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

 

Real Heroes Save (Not Slay) Dragons

You will not find one perched beside Danerys Targaryen or on the roof at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Prince Charming does not slay one, and Hiccup the Viking will not teach you how to train one. Yet the Sailfin dragon is more than just literature and legend.

 The Sailfin dragon is real – and in danger.

A Sailfin dragon, photographed by Scott Corning

 The Sailfin lizard, commonly known as the Sailfin dragon, is one the most secretive species on the planet and also one of the hottest commodities in illegal pet trading. In fact, until recently, scientists were unaware of the Sailfin’s existence entirely. But thanks to thirty years of research, the endangerment of this magnificent species may soon draw to an end. 

In collaboration with Rafe Brown and Andres Lira from the University of Kansas, in addition to the Philippine National Museum and the Biodiversity Management Bureau, Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler has spent the past ten years studying these elusive creatures in hopes of answering two questions. 

1. Where is genetic diversity distributed for this species?

2. How can this knowledge be applied to the illegal pet trade?

 To answer these questions, herpetologists conducted 40,000-50,000 biological surveys across 7,100 islands in the Philippines. What’s a biological survey, you ask? Essentially, researchers conduct surveys in rainforests to document all species present at a site. Then, they collect vouchered specimens and tissue samples that represent each species in global natural history collections. Genetic samples are used to develop a DNA database that allows herpetologist to construct phylogenies, or family trees, that illustrate relationships between species.

 

The Philippines on a world map

“It’s always a great feeling to have an example of an applied conservation approach to what we do in a natural history museum,” said Siler. “We stockpile the world’s biodiversity, yet a lot of people don’t know why we do it or what it gets used for.”

But how does this keep Sailfins off the black market?

 To establish sustainable homes for the Sailfins, scientists must first understand what types of habitats these lizards prefer. Then, by cataloguing the locations of all vouchered individuals (museum specimens), researchers can check to see what proportion of Sailfin habitats are government protected – and that’s exactly what the team did.

But according to Siler, the findings were “astonishing”.

 Although the Sailfin lizards are considered a vulnerable species, less than 10 percent of their suitable habitat is currently being protected. But that’s not all. Every single specimen surveyed at one of the major Filipino pet markets came from peninsula in northeastern Philippines. Yet only 0.8 percent of this land is protected.

 

All specimens from local pet markets stemmed from just one peninsula

Now what?

 According to Siler, these findings are terrifying but promising. If illegal pet trade specimens are being collected from one isolated region, enforcement of local conservation laws will be more controllable.

“Knowing this, there actually can be more of a directed conservation effort in this region,” Siler said. “That’s an exciting result of combining DNA studies with vouchered biodiversity collections in natural history museums.” 

Siler, Brown and their collaborative team plan to continue their research in July 2014, thanks to a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation. This expedited grant allows the researchers to continue collecting biological surveys in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines in 2013. 

So, what does this mean for the Sailfins?

The more herpetologists understand about this rare species, the more local governments can implement effective conservation regulation. Although the story of the Sailfin dragon is not yet concluded, researchers are looking forward to a new chapter – a chapter of knowledge, a chapter of change.

April Showers Bring More Than Just May Flowers!

Sure, April showers may bring May flowers – but that’s not all! April also brings one of the greatest weeks of the year, Volunteer Appreciation Week. Although the national Volunteer Appreciation Week doesn’t kick off until April 6, the celebration has already begun at the Sam Noble Museum with the naming of the 2014 Volunteer of the Year!

 So, who’s this year’s deserving winner?

Don Batchelor

Meet Don Batchelor, one of 250 active volunteers working in collections, offices and with the public. Batchelor has been a docent in the Hall of Ancient Life for 14 years and loves sharing his interest in single-cell organisms with our guests.

“I could spend an hour extolling the satisfaction I get at the museum,” Batchelor said, “and I appreciate the opportunity to use 70 years of experience in the field.”

 

The Hall of Ancient Life, where Batchelor volunteers

 According to volunteer coordinator Genevieve Wagner, the Volunteer of the Year Selection Committee, made up of former recipients, selected Batchelor because of his long service and dedication to the public.

 What’s the big deal, you ask? Our volunteers, of course!

