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

 

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.

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.

Birds of a Feather

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White Gyrfalcon by George Sutton, Date Unknown

Wait, art AND science?

Art and science are often viewed as polar disciplines, pursuits that seldom overlap and engage opposite ends of the brain - but it’s unlikely that George M. Sutton, exceptional illustrator and accomplished scientist, would agree. Throughout his lifetime, Sutton made invaluable contributions to both ornithology and art through his unbelievably realistic sketches of wildlife, which are currently available for public viewing.

So, what should I expect?

To be amazed. The Sam Noble Museum houses 3,500 of Sutton’s 20,000 paintings and has selected 75 astounding watercolor portraits for the George M. Sutton: Exploring Art and Science exhibit, which transforms the simplistic, streamlined gallery space into a lush, exotic hub of dazzling plumage. The exhibit primarily features artwork from Sutton’s Mexico, Arctic and United State’s expeditions and a few personal items of Sutton’s, including his treasured paint box.

What kinds of birds did Sutton paint?

Although this collection features a dazzling array of species from several exotic destinations, the exhibit is bound together by the passion of one extraordinary man. You can expect to see a diverse array of species in nearly every imaginable landscape, from arctic tundra to Mexican jungle.

Who is George Sutton, anyways?

George Miksch Sutton, a renowned artist, writer, explorer and teacher, followed his love of ornithology to the University of Oklahoma in 1952. During his lifetime, Sutton traveled on many expeditions in the continental United States, as well as to the Artic north, Mexico and South America. By the time of his death, he had written 12 books, over 200 scientific journal articles and illustrated at least 18 books. Impressive, right? Additionally, the George Miksh Sutton Avian Research Center was founded in 1983 to aid in aviary conservation.

Is it really worth a trip to the museum?

Absolutely. It isn’t everyday you get to see top-notch watercolor paintings alongside state-of-the-art science education, and that’s not something you want to miss. The exhibit will be on display from Jan. 18 to April 20, so there is plenty of time to plan your family daytrip. Author H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” He’s right, you know. Don’t wait – flock in today.

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Black-bellied Plovers by George Sutton, Aug. 1966

Out of the Ashes: The Story of the Sam Noble Museum

Long before dinovators and a famous bronze mammoth, the Sam Noble Museum was little more than the odds and ends of various university collections. The history of the Sam Noble Museum is a tale filled with disaster, frustration and never-ending setbacks, but it is also a tale of persistence and passion.

 When the University of Oklahoma first began accumulating artifacts and specimens in the early 1900s, the artifacts were housed in a single building that served all administrative and teaching functions. Then, the museum was nothing more than a loose collection of goods numbering in the thousands. Tragically, the administrative building burned down several times during OU’s early history, and nearly all collections were lost by one particularly devastating fire in 1903.

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Collections were once housed in administrative buildings

During the 1920s and 1930s, the remainder of the collection passed through a slew of buildings, being stored wherever possible in attics, basements and stadiums. In these conditions, the artifacts and specimens could not receive the preservation care they needed, nor were they available for public viewing. However, with the Great Depression underway, funds were scarce, and the collection would remain scattered across campus for at least seven decades.

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A WPA project in western Oklahoma during the 1930s

A Work’s Progress Administration effort yielded a large collection of dinosaur fossils. In 1939, J. Willis Stovall, scientific leader of the WPA excavation team, articulated the university’s need for a permanent housing structure for the collection’s artifacts and specimens. In 1943, Stovall became the first curator and director of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, part of which was moved into three abandoned ROTC buildings.

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The first museum building was the university’s former ROTC headquarters

In 1953, Stovall passed away, and the museum was renamed The Stovall Museum of Science and History. However, the collection would remain in the same dilapidated buildings for the half a century. In 1969, collections from various departments were combined to strengthen fundraising efforts.

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A leaky roof and limited space made storing collections difficult in the ROTC barn

 In 1983, Michael Mares became curator of the museum and pushed plans for a museum building, moving its priority rank from number 116 to number 35 on the university’s building list. Around this time, Mares worked with legislators to change the museum’s name to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, making it the official natural history museum for the state of Oklahoma.

