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


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

 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.

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Nine

Some 455 million years ago, long before the wind came sweeping down the plains, Oklahoma was nothing more than a fragment of the ocean floor. A diverse array of marine life inhabited the waters above the future United States and left behind a rich prehistoric past. How do invertebrate paleontolgoists know all of this? Though these early sooners may be long gone, their skeletons remain.


Trilobites embedded in limestone

This specimen, from the invertebrate paleontology department, is one of several slabs of limestone crowded with complete skeletons of the trilobite Homotelus. Trilobites are extinct marine arthropods that disappeared roughly 250 million years ago. In case you need a refresher, arthropods are a classification of animals with segmented bodies and external skeletons, like scorpions, crabs and butterflies.


The Asian forest scorpion is an example of an arthropod.

The trilobite specimen shown above is important to scientists because it provides a snapshot into the behavior of these arthropods. Complete skeletons of trilobites are rare, as they would normally fall apart quickly after death. It is highly unusual to find hundreds of skeletons clustered together this way, as a result. Invertebrate paleontolgoists believe that the trilobites may have gathered in large numbers to spawn, much like modern horseshoe crabs along the east coast of the United States. 


Horseshoe crabs

It’s also important to note that geography played a prominant role in the recovery of this specimen. Geological evidence indicates that the embedded trilobites were buried very quickly by mud, possibly by a storm close to shore that would have stirred up the sea floor and carried mud-laden waters offshore. After the storm waned, this mud was likely dumped on the sea bottom, burying the trilobites. Nearly 455 million years later, scientists discovered their skeletons, still intact, buried in the Ordovician rocks of the Criner Hills in southern Oklahoma.


The Criner Hills are in Carter County, Okla.

Thanks to this discovery, invertebrate paleontologists now have a unique glimpse into the life of extinct animals. They also know that the reproductive behavior of trilobites resembles modern marine arthropods. Of course, you don’t have to look 455 millions years into the past to see Oklahoma’s astounding contributions to history. In fact, next week we’ll be looking at a more recent group of Oklahomans. Can you guess who?

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Five

This week we’re leaving behind elegant mosaics and million-year-old fossils as we venture into the creepy, crawly world of invertebrates. Even if insects send a shiver up your spine, keep reading! Today’s post covers a unique blend of entymology and invertebrate history that may just knock your socks off. Let’s get started, shall we?

One of the most important and interesting specimens in the recent invertebrates department is the preserved holotype specimen of the beetle Huleechius marroni, which was described by former curator Harley Brown in 1981. Let’s pause here and review some vocabulary. A holotype is an extremely valuable specimen because it is the official specimen linked to the first named individual of the species. For example, say someone stumbles upon a wolf for the very first time, and a team of scientists decide to call it Canis lupus. That very dog is now a holotype for the entire species, meaning it is the specimen for which all wolves are named. That’s the Huleechius marroni beetle.


This beetle is part of the group of beetles known as the Elmidae, or “riffle beetles”, a group that is found throughout the world in freshwater streams.  The larvae of these beetles are often found feeding on submerged wood, and the adults can swim on the surface and under the water. Impressive, right? This specimen was collected and described from San Carlos River, east of San Carlos, Arizona. Actually, in Arizona, there is an endangered subspecies of this beetle known as the Marron’s San Carlos riffle beetle (Huleechius marroni carolus.) This subspecies can only be found in one very specific location in Arizona, which makes it an exceptionally rare species.

Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s post, and we know you’re just dying to impress your friends with this newfound wisdom. Of course, there’s plenty more where that came from! For fun facts about the supercontinent Pangea, check out last week’s post. Then be sure to mark your calendars for next week’s ITTB! We’re traveling deep into the heart of Mexican history, and we’re bringing you along for the ride. 

The Journey of the Shells

To many, science may seem to be a strictly objective discipline, black-and-white and void of emotion. Sure, it takes passion, but science is seldom regarded as possessing sentimentality. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Through its ability to reveal passions and spark inspiration, science has proven its ability to resonate on a most intimate level, as illustrated by Vicki Jackson and 150 drawers of seashells.


It all began on Sunday, July 28, 2013, when Jackson visited the Sam Noble Museum, carrying with her some 2,700 carefully boxed seashells. The collection was not hers, but her late father’s. Although Jackson’s generous donation of the collection to the museum’s recent invertebrates department is in and of itself a marvelous tale, it is the story behind the shells that makes this gift extraordinary.


