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


Keep Your Family Treasures Safe!

Maybe you have your grandmother’s wedding dress, your great-great grandfather’s pocket watch or a scrapbook of old family photographs. We all have family treasures, heirlooms and other objects we want to preserve for our children and grandchildren, but how do we do that?

Well, for the ethnology collection, we take several factors into account. Regardless of where they came from or how old they are, many objects are made from materials that are highly susceptible to deterioration from light, relative humidity, temperature, air pollution, microorganisms (like mold), insects and rodents. Our goal is to provide a stable and protective environment for these objects that will safeguard them from harmful forces.


Quilt made by Julia Alexander in 1850

For example, this beautiful quilt was handmade by a Kentucky woman named Julia Alexander in 1850. Over 150 years, this quilt has not only seen a lot of history, but it has also experienced some damage. It has stains, tears and is fraying along a couple of edges. While we can’t turn back time and prevent this damage from occurring, we can help prevent it from getting any worse.

We have cushioned the quilt with acid-free tissue paper, and instead of folding it and putting it in a box, we have rolled it onto a long acid-free cardboard tube. Rolling large textiles like this quilt prevents creases from occurring and also prevents tears from getting any worse. We then sewed a cover for the quilt out of basic unbleached and un-dyed muslin fabric, which prevents dust and light from getting at the object. After carefully tying on the cover, we have stored the rolled-up quilt on a storage rack on the wall in a cool dry room.

Keeping the quilt off the floor prevents anyone from accidentally stepping on or tripping over the object but also helps keep damaging bugs away from the historic quilt. Keeping the storage room cool and dry prevents mold from growing and prevents any damage from heat (such as dye transfer). This quilt is only one of the thousands of incredible and fascinating objects the ethnology collection is responsible for preserving. For more information on preserving your family treasures, check out this Connecting to Collections Online Resource.   


 Rolled textiles stored in the ethnology collection

A Few Fast Facts for Preserving Objects:

  1. Provide a protective enclosure. This can be a box, a well-sealed bag, a cover, a drawer, a cabinet or a combination of these.
  2. Keep objects off the ground. The closer objects are to the ground, the easier it is for bugs and rodents to destroy your objects. These critters can do a lot of damage, and they particularly like to eat and nest in organic objects such as clothing, papers and plant-based materials.
  3. Clean hands or wear gloves when handling objects. The oils and dirt particles on your hands can come off onto your objects if you aren’t careful, and they can cause damage to the surface of your objects. Simply washing and drying your hands before handling your objects can prevent this. Or, if your objects are very fragile, you might consider wearing cotton, latex (if you aren’t allergic to latex), or nitrile gloves when handling.

But wait, there’s more! Learn about other ways to preserve your family treasures at our upcoming adult workshop “Preserving Family Treasures” on November 1 from 10 a.m. to noon. Registration is required, and participants will not be able to register on-site for this program. To enroll, click here or call (405) 325-1008. Don’t let your family heirlooms suffer—sign up today!

Why We Love Teachers

If you are reading this blog post, thank a teacher. Being a great educator is about more than sharing knowledge—it’s about sharing wisdom, insight and skills for living and learning. Teaching is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and that’s why we’ve developed resources to help Oklahoma educators provide their students with the best. Here are a few examples…

Fossil Fuel Fund


Oklahoma has experienced more budget cuts per student since 2008 than any other state in America. Often, this means teachers are unable to engage in critical learning opportunities like field trips. In 2007, OU President Boren established the Fossil Fuel Fund. This scholarship reimbursement program enables low-income schools to enjoy the museum at no cost. Last year, 55 schools received $12,204.86 in reimbursements! For more information about this program and how to apply, click here.

Teacher Workshops  


We offer many opportunities for professional development, including Science Institute. This four-day science investigation provides educators with a deeper understanding of content, inquiry and the nature of science. By working with university and museum scientists, teachers learn to incorporate science more effectively in their classrooms. Additionally, this program is funded by the Sam Noble Museum and does not cost for participants. For information on how to apply, check out our website.

Teacher Appreciation Month


From pre-K to 12th grade and private school to homeschool, every teacher deserves thanks. Every October, the Sam Noble Museum offers complimentary admission to all Oklahoma pre-K through 12th-grade educators and their families in celebration of the hard work and dedication our teachers provide. For information about upcoming promotions and complimentary admission, be sure to like us on Facebook.

 To see other ways we connect with educators across the state, visit our education website or check out our recent post, Education 101.

Native Plants and Native People

Today’s post is courtesy of Dan Swan, Sam Noble Museum ethnology curator:

For centuries, Native American communities have used plants in a variety of ways. Foods, medicines and domestic materials heavily relied on agriculture, and this cultural reliance on agriculture is known as ethnobotany. In August, we hosted Native Plants and Native Peoples, a community workshop on botany, agriculture and education. The museum and collaborating partners hoped that this event might foster new forms of community collaboration and research.

Several speakers, each representating a unique Native American tribe in Oklahoma, spoke about current ethnobotanic issues in their community. For example, Deborah Echo-Hawk from the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma spoke about the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project and its efforts to encourage the planting of species associated with the Pawnee people.  Meanwhile, the native garden at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site allows visitors to learn about the various uses that Cheyenne and Arapaho people made of plant resources. These are just two examples of the wonderful presentations given by our speakers that night.

