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

 

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.”

Education 101

You’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to your child’s education – especially in the summer. It’s important for parents to do their homework before enrolling in educational programming, so grab your pencil! Class is now in session.

 Lesson 1 – Not all Education is Equal

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Unlike many educational programs outside of school, our curriculum is developed by trained educators to complement the statewide plan. Additionally, our educators strive to go above and beyond the Oklahoma Science Standards, providing additional science education to students who may lack opportunities and resources.

 “We provide out of school opportunities for students to engage in science and explore the world that they can’t access in their schools,” said Jes Cole, head of education. “We are really fortunate to be a complement and to help supplement Oklahoma schools for science education.”

 By teaching Oklahoma children the joy of experiential learning, the museum has molded statewide science education. In the past year, 1,245 participants enrolled in our public education programming, and the museum has impacted 219,380 students through field trips in the past decade.

Lesson 2 – You Don’t Need a Classroom

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Nothing is more terrifying to a teacher than watching his or her students discard precious information over summer vacation. But there is something you as a parent can do, and it starts with Summer Explorers.

Summer Explorers is the Sam Noble Museum’s summer educational programming for students ages 4-14. We offer a wide variety of courses throughout the summer - covering everything from baby to animals to pond scum, world cultures to paleontology. It’s a chance to see the world behind the safety of gallery walls.

“There aren’t many summer camps that have the same security that watches over priceless artifacts in the same area as my priceless kiddo,” said Amy Davenport, parent of a former Summer Explorer. “Whenever we drop Zoey off to class, we know she is in great hands.”

Lesson 3 – Learning is for Life

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If you’ve ever heard the term lifelong learner, then you know that curiosity is not outgrown. Adults love digging in the sand for buried fossils just as much as their children, especially when playing for keeps.  That’s why the museum offers family and adult-only public programs.

 “Everyone is a lifelong learner, and everyone’s always wanting to learn more,” said Cole. “We try to offer what other educational institutions cannot, and that’s how we design our adult programming.”

In addition to inspiring new interests, adult education also strives to answer everyday dilemmas with specialized scientific knowledge. From preserving family heirlooms to mastering macrophotography, these programs foster learning for life.

 Exam Review

 Summer brings ample opportunity to enroll your child in educational programming - but will you make the correct choice? Every right answer begins in a book, so study up using our education website! Come see what science education is all about, and discover our school of thought.

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

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.

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

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Seven

It’s slimy. It’s creepy. It’s just in time for Halloween. This week we’re diving down into a world unseen, to the murky and mysterious dwelling of Oklahoma’s more aquatic residents. We’re not talking catfish and bass, here. Oh no. We’ve got something far more exotic in mind, something coiled in chills and thrills. Brace yourself for the American eel.

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An American eel specimen from our ichthyology department

Although the American eel, Anguilla rostrata, is a widespread and common fish species of the Atlantic and Gulf drainages of North, Central and northern South America, it is currently rare in Oklahoma. Eels are catadromous fishes, meaning they spend part of their life cycle in the ocean and the other part in freshwater. American eels spawn in the ocean. The larval eels drift in currents to the mouths of large freshwater rivers where they migrate upstream to feed in freshwaters before returning to the ocean as adults to carry on the circle of life.

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Juvenile eels

Due to their poor eyesight, eels most likely depend on their sense of smell to find prey. American eels are nocturnal and therefore do the bulk of hunting at night. Unlike other fish, the American eel’s scales do not overlap in an organized pattern, but rather occur irregularly across the body. Despite these minute scales, the American eel appears to be “naked” because of a mucous layer that coats the body.

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A mucous coating creates a slimy look

Although American eels are currently rare in the state, as mentioned above, they were once fairly common in the large rivers of Oklahoma, particularly in the eastern part of the state. However, the construction of impoundments has hindered their migration. As a result, their population has been declining in Oklahoma since this specimen was collected from the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma in 1973, and prior to this photograph, had not been opened since that date.

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The Kiamichi River, photo courtesy of www.oklahomaroadtrips.com

They were once fairly common in the large rivers of Oklahoma, particularly in the eastern part of the state, but the construction of impoundments has hindered their migration. As a result, their population has been declining in Oklahoma since this specimen was collected from the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma in 1973, and prior to this photograph, had not been opened since that date.

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Dr. Marsh-Matthews, ichthyology curator, uncoils the eel for a close-up

The American eel certainly isn’t our most adorable specimen, but there’s just something compelling about that creepy-but-cool stare. Next week we’ll be trading the slime and scales for feathers and flight, so don’t miss out. Now that you’ve had a chance to see the American eel in all its glory, we have a question for you: chilling or thrilling? Join the conversation on our Facebook page!