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? 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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!

A Letter from Michael Mares

Hello all,

As many of you know, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded a National Medal by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in April. As part of that award, the museum will have the opportunity to preserve and archive its history in the Library of Congress with the help of StoryCorps, a non-profit dedicated to collecting oral histories.

From September 19-21, StoryCorps will be at the Sam Noble Museum to record a series of interviews. Each interview takes 40 minutes and consists of a casual conversation between two individuals. StoryCorps will conduct 18 interviews with two people being interviewed at the same time, and in doing so, will record the memories and experiences of 36 individuals who have impacted or been impacted by the Sam Noble Museum. Additionally, these interviews could potentially be aired on National Public Radio. For examples of previous interviews, please click here.

Many of you have been involved with the museum for years, and your experiences here are an integral part of this community. Anyone is eligible to participate, and I want to extend a personal invitation welcoming you to share your history with the museum. If you and a co-worker, volunteer, family member and/or friend have a special story or experience about the museum that you’d like to share as part of the public record, please send an email to pr@snomnh.ou.edu.

I cannot wait to discover the many ways you have shaped this institution and community. I hope you will join me in archiving the museum’s heritage this fall, so that future generations may always remember Oklahoma’s dedication to its natural history museum. 

M. Mares

 

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

In the Words of Taylor Hanson

As you know from Digging Deep for Leadership, each year 12 high school students from across Oklahoma participate in Paleo Expedition - a hands-on two-week paleontological experience in Black Mesa. This year Taylor Hanson and Zane Woods, two of our Board of Visitors members, decided to visit the site to do a little digging of their own! And of course, we were thrilled to have them.

Wait! It gets better. Hanson has chronicled the experience in a four-page story that will appear in the summer edition of Tracks, the museum newsletter. And today, we’re offering you a sneak peek! So relax, pull up a chair and lose yourself in the words of Taylor Hanson.

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In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs

After our introduction to the site we were anxious to get to work and be of some service. At the front edge of the quarry was a cluster of earth, which had recently been coated with thick layers of plaster carefully molded around it to protect the fossil during transportation before being examined at the museum.

Now that the team had a couple of extra willing strong backs, Zane and I set out to perform the task of carefully flipping the nearly 300-pound cluster of earth that was half in plaster, in order to finish the preparatory process of chiseling away the remaining sediment for transport.

We set out to perform this simple task with smiles on our face and a not-so-small streak of nervousness - knowing that in a matter of minutes we could be responsible for destroying millions of years of time-protected fossil and a fair bit of labor by our hosts. Thankfully with close instruction and a healthy heave, two science tourists were able to perform the task successfully (and greatly relieved to have done so). 

Over the period of the afternoon we took on whatever tasks we could.  We joined the team in the detailed and dusty job of excavating one inch at a time the excess soil and clay, each clinging to the bottom of the fossils earthen cluster, and I enjoyed every scuffed knuckle and dust-coated wipe of my brow.

All around me I saw a team of passionate people putting their years of dedicated study and practice into action, carefully unearthing a new part of history. To be among them brush and pick in hand as a total novice getting the chance to share in that discovery was absolutely incredible.

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Amazing, right? Now, we know what you’re thinking. Where are the other three pages?! To read the rest of Hanson’s story, pick up a copy of Tracks - available at the end of July in the museum lobby. Or better yet, become a museum member! We’ll even mail it to you. Either way, you won’t want to miss this article. Because whether you’re a lover of paleontology, Oklahoma or Hanson, there’s something for everyone in this rich recollection.

Tools of the Trade

Thanks to viral videos like “Pizza to Supermodel,” we’re all familiar with the power of Photoshop. But did you know that scientists use Photoshop too? Take a look.

 Impressive, right? As you saw in the video, invertebrate paleontologists use the same software as top advertisers – but you won’t find them airbrushing supermodels.

As the name suggests, invertebrate paleontology specializes in the study of fossilized invertebrates. To study these small organisms, paleontologists must use a sophisticated method of photography to properly capture all aspects of a given fossil. While scientists do not use programs like Photoshop to transform an image, they do adjust lighting details to reveal parts of the fossils unseen to the naked eye.

