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


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.

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.

A Mammalogist’s Homecoming


 What comes to mind when you think of summer? Melting popsicles? The smell of freshly cut grass? Lazy days by the pool? For mammalogists across the country, summer means one very important thing – the annual ASM conference.

 What’s ASM, you ask? The American Society of Mammalogists was founded in 1919 to promote interest in the study of mammals. To do so, the organization issues regular publications about upcoming news while maintaining extensive online photographic database that covers a wide variety of animals.


First ASM Conference in 1919

“The ASM fosters the next generation of mammalogists by providing small research grants, fellowships, internships and honoraria to promising students,” said Edward Heske, ASM president. “We offer a welcoming and supportive environment where young scientists can grow and move out into their new professional universe, and what could be greater ‘return on investment’ than that?” 

Every year, the members of this prestigious organization meet face-to-fact to catch up with old friends, exchange research and discuss current events in the field. If nothing else, the conference is an amazing opportunity for scientists to learn from and encourage one another as they pursue their passion.


The 2012 Conference in Reno

“Many of us see each other only once a year at the meetings and, on a personal level, it’s like a big annual homecoming,” said Eileen Lacey, ASM president elect. “Aside from the social component, it’s a very stimulating chance to talk about the science and the organisms that are of greatest interest to me, so a very rewarding professional experience as well.”

Why are we so excited? Because this year’s conference will be held in Oklahoma City from June 6-10!  Meetings are typically held in major cities like Portland, Philadelphia and Reno, so the 2014 selection comes as an honor. Many of our Sam Noble Museum mammalogists are already gearing up for the conference. Get ready! We’re attending this year’s conference and (of course) bringing you all the details! Stay tuned, friends.

From Identification to Dissertation

In 2005, a mother and two baby rats were discovered in Salt Lake City onboard a truckload of sterile medical supplies shipped from China. The mother was destroyed, but the babies were kept. The rats were sent to Dr. Michael Mares, the Sam Noble Museum’s Director and a noted mammalogist, for identification. However, a rather puzzling DNA analysis was conducted at Oklahoma State University. Although the mother looked like a common ship rat, DNA suggested she was not a pure ship rat. Dr. Mares teamed up with genetics graduate student Dr. Justin Lack of Oklahoma State University in a pursuit that would eventually yield novel discoveries for invasion biology.

“In our efforts to learn more about Rattus in the United States, the project eventually grew into Lack’s dissertation, which is a fine piece of work involving both the ship rat and the Norway rat, two of the most destructive invaders in the world,” recalls Dr. Mares.

 Along with Dr. Ron Van Den Bussche and Dr. Meredith Hamilton of OSU and Dr. Janet Braun of the Sam Noble Museum, they began researching the invasion history of various Rattus species using population genetics, a method of research in which the geographic patterns of genetic diversity are analyzed to understand gene flow and evolutionary history. During the study, the group encountered a third species, Rattus tanezumi, capable of hybridizing with the ship rat (Rattus rattus).  For photographs of these species, click here.


Rattus tanezumi

Although a population of Rattus tanezumi had been described from California, Dr. Lack and his colleagues were the first to report the second and only other known population in Florida. This discovery suggests Rattus tanezumi likely invaded the United States twice, once on each coast. Globalization in means of transport (ships, trucks and planes) enabled the hybridization. Unlike the hybridization of various dog breeds, which are considered to be the same species, Rattus tanezumi contains genomic material from Rattus rattus (a separate species) and may become genetically swamped by the more widespread and aggressive species.

“Genomic swamping like this is very rare in mammals, making this a really cool result,” said Dr. Lack. “However, a major consequence has been the potential loss of the R. tanezumi nuclear genome.”

To better understand the invasion origins of the Norway and ship rat, Dr. Lack and his colleagues conducted a second study that provided insight into dispersal patterns. They found that the Norway rat invaded from at least four sources, most likely two from Asia and two from Europe and/or Africa, whereas the ship rat appears to have entered the United States in a single wave of invasion, with subsequent invasions only occurring in southeastern Florida but never moving inland.


Their work showed that the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus, continues to move throughout the United States, whereas the ship rat, Rattus rattus, no longer continues to disperse or enter. Analyses suggest that competition with the more aggressive Norway rat may limit the success of the ship rat. Through this study, researchers gained insight into how these species disperse and repopulate outside species lines. They are two of the principal pest species in the United States and can have great adverse effects on human health by acting as reservoirs and dispersers for a variety of diseases, from bubonic plague to typhus and leptospirosis. This work on dispersal patterns can be useful in limiting the spread of the rat-borne pathogens.

Museum Adopts Orphaned Collection

Orphaned collections are a growing concern for natural history institutions worldwide.  An endangered or orphaned collection is any considerable body of material, which is or soon may be no longer regarded as of value in its present ownership.  According to the American Association of Museums, every year more institutions, agencies, corporations, and individuals divest themselves of their collections. When this occurs, “orphaned” collections need to be “adopted” by an existing natural history collection.

In November of 2011, Eugene Young, a professor in the Agriculture and Life Sciences department at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, Okla. contacted the Sam Noble Museum about the possibility of adopting an orphaned collection from the A.D. Buck Museum.

A.D. Buck Museum

Originally called the Yellow Bull Museum, the A.D. Buck Museum’s science exhibits included mounted specimens of birds and mammals. Sam Noble Museum curator Gary Schnell and collection managers Marcia Revelez and Tamaki Yuri traveled to the A.D. Buck Museum to view the specimens. Upon further inspection, the team found many specimens that had been on loan from the Sam Noble Museum.

A total of 14 specimens were loaned to A. D. Buck in 1961, including an adult grizzly bear, all still in good condition. Most of the collection’s Oklahoma birds and mammals were found in the early 1900s, such as the marsh hawk, in 1910, and a Pintail, in 1913.

Grizzly Bear, A. D. Buck MuseumMany of the specimens in the A. D. Buck collection are significant to Oklahoma’s history, such as the Spotted Skunk found in 1934 in Kay County, an area that had no previous record of having that species before the 1990s.  After evaluation, a crew returned in December to pack up the collection of birds and mammals and bring them to their new home at the Sam Noble Museum.

The A. D. Buck specimens are not the first collection the museum has adopted. Recently, the museum’s Department of Mammalogy adopted approximately 26,000 mammal species from the University of Memphis Mammal Collection.

Birds at A. D. Buck

“It’s an ongoing goal for the museum to aid orphaned collections,” Revelez said.

Natural history collections play a vital role in understanding cultures, habitats, biodiversity and more. They safeguard specimens, inspire, educate, and tirelessly continue the research and study of various sciences. We welcome back our mammals and birds that have been on loan for so many decades and will always strive to maintain and preserve Oklahoma’s rich natural history.