering you a sneak peek! So relax, pull up a chair and lose yourself in the words of Taylor Hanson.

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In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs

After our introduction to the site we were anxious to get to work and be of some service. At the front edge of the quarry was a cluster of earth, which had recently been coated with thick layers of plaster carefully molded around it to protect the fossil during transportation before being examined at the museum.

Now that the team had a couple of extra willing strong backs, Zane and I set out to perform the task of carefully flipping the nearly 300-pound cluster of earth that was half in plaster, in order to finish the preparatory process of chiseling away the remaining sediment for transport.

We set out to perform this simple task with smiles on our face and a not-so-small streak of nervousness - knowing that in a matter of minutes we could be responsible for destroying millions of years of time-protected fossil and a fair bit of labor by our hosts. Thankfully with close instruction and a healthy heave, two science tourists were able to perform the task successfully (and greatly relieved to have done so). 

Over the period of the afternoon we took on whatever tasks we could.  We joined the team in the detailed and dusty job of excavating one inch at a time the excess soil and clay, each clinging to the bottom of the fossils earthen cluster, and I enjoyed every scuffed knuckle and dust-coated wipe of my brow.

All around me I saw a team of passionate people putting their years of dedicated study and practice into action, carefully unearthing a new part of history. To be among them brush and pick in hand as a total novice getting the chance to share in that discovery was absolutely incredible.

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Amazing, right? Now, we know what you’re thinking. Where are the other three pages?! To read the rest of Hanson’s story, pick up a copy of Tracks - available at the end of July in the museum lobby. Or better yet, become a museum member! We’ll even mail it to you. Either way, you won’t want to miss this article. Because whether you’re a lover of paleontology, Oklahoma or Hanson, there’s something for everyone in this rich recollection.