 “It is important to acknowledge the members of our volunteer community as each one of them makes a difference to the museum,” said Wagner. “The volunteer of the year award is part of that acknowledgment.” 

Museum director Michael Mares agrees. 

“The Sam Noble Museum would not be able to offer our public anywhere near the quality or quantity of programs that our volunteers make possible,” Mares said. “They are a most important part of the museum experience, influencing collections, exhibits, public programs, research and every other area of museum activity. “

 We hope that answered your question. Now, who’s ready to celebrate?!

  

Every year, the Sam Noble Museum hosts its Volunteer Appreciation Dinner in April to thank all of the volunteers that pour their passion into our organization. This year, the dinner will be held on Thursday, April 10 and will serve as an opportunity to recognize Batchelor for his contributions. Our community partners at Arvest Bank sponsor volunteer Appreciation Week and the Volunteer Dinner.

 Thinking about becoming a volunteer yourself? Feel free to check out our volunteerism page! And remember, the next time you stop by the museum, be sure to congratulate Mr. Batchelor and thank one of our many volunteers for a job (very) well done! 

Bigger Fish to Fry

Picture yourself knee-deep in the warm water of Mountain Fork River in southeast Oklahoma. The spring sun shines down on your face as golden light glistens on the river’s glassy surface. Suddenly, the water breaks. The speckled body of a brown trout springs into the air, hungrily snatching your handcrafted fly along the way. As he dives back into the river, you know you’ve got him. Hook, line and hackle.

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A brown trout and fly-fishing rod

 Thrilling, right? 

It’s easy to see why fly-fishing is one of America’s greatest pastimes, but there’s much more to this sport than meets the eye. In fact, many popular fish species can spot a fraud before ever leaving the water. According to Texas A&M entomology graduate and wetland ecologist Andy Boswell, trout use their excellent vision to identify key body parts before taking the bait.

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Boswell and his father hit the water for a little fly-fishing 

“Sometimes, making sure the presence or absence of some very specific body features can make all the difference in the big one looking at your fly and turning away, or gobbling it right up,” Boswell said. 

So, what’s a fly fisher to do? 

“Knowing small but important details about insect life cycles, their general body design and where they occur is immensely helpful when trying to target specific fish,” Boswell said.

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Boswell teaches anglers to fashion the perfect lure

Essentially, successful fly fishers must first become successful entomologists – and that’s where Boswell comes in. As a lifelong fly fisherman and entomology expert, he brings both skill and science to the table. For this reason, Boswell will be conducting beginner, intermediate and advanced fly-fishing workshops at the Sam Noble Museum on Saturday, April 5.

What can you expect to learn?

 With the help of the Sam Noble Museum’s recent invertebrate curator, Katrina Menard, the workshop will teach fly fishers how to craft their own flies that match regional ecosystems. Plus, Boswell will cover the basics of fly-fishing for beginners while assisting expert anglers in honing advanced techniques.

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A handcrafted fly

 Whether you’re stepping in the water for the first or thousandth time, we invite you to drop in and drop a line with us. The Fly-Tying Frenzy adult workshop costs $30 for museum members and $40 for non-members. So what are you waiting for? Space is limited, and April is just around the corner! To register, just click here. Remember, the deadline for this workshop is March 28.

 You have bigger fish to fry – get hooked on entomology.

IMLS National Medal Q&A

Recently, we’ve been posting a lot about the Institute for Museum and Library Service’s (IMLS) 2014 National Medal award on our social media sites. Though if you’re not savvy to the museum or library scene, all of this news could easily become overwhelming. That’s why we’ve decided to do a little Q&A session to help our friends and fans understand what the National Media is and why we can’t stop talking about.

 Q: What is the Institute for Museum and Library Service?

A: According to the IMLS website, “the Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums.” Ultimately, this organization seeks to inspire educational institutions to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement.

Q: So what’s an IMLS National Medal?

 A: The National Media for Museum and Library Services honors outstanding institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. Basically, this award is given each year to ten libraries and/or museums that have gone above and beyond the call of duty in terms of community outreach. For a few examples, check out the 2013 National Medal video below.

Q: How does it work?