Jackson believes that her father, Perry Yates Jackson Jr., began collecting shells after attending the Naval Academy many years ago. Since then, his compilation has expanded to include shells from both familiar and exotic locals: Hawaii, Florida, Virginia, California, Texas, Haiti, New Guinea, The West Indies and Seychelles, among others. The global nature of the collection stems largely from Perry Jackson Jr.’s service with the United States Navy.

 “The Navy allowed him to go all over the place, and wherever they docked, if he had the time, he would shell hunt. It was almost a form of meditation,” Jackson explained.

 Perry Jackson Jr. was not only an avid collector, but also a dedicated organizer. Until his passing in 1998, he maintained a meticulous catalogue of each and every item he recovered. According to Katrina Menard, curator of the Sam Noble Museum’s recent invertebrates collection, this degree of care is almost as rare as the shells themselves.

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New Year, New Blog

Greetings! I apologize for being so long in updating, but we were moving some cyber-things around to different servers here in museum cyberspace before the holiday break, and there were a few glitches, one of which involved access to our blog. But the new year brings fresh opportunities!

Beetles from the Recent Invertebrates collection

Lets talk about invertebrates. The museum has an invertebrate collection that doesn’t get a lot of public attention. At present there is no full-time curator for this collection, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in mothballs, (if you’ll pardon the insect reference). In fact, it’s undergoing a renaissance of epic proportions.

The invertebrate collection includes a wide range of specimens. Insects and spiders, as we know, account for an estimated 90% or more of all life on earth. A quick reference check tells us that there are 241 species of grasshopper in Oklahoma alone. But the collection also houses molluscs, jellyfish, corals… think of all the different types of animals without a backbone and they’re in there. There are a minimum of half a million specimens housed in this collection. And at present only about 7 % of them are cataloged.

Now, that may seem as if someone’s not doing their job, but believe it or not, most invertebrate collections in museums around the world are not cataloged: meaning each specimen is not given an individual catalog number. Perhaps this is because of the sheer numbers of invertebrates often found in natural history collections, or possibly it has to do with the fact that many of these institutional collections grew out of personal collections organized by the scientist or hobbyist according to his or her own design. I don’t know. But Dr. Janet Braun, the museum’s curator of mammals who has oversight of the collection, assures me that it is true.

Our museum is in the process of changing that. Slowly but surely, those half- million specimens are being numbered, cataloged, labeled and stored using state-of-the-art practices and materials. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

Dragonflies from Recent Invertebrate collection

Brenda Smith-Patten is collection manager for Invertebrates, and must have the patience of Job and the mental focus of a yogi. She recently finished cataloging the collection’s dragonflies and one genera of bumble bees. Each specimen has been placed in an individual clear sleeve, given a catalog number, and databased (you can visit the collection’s catalog, and all of our catalogs, online if you want to:  just go to http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/db2/index.htm and you can browse Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species). Brenda has also compiled any information she can find regarding the date and site of collection, the collector and the up-to-date species name. This involves painstaking de-coding of the sometimes cryptic hand-written field notes, labels and records dating to the 1940s or earlier, as well as research into the latest taxonomic information. Species names sometimes change over time, and both the former name and the current name must be noted.

The same has been done for the mollusc collection. More molluscs are listed as a conservation concern than any other animals in Oklahoma because they are impacted by water quality and quantity. This group was therefore given a high priority for cataloging, and a grant provided new cases and supplies. Brenda completed the necessary research into the provenance of each specimen, then created new labels, numbers and database entries for all of them and tucked them away in their nice new drawers.

So that’s three groups down… untold hundreds to go.

On my recent tour of the collection I saw drawer after drawer filled with tiny little boxes of mosquitoes, jars of dragonfly larvae and boxes bristling with pinned insects.  I understand that our museum boasts the largest collection of riffle beetles in the world – some 150,000 of them – both pinned and in liquid storage. These last represent the life’s work of the late Dr. Harley Brown, former curator of the collection.

Needless to say, Brenda has her work cut out for her.

Would you like to visit the invertebrate collection yourself? It’s open to museum members, along with all the other museum collections and laboratories, one night a year: Members Night Behind the Scenes, held each year in October. All you have to do is become a museum member and you’ll receive a personal invitation to attend.