Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
Sooner spirit is in the air, and we’ve caught the fever. Over the past three weeks, the Sam Noble Museum’s trusty sidekick, Spike, has been attending the University of Oklahoma’s Camp Crimson to greet the eager faces of the incoming freshmen class. He had a lot to say about the PaleoSooners. Oh, you couldn’t make it? Put your listening ears on, because here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know.
Wait, what is Camp Crimson anyways?
Let’s back up for a second. Camp Crimson is the University of Oklahoma’s orientation camp, designed specifically for incoming students. Over the course of three jam-packed days, these future sooners will discover OU history, build tight-knit relationships, develop faculty contacts and experience all of the wonderful opportunities the university has to offer.Okay, and now what’s this PaleoSooners thing?