A: Each year, hundreds of nominations from all across the country are submitted to IMLS. Only thirty finalists are chosen. We are so pleased to announce that the Sam Noble Museum was recently selected as a finalist for 2014, which is also the National Medal’s 20 anniversary! Isn’t that incredible?

 

Q: Why is winning so important?

A: The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor for commending museum and libraries for their community service efforts. In fact, this award is so highly revered, last year the ten winners were recognized by first lady Michelle Obama at a White House ceremony in Washington D.C. Below is a glimpse of the ceremony.

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 Q: So where do I fit in?

 

A: Because the IMLS National Medal is founded on community outreach, we want to encourage all of our friends and fans to share their favorite experiences with our museum on the IMLS Facebook page. Without Oklahoma’s ongoing support, we would not be where we are today, and we hope that your stories will show the IMLS what a tremendous support system our great community is.

Salvaging Specimens


In the face of an emergency or natural disaster, what’s your first thought? Is it family, friends, your home or even your car? For many of our museum staff, who have dedicated their lives to the study of rare and precious artifacts, the safety of museum collections is a very real concern. After a flood, tornado or even a fire, how do collection managers and curators decide which artifacts to save? More importantly, how do they salvage the collections, their life’s work?

 On Oct. 16 and 17, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History staff attended a three-part Emergency Response and Salvage and Recovery workshop led by Barbara Moore, a senior professional instructor of emergency response for cultural institutions. Moore has been working in museum collection care since 2000 and has worked with dozens of museums before and after disasters to reduce damage. During the two-day workshop, our faculty and staff learned all about risk assessment and methods for stabilizing damaged collections after a disaster. 

Our staff is all ears

The workshop began bright and early Tuesday morning with a discussion for museum volunteers and staff about risk assessment and safety during emergency procedures. Prevention is key when it comes to these kinds of situations, so Moore listed several ways to reduce external and internal risks, such as trimming trees close to the building and never placing artifacts on the floor.

Moore followed up with a more in-depth discussion later that afternoon exclusively for collections and research staff. This phase of the workshop reviewed methods of stabilizing and drying damaged collections, conducting initial damage assessment, and material-specific salvage techniques. For example, paintings are of highest priority after receiving water damage and must be laid flat to dry. Textiles, however, can be frozen to prevent further erosion. 

The second day was spent with the collections and research staff focusing on one of the most difficult aspects of museum recovery, prioritization. Curatorial prioritization takes into account the most used and valuable items, while salvage prioritization considers the most vulnerable items. Both must be considered when ordering salvage efforts. Finally, to review techniques learned in the workshop, the staff was given real-life scenarios and asked to respond using their knowledge on salvage preparation, organization of the salvage operation and salvage practice. 

Moore discusses preventative measures

Of course, all of this is much easier said than done as emergencies can be emotionally taxing. According to Moore, the most common mistake museums make in salvage and recovery is “rushing in too fast without a plan or reason.” That’s why it’s all about preparation. So, how did the Sam Noble Museum measure up? According to Moore, the museum is doing a great job staying diligent and prepared for an emergency situation since her last workshop in 2007. Moore also commended the museums efforts at preventing disasters by reducing risks.

 While we never hope to be in situations like those of the Barnum or Intrepid Museum, both of which were severely damaged by natural disasters, the threat is ever-present. However, Moore provided the museum staff with more than just a plan; she left behind peace of mind.

Ornithology Bands Together

If you’ve driven by the Sam Noble Museum at any point since November, you may have noticed a rectangular, grass prairie sitting just behind the museum. No, no – we aren’t slacking on our chores. The tall brush houses several species of birds, some of which are extremely difficult to observe and track. That’s why a team of ornithologists hit the field last week to do a bit of bird banding before the March mowing.

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Volunteer Robin Urquhart holds a Lincoln’s Sparrow

It all began last fall, when Joe Grzybowski, ornithology research associate, discovered several species of sparrows hunting for food in the tall brush. One of these species, the LeConte’s sparrow, is an exceptionally secretive animal that researchers seldom stumble upon. In fact, only 3,000 LeConte’s sparrows have ever been banded, only one of which was recaptured at a later time.