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Mares circa 1983

The museum collected a $5 million bond from the city of Norman and $15 million from a statewide higher education bond, but a new building would cost $42.5 million. Just as Oklahoma supported the museum through the passing of crucial bonds, the people of the state, led by alumni of the university, rallied together to make this visionary project a reality.

 “The funds were raised privately, with everything from school children across Oklahoma, to donors large and small, “ Mares said. “There were several $1 million donations, and the largest donation was from the various foundations of the Noble family, which ultimately totaled $10 million. The only thing the Noble family asked was for the museum to be named in honor of Sam Noble, who had passed away while we were building the museum.”

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SNOMNH today

The Sam Noble Museum opened at its current location on May 1, 2000 and welcomed a record-breaking 62,269 visitors in the first month. Although it took over a century, the fragmented collection that was once reduced to ash became a leader among natural history museums. The road was long and difficult, but now the Sam Noble Museum is finally home sweet home.

For more information about the museum’s history, be sure to check out our four-part YouTube series, “Behind the Rain”.

5 Clever Gift Ideas from Excavations

Holiday shopping can be tricky. Instead of trolling the mall for a handful of generic gifts, why not get something a little different this year? As you already know, Excavations the museum store is prime for finding odds and ends that your family and friends will love. 

What do Einstein, Darwin, Marie Curie and Nikola Telsa have in common? They all want to be underneath your Christmas tree. Four out of four scientists agree: bobbleheads make fabulous presents.

For the Sci-Fi Fanatic: 

Who doesn’t love Dr. Who? More importantly, who doesn’t love this fantastic disappearing tardis mug? No one will ever forget who gave such a wonderful gift.

For the Proud Okie:

Show your Oklahoma pride with this rustic Scissor-Tail Flycatcher coaster. Feel free to grab the wooly mammoth and Apatosaurus matchers while you’re here! All good things come in a set, you know.

For the Christmas-Lover:

Nothing says Christmas quite like an ornament. Excavations has ornaments of all shapes and sizes: wool foxes, glass figurines, ornately painted and plastic dinosaurs for the kids. I guess you could say we’re a one-stop ornament shop.

 For the Young at Heart: 

I bet Rumble the OKC Thunder mascot would love one of these bison hand puppets for Christmas! Not a Thunder fan? There are also dinos and lions and beavers. Oh my!

Mark your calendars for red-hot savings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, as Excavations hosts it’s annual holiday sale. Draw for your discount of 15-40% on your entire purchase!

Remember, museum members always receive 20 percent off all purchases at Excavations. No membership? No problem! Sign up now and start saving. Excavations is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. We look forward to seeing you soon!

P.S. Santa told us that museum memberships are going to be a hot gift this year.

Who’s Who at Holiday Happening

The lights are strung, the ornaments hung and hearts are all aglow. It could only mean one thing: the most wonderful time of the year is here! Help us welcome winter at our complimentary community celebration, Holiday Happening, on Dec. 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. Now, we don’t like to drop names, but we have some pretty spectacular guests attending this year. Who? We’re glad you asked.

The Redliners

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We’ll be rockin’ around the Christmas tree, alright. The University of Oklahoma’s only student-led, co-ed a capella group will be bringing joy to the world, and the Sam Noble Museum, with their renditions of your favorite carols.

 The Oklahoma City Ballet

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 Visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in your head? We know the feeling. Come cure the craving with a dose of dance from the Oklahoma City Ballet. You’ll be dancing in a winter wonderland all night.

The Pioneer Library

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‘Twas the night of Holiday Happening, and through the Great Hall, not a child was stirring, a great silence did fall. You’ll want to be sure and pack your listening ears for story time with the Pioneer Library System.

 Sooner Theatre

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Do you hear what I hear? The talented starlets of the Sooner Theatre will perform songs from the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life and timeless carols, both old and new. 

Santa Claus

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This holiday VIP is taking a little time out of his busy schedule to visit his favorite natural history museum. Children are invited to share their wishes with Santa and even pose for a pic or two!

