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

 

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.

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.”

A Mammalogist’s Homecoming

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 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.

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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.

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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.

Bom Bom’s Story

Chapter 1 – The End of an Era 

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Bom Bom - OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang

On June 25, 2012, the Oklahoma City Zoo announced the death of Bom Bom the gorilla – a local icon, beloved by many and father of three. His passing devastated zoo-lovers and was covered by nearly every major news outlet in the state – The Oklahoma Gazette, KFOR, KWTV and the Oklahoman. Now, his legacy lives on thanks to a partnership between the OKC Zoo and the Sam Noble Museum. 

Chapter 2 – The Backstory 

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The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans

Bom Bom was born at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans 38 years ago and joined the OKC Zoo in 2002 as part of national breeding program. According to Robin Newby, supervisor of apes at the OKC Zoo, Bom Bom was a great silverback. He understood his role in the group and fostered peaceful relationships.

In January 2010, Bom Bom was diagnosed with heart disease – a common threat for male gorillas. Two years later he suffered a deadly ruptured aneurism in his heart that ended his life, but not his legacy.

 Chapter 3 – New Beginnings

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Bom Bom in the Sam Noble Museum mammalogy collection

Bom Bom’s body was donated to our museum, and we immediately requested the help of artisan taxidermist Paul Rhymer, who has previously worked with the Smithsonian Institution. Because the specimen was so well preserved by the museum, Rhymer was able to sculpt a stunningly realistic live mount for the museum.

“To ensure this mount was identifiable as Bom Bom, I made molds of his face so we could try to capture the facial features that make him different from other gorillas, “ said Rhymer. “From that mold I was able to sculpt a form that was a portrait.”

Bom Bom’s skeleton also left insights for scientists about the way western lowland gorillas age. According to Brandi Coyner, Sam Noble Museum mammalogy curatorial associate, zoo specimens live longer than their wild counterparts and allow scientist to observe the effects of aging. The bones of Bom Bom’s hands and feet have already been studied by a Smithsonian scientists, who is an expert in primate anatomy. 

“We could tell by the way he walked he was getting older. The museum helped us understand why, and did a great job with him,” Newby said.

 Chapter 4 – The Plot Twist

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Leom - Photo by Andrea Wright

Bom Bom also left the zoo staff one final surprise – a son. After nearly a decade of breeding failure, female Kelele conceived just one month before Bom Bom’s passing. Baby Leom – named after his parents - was born on Valentine’s Day of 2013.

Candice Rennels, manager of marketing and public relations for the OKC Zoo, stated that Bom Bom and his son Leom serve as “ambassadors for wild relatives” in regards to wildlife conservation as a whole, and the Sam Noble Museum has incorporated this belief into plans for Bom Bom’s future. 

Chapter 5 – Planning a Future

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An Ocelot portrait from RARE

The Sam Noble Museum plans to display Bom Bom in the main lobby to help welcome Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species, a temporary photographic exhibit designed to raise awareness about endangered wildlife in America. Signs will help inform visitors of his purpose and relevance in preserving biodiversity. 

"Bom Bom is an extremely rare gorilla who will continue to influence people’s views on conservation as a part of the Sam Noble Museum’s collections and exhibits,” said museum director Michael Mares. “I decided to prepare him as a mount so that he would carry a message of the fragility of life on Earth in the face of the enormous environmental changes that gorillas, and people, face." 

Rare opens on Sept. 13, 2014. We would love to welcome all Oklahomans to discover a remarkable cause while rediscovering an old friend. We hope you will join us in becoming a part of this new and exciting chapter in Bom Bom’s legacy.

Inside the Treasure Box: Week One

Today begins an eleven-week blogging journey, a journey unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Stick with us, and we’ll take you behind the scenes for a first-hand look at the best of the best from each of our eleven collections. Curators and collection managers carefully chose the most significant and/or unique item from their collection, and one by one, we will reveal them to you. We hope you’re ready, because it’s going to be one exciting, international, world-record-breaking journey. Welcome to “Inside the Treasure Box”.

We’ve decided to kick off our new series with one of the rarest mammals in North America, straight from our mammalogy department. The black-footed ferret is an endangered species and was declared extinct in the wild in 1979 and again in 1986. However, the recovery of the species from a few individuals, that were discovered by chance thanks to a Wyoming rancher’s dog, resulted in successful captive breeding populations and reintroductions and recovery in several states.

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"Historically, black-footed ferrets were found throughout the Great Plains, including Oklahoma, from Canada to northern Mexico," said Janet Braun, mammalogy staff curator. "Secretive and active only at night, they are extremely dependent on prairie dogs, both for food and burrows. Significant decrease in prairie dog colonies, conversion of grasslands to agriculture and disease contributed to the extinction of this species."

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A close-up of the black feet for which the species is named

Today there are more than 1,000 individuals living in the wild in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Arizona. Only 5 specimens are known from Oklahoma, and as it is now extirpated (meaning it has disappeared from the area) in the state, this specimen is one of Oklahoma’s most rare mammal specimens in collections. This specimen was collected July 25, 1928 just one mile east of Norman.

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Be sure to stay tuned for week two’s “big” reveal by following our blog and connecting with us on social media. By big, we mean one of the biggest in the world. You won’t want to miss this. What’s that, you say? You’re on the edge of your seat? Well, we’re not usually into making deals, but if blog receives 1,000 visits OR receives 10 new followers by Friday, Sept. 20 at 3 p.m., we may just be inclined to release a teaser. A “big” teaser.

Read Inside the Treasure Box: Week Two

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.

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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.

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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.