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A LeConte’s Sparrow outside the museum

 Ornithologists engage in banding as a means of tracking species migration and monitoring populations. Each metal band, issued by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, contains a serial number and is sized for each species. Fortunately, Grzybowski has a banding permit and was able to lead the team through the process.

“A small conscious change in landscaping practices can help support a variety of wildlife,” said Tamaki Yuri, ornithology collection manager. “For example, the hawks we have seen around the field this winter are evidence of healthy populations of grassland birds and small mammals in the field.”

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The team bands sparrows outside the museum

 In just two hours, the team banded six sparrows of four different species – two LeConte’s, two Lincoln’s, one Song and one Savannah sparrows. Given the high winds and limited time, Yuri says she is pleased with the results. The team will use this information to track population growth for the area in coming years.

 “If these birds know that the grasses exist, they will come back next year,” said Yuri, “and it is important to have more research on the LeConte’s Sparrow.”

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Yuri holding a LeConte’s Sparrow

Why We Love Picky Volunteers

Christie Godec looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.

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Godec sifts through sandy soil

 Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains.  The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godec can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs. 

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Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked 

Five years ago, Godec moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.

 “It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godec said.

 A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.

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A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin

As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godec believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset. 

“For me, it’s fun,” said Godec. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.” 

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One of many micropicking cabinets

 Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godec, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.

Fossil Fuel Fund Drives Oklahoma Students

“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein

Learning isn’t just for the classroom

 Think back to your days in elementary school. Can you recall all the stages of the water cycle? Which book your teacher read in the fourth grade? What about the sixth president of the United States?

 But you can remember seeing the zoo’s giraffes on your second grade field trip or zipping down the pole during a trip to the local fire department. According to Scientific American, the human brain can hold a million gigabytes of memory. So, what gives? Chances are, some of your most memorable experiences happened outside out of the classroom – and that’s why experiential learning programs are so important.

 

Experiential learning is an integral part of education

In recent years, Oklahoma schools have faced increasing difficulties obtaining funds for supplemental learning experiences like field trips.  Higher operating costs related to energy, transportation and insurance, among others, are forcing many schools to eliminate field trips and other experiential learning programs. 

 To demonstrate his commitment to the Sam Noble Museum and its educational programs, OU President David L. Boren committed $10,000 to the museum in 2007.  These funds established the Fossil Fuel Fund (FFF), which provides scholarships to low-income, high-poverty area schools in Oklahoma. 

A thank you note from a FFF recipient

 Today, the FFF continues to provide scholarships to Oklahoma schools. Last year alone, 55 schools applied and $12,204.86 in reimbursements was distributed. That’s 2,949 students!

Each scholarship provides an average of $400 in transportation reimbursement to the school, and allows approximately 40 students to experience the top-notch galleries, exhibitions and artifacts found only at the museum. 

Students take in the amazing Hall of Ancient Life

 The FFF also provides a classroom-based educational program that students can enjoy during the visit. These specialized classroom programs are designed to complement classroom curricula and are correlated to current Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) learning objectives for the state of Oklahoma. 

A glimpse of our PASS-driven educator’s guide

“To see the wonder, the awe, the interest in my students as they viewed the exhibits, to watch them interact and answer the educator, and to experience their growth in social/community skills was so satisfying for me,” said one ninth-grade teacher from Ada Junior High.

Schools who visit the museum on a scholarship need only to provide the discounted student admission fee ($1.75 per student) for their entire field trip experience.  In situations where the need is dire, the per student admission fee can be reduced waived.  Funds are disbursed on a first come, first served basis. 

“As a science museum, we understand that exploration, discovery and direct experience are powerful learning opportunities,” said Jes Cole, head of museum education. “We strive to make the museum accessible to all Oklahomans, and the Fossil Fuel Fund is one important way we can accomplish this goal.”  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, life, physical, and social science occupations are projected to add 190,800 new jobs between 2010 and 2020 as they grow by 15.5 percent.

With science occupations constituting such a major portion of America’s future job market, it is imperative that we invest in today’s students. If you would like to make a contribution, either on behalf of an organization or individually, please contact Pam McIntosh at (405) 325-5020. Or, if you would like to apply for scholarship assistance, please fill out the application on our website.