Our speakers at the Native Plants and Native Peoples Workshop

Joy Hought, the Research & Education Program Manager for Native Seeds/SEARCH capped the day with a keynote speech. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a Tucson based non-profit organization dedicated to seed diversity and conservation.  The organization has over thirty years of collaborative research and applied programming with the indigenous communities of the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Hought provided a general overview of the organization’s mission, programs, seed archiving system for heirloom species.

The workshop also included a stimulating question portion, which featured a wide variety of topics. After lunch, guests toured the Bebb Herbarium at the University of Oklahoma and enjoyed a presentation at the Oklahoma Biological Survey.

Guests enjoyed a tour of OU’s Bebb Herbarium

Fifty-seven people attended this workshop, indicating the importance of botany project in Native communities of Oklahoma. So, what does this mean? It means that ethnobotany is evolving to include modern issues of sovereignty, wellness, land rights and economic development. In an effort to promote greater awareness of tribal initiatives, we hope to host another workshop like this in the near future.

RARE: Firing back against extinction!

Although many of the most popular endangered species roam the arctic poles or scour the savannah, vulnerable species can be found in the most ordinary places—even your own backyard. Meet the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird that once whistled around Norman, Oklahoma. But don’t worry! Unlike so many conservation stories, the inspirational tale of the black-capped vireo will leave a smile on your face.

A black-capped vireo in the wild 

Here’s the situation. In the 1980s, this species suffered a major population decline due to habitat modification. Black-capped vireos rely on dry scrubland habitats, which often are maintained by fires. When these fires are suppressed, scrublands grow into extensive wooded areas and are no longer suitable to the black-capped vireo. Other threats include agricultural development and a parasitic enemy—the brown-headed cowbird.

A brown-headed cowbird

The female brown-headed cowbird notoriously lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, abandoning her young to foster parents. This comes at the expense of the host’s own chicks since the cowbirds hatch much earlier. At their peak, roughly 80 percent of black-capped vireo nests in Oklahoma and central Texas contained these parasitic eggs, radically limiting their reproductive success.

A black-capped vireo nest with vireo eggs (white) and a cowbird egg (brown)

 What’s a poor bird to do? In 1991, affiliated research associate Joe Grzybowski developed a black-capped vireo recovery plan for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. With strategies for prescribed burns by land managers, plus new cowbird-trapping techniques, the black-capped vireo population has grown from 50-70 pairs to 4,200 pairs in the Wichita Mountains. Bravo!


Joe Grzybowski doing a bit of field research

Despite this inspirational success, Grzybowski’s work is not done. He is currently serving as a co-principal investigator with colleagues from Texas A&M University on a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program of the Bureau of Land Management. Through this grant, scientists hope to develop models of habitat changes created by fires to maximize the effectiveness of fire management strategies. If these strategies are fruitful, it will mean greater reproductive success for the black-capped vireo and other similarly endangered bird species.

See this Norman native for yourself in RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species, running through Jan.19. This exhibit features both famous and lesser-known endangered species of North America, including the black-capped vireo. Supplemented with museum specimens from five collections, this exhibit offers you a glimpse of this world’s rarest residents—both near and far.

Black-capped Vireo, Vireo atricapilla

Photographed at Fort Hood, Texas

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

RARE: California or Bust!

Sun, sand, and surf—what’s not to love? Southern California is an attractive place to live for many, including Dipodomys ingens. Commonly known as the giant kangaroo rat, this rodent species lives in complexes consisting of five to 50 burrows. But in the wake of urban and agricultural development, these high-speed hoppers have been forced to fight for a spot on the western coast.


Dipodomys ingens, Giant kangaroo rat

“More widespread species do fine with humans because they have other places to go when parts of their ranges are taken over by human development,” explained Brandi Coyner, mammalogy associate curator. “This species doesn’t have anywhere else to go. 

Despite being popularized by the 1953 Disney film The Living Desert, the giant kangaroo rat was run out of town decades ago. The state of California and the federal government declared this species endangered in the 1980s, and today the giant kangaroo rat is restricted to just 2 percent of its original habitat range. That is roughly half the size of the city of Norman. This loss of habitat pushed these rodents towards the cliff of extinction.

The Living Desert, 1953

“The black hole of extinction is darker than death,” said museum director Michael Mares. “Death is the end of an individual, but their species may contain billions of other similar individuals. Extinction is the loss of all individuals of that species that ever lived. Their like will literally never be seen again, and their genetics that trace to the dawn of life itself are lost forever.”

But there is hope. Though small, these 62 miles are federally protected—and it’s made all the difference. According to Coyner, individuals who move outside of this land are unlikely to survive or add to population growth, so the best way to help the giant kangaroo rat is to continue protecting this stretch of land.


Giant kangaroo rats inhabit a small area in western California

“Without those federal protections that are in place now, this species would have already gone extinct,” Coyner said. “This type of intervention is critical in keeping some species alive.”

As Coyner said, government regulation halted this species on its slippery path to extinction. Although it is unlikely that the giant kangaroo rat will ever see dramatic population growth in the future, stabilization is a very real possibility. The story of the giant kangaroo rat proves that some changes are certainly for the better.


Giant kangaroo rat from our mammalogy collection

 To get an up-close view of the giant kangaroo rat, be sure to check out RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species. This National Geographic exhibit features over sixty endangered and extinct species, including the giant kangaroo rat. This exhibit will be at the museum until Jan. 19, 2015. Until we see you, check out the BBC special Life of Mammals for more information about these golden sandbathers.

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.


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.


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.”


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? 


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.


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.


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.”


A full-grown monarch. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Mares

 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)