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Ammonite 

Because cameras must choose a point of focus in close-range shots, the entire fossils cannot be in focus at once. That is why scientists snap a series of photographs – up to 100 per specimen – in which the focus continuously shifts by minimal increments. Often this process can take up to 20 minutes per specimen.

“Based on what taxa we are imaging, we usually take three or four standard views of an object – dorsal, anterior, lateral and so on,” said Roger Burkhalter, invertebrate paleontology collection manager. “Each view takes a couple of minutes to position and focus, then we take multiple images.” 

After all of these images are obtained, they are uploaded to a computer. Then, Helicon Focus software compresses all of the images at once. In doing so, the program merges the focused portions of each photograph. Then Photoshop is used to adjust brightness and contrast levels. In the end, the paleontologist is left with one crisp, high-resolution image.

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 Calyptaulax

According to Burkhalter, the Sam Noble Museum has been using this method of stacking for 5-6 years. Due to critical advances in software and camera hardware, the department has only grown more successful in image stacking with time. 

So, what becomes of a fossil’s cover shoot? Many will be published in articles in specialized scientific journals that document the fossils, but most are stored so that they can be accessed for later research or identification. But now, for the first time, we’re bringing our most exquisite work to you through Formed in Stone: The Natural Beauty of Fossils.

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These portraits and their respective “models” will be on display to wow museum visitors with an array of dazzling geometric patterns. From July 4 to Jan. 4,  2015, guests can enjoy a wide variety of spectacular of fossils ranging from 80 to 455 million years old.

“The fossils have a natural beauty that can be appreciated by the public, regardless of their level of interest in the biology and evolution of extinct animals,” said Steve Westrop, invertebrate paleontology curator. “We hope that the images will spark curiosity, and that visitors will be inspired to learn more from this exhibit, the permanent exhibits at the museum and our website. “

 Added bonus! We’re offering complimentary admission on opening day to celebrate. So whether you’re in it for the art, photography or science, join us from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 4 in admiring the beautiful handiwork from these tools of the trade.

Accreditation - What’s the Big Deal?

In the United States alone, museums employ more than 400,000 people and directly contribute $21 billion to the economy. Impressive, right? Despite these striking statistics, museums are still struggling. In fact, more than two-thirds of museums reported economic distress in 2012. 

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This sad dino by Roamin’ Doodles understands the pain.

Fortunately, there is something museum’s can do. The American Alliance of Museums offers accreditation to institutions dedicated to excellence and high professional standards. But financial motives aren’t the only reason a museum would apply for accreditation. 

According to the AAM website, some of the benefits of accreditation include: 

→ Increased credibility with donors and funding agencies

→ A clear sense of purpose and understanding

→ A valuable tool in lobbying local and state governments

→ Increased level of professionalism

→ Improved relationships with other museums

Sounds great, right? Of all the natural history museums in the United States, only 8 percent are accredited – the Sam Noble Museum included. That’s right! In 2014, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded accreditation for the fourth consecutive time. Of course, not all institutions who apply are accepted, which is why this is such a significant achievement. 

“This means the museum continues to meet the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums,” explained museum director Michael Mares.

The museum endured a rigorous application process that consisted of a year of self-study and site visits by peer reviewers. It is not uncommon for the process of accreditation to take up to three years.

So, what does this mean for you?

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It means we are dedicated to preserving Oklahoma’s cultural and natural history, and we’ve been commended for our efforts to do so. Stronger relationships with other museums could also mean more loans for research and more traveling exhibits. As you can see, accreditation is a big deal. Don’t belive us? Check out this congratulatory video from AAM president Ford Bell.

The certificate of accreditation, framed and matted just beside Redbud Café, is on display for all Oklahomans to see, so they can continue to have confidence in the nationally recognized quality of their museum.

Forensic Files Series Leads OU Student to Museum

“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”

 Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.

Video, Diatoms in Action

Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.

 Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler. 

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Wu in the field

 “During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.

 Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species. 

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Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle

 “I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”

In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.

“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”

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