 As you can see, Holiday Happening will be a celebration of Jurassic proportions. Plus, if you bring a toy or non-perishable food item, we’ll enter your name in a drawing for a $50 gift certificate to the Excavations Museum Store, which will be offering discounts during Holiday Happening. So pack your joy, plus a toy, and we’ll see you tomorrow at 5 p.m. for a night of carols and cheer!

Note: Please be sure to frequently check our website and social media in case of a cancellation due to hazardous weather.

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Eleven

We’ve planned a “larger then life” finale for our ITTB series today. You could even say it is a story of Jurassic proportions. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen the object of today’s post if you’ve visited the museum, but before we reveal the paleontology department’s most prized specimen, here is a little backstory:

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The Sauroposeidon

In 1994, vertebrate paleontology curator Richard Cifelli and his team found four vertebrae of one Sauroposeidon in southeastern Oklahoma. Sauroposeidon fossils are common in Oklahoma, many of which come from a quarry located in Atoka.

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Each vertebra of the Sauroposeidon measured four feet or more in length. The bones were so enormous that Cifelli himself was unsure what he had uncovered at first. The name Sauroposeidon actually stems from the Greek word “saurus” (meaning lizard) and the mythological god Poseidon. The names refers to Poseidon’s nickname as “Earthshaker,” implying that the Sauroposeidon's weight and size was enough to move mountains.

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Poseidon, god of the sea and maker of earthquakes.

Sauroposeidon seems to be a relative of Brachiosaurus, and like Brachiosaurus, probably held its neck upright like a giraffe, rather than out in front of it like the Apatosaurus. Sauroposeidon would have been much larger than Brachiosaurus, however. Cifelli and former student Matt Wedel believe Sauroposeidon would have been nearly 100 feet long and stood some 60 feet tall. It could have stood flat-footed and looked into a sixth story window. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the Sauroposeidon as the world’s tallest dinosaur.

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Sauroposeidon Scale

Unlike other items featured in the ITTB series, which are too fragile for public display, the Sauroposeidon can be seen from just inside the Great Hall, peeking out from the Noble Corporation and Noble Energy Orientation Gallery. When it comes to fossils, go big or go home, right? We enjoyed sharing a glimpse into our collections and exhibits with you and hope this series has inspired you to visit and discover for yourself the specimens and artifacts featured in this series.

We look forward to seeing you soon!

ITTB: Week Ten

Although Oklahoma boasts of 38 federally recognized Native American tribes, there are just five known Osage speakers in the state. The extreme deficiency of speakers stem from limited educational sources, making every resource invaluable. Being so, the Native American language department’s most treasured item is not a million-year-old fossil or a rare specimen. It’s a notebook.

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The Osage language, native to Oklahoma, is a member of the Dhegihan branch of Siouan languages and is related to Kansa (Kaw), Quapaw and Omaha-Ponca. With only a handful of speakers, these languages are severely endangered and none have adequate documentation. However, one remarkable document from northern Oklahoma offers hope for the future of the Osage language.

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Pawhuska, Okla.

Robert (Bob) Bristow grew up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and was interested in languages and Osage even in high school. He married into an Osage family and learned to speak the language fluently. He took copious notes from Osage classes and interviews with Osage elders during the 1970s. These notebooks are filled with vocabulary items, sentences, stories and tribal history.

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He additionally jotted down snippets of conversation, plays on words and other humorous quips overheard. As an amateur artist, Bristow illustrated his notes with images of cultural items and doodled Osage ribbon work patterns. His handwritten notes for an Osage Dictionary became the backbone of Carolyn Quintero’s Osage Dictionary (OU Press 2010).

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Carolyn Quintero’s Osage Dictionary

Bristow’s work is accurate, easy to read and contains the richest documentation of Osage in the 20th century. His notebooks continue to be invaluable to the Osage Nation Language Department and to scholars of Osage, Siouan, and language and cultural diversity in general. As you likely know, the Sam Noble Museum stores a unique combination of cultural and prehistoric artifacts, which is why next we’ll be visiting the last remaining department, paleontology. 

You certainly won’t want to miss our last ITTB post next Wednesday, so mark your calendars! It’s going to be a finale of Jurassic proportions.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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?