Help us make science unforgettable. Contribute to the Fossil Fuel Fund.

Not Your Average Board Meeting

FYI: Before we lay down the 411 on our latest exhibit, you may want to have this skater lingo dictionary handy. You’re welcome.

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The Quick-and-Dirty

 Are you a newbie to skate culture? No sweat, we’ll teach you the ramps! “Ramp It Up! Skateboard Culture in Native America” is an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institute that shows the sick bond between Native American youth culture and the boarding scene. The exhibit features 20 skate decks from Native companies and contemporary artists, plus rare images and video of Native skaters.

Dates

“Ramp It Up!” will be rolling into the Sam Noble Museum’s Higginbotham Gallery on Feb. 8, where it will hang ‘til June 15. How rad is that? 

Why It Matters

We’ll let Jake tackle this one.

The Festivities

Family-friendly activities ✔

A live paint by three Native artists ✔

Silent auction ✔

Get stoked! We’re hosting a free “Ramp It Up!” special event at the museum on Saturday, April 5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and you’re officially invited! We’re partnering with the Jacobson House Native Art Center, so you know it’s gonna’ be sweet. Don’t worry – we’ll be sure to send the deets your way soon!

 More, More!

Can’t get enough of the action? Right on! Check out Skateboard Nation, a series of minivids from the Smithsonian Institute. Now remember, nobody likes a boggart - so take a break from the daily grind and bring your friends and family to this insane exhibit!

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So, are you on board?

Project Passenger Pigeon

1914: The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is placed in Washington D.C. Charlie Chaplain stars in his second film, “The Tramp”. Doctors complete the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels, and World War I begins. When looking back on this most historic year, one critical event is often overlooked– the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.

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The Passenger Pigeon in 1898

With a population between 3 and 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world. Written accounts describe how flocks would darken the sky for hours and days, and how the beating wings sent a chilling draft down from the sky. However, in just a few decades, the species became extinct. 

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Passenger Pigeon shooting illustration

 Human exploitation, namely hunting and commerce, destroyed nearly every major nesting area over the course of 40 years. No one documented a successful mass nesting during this time, which had in the past contributed greatly to the survival of the species. This bird occurred only in North America and was no stranger to the Sooner State. 

Prior to the twentieth century, the Passenger Pigeon often frequented eastern Oklahoma during winter. It is even possible that a handful of lesser-known Oklahoma landmarks were named after this species: Pigeon School (Cherokee County), Pigeon Roost Church (Choctaw and Seminole counties), Pigeon Creek (Latimer and Le Flore counties) and Pigeon Mountain (Le Flore County).

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Le Flore County has two sites named for the Passenger Pigeon

Unfortunately, the story of the Passenger Pigeon is not the only tale of exploitation and extinction. Now, The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are using this tragedy as a cautionary tale through a notable conservation initiative, Project Passenger Pigeon. 

According to the project website, the international campaign seeks to promote awareness about the Passenger Pigeon and other endangered species while encouraging people to take action against human-caused extinction. Ultimately, the project is about fostering biodiversity by prompting people to question their role in the larger ecological community.

 As a strong advocate of wildlife conversation, The Sam Noble Museum commends the work being done by Project Passenger Pigeon and other similar efforts. From Sept. 13 to Jan. 18, the Sam Noble Museum will showcase portraits of engendered and extinct species, including the Passenger Pigeon, as part of the exhibit Rare.

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Red Wolf (Canis rufus), photographed at Great Plains Zoo, Sioux Falls, S.D.

If Project Passenger Pigeon has inspired you to get involved, there are several environmental advocacy groups to join: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society, to name a few. Of course, joining an organization isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts. 

"You could become informed about conservation issues, volunteer in community environmental projects or become a citizen scientist,” suggests Janet Braun, staff curator. “You could also join or donate to a museum or conservation organization while living and promoting a conservation lifestyle.”

Scientists estimate that there are over 8.7 million species of living organisms on Earth at this time. Biodiversity is a precious thing that must be protected, as the tale of the Passenger Pigeon reminds us. They say that history always repeats itself - but by promoting the conservation of species and habitat, perhaps we can build a better tomorrow from yesterday’s mistakes.