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.

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”.

Around the World in Eight Photos

Jules Verne captured adventurous readers through his novel Around the World in 80 Days. Well, today we’re circumnavigating the globe in just eight pictures! So pack your bags because for the next few minutes, we’re going off the grid.

Japan 

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As the warrior scholars of Feudal Japan, Samurais had quite extensive weaponry: elaborate armor, menacing masks and fanciful swords, such as the one shown above from 1800 CE. For more information about Samurai culture and artifacts, be sure to check out the ethnology collection’s blog.

Peru

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This ceramic drinking vessel hails from the Nazca culture of coastal Peru and dates to around AD 200-800.  The artwork depicts a sacrificial scene, indicating that the item may have been used for sacrificial rites.

New Guinea

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Kundu drums are a staple of the Sepik region in New Guinea and are used at nearly every ceremony, feast, ritual and community event. Drum makers whittle at hollow tree trunks to achieve the hourglass shape, then stretch lizard or snakeskin across the top opening.

France

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The Acheulean hand axe was in use for over one million years and is considered by some to be the “Swiss army knife” of the Stone Age. Likely used for cutting and butchering, this hand tool from Troche, Dordogne in France could date back to the lower Paleolithic period 1.8 million years 

Cyprus

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This white painted ware jug is of Cypro-Archiac origins and was likely produced around 600 BCE. Although little information is available about the jug’s use, ethnologists can use physical features to speculate about its history. “Typically, the more decorated a piece is, the higher it is in status,” said ethnology collection manager Stephanie Allen.

Guatemala

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During the Classic Period, AD 200-800, this incense burner from Guatemala would have likely been used by the Maya to send prayers and offerings to the deities. The burner features an individual wearing a helmet or headdress possibly an ancestor or deity.

Ethiopia

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Made entirely of lion’s hair and hide, this Ethiopian headdress is likely from the early to mid-1900s. Because ethnologists are uncertain about the artifact’s tribal origins, very little is known about this piece. Regardless, this unique treasure remains a museum favorite.

Spain

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Discovered in the famous Altamira Cave in Spain, this bone awl would have been used to puncture holes in animal hide for tailoring and manufacturing. The ability to alter clothing enabled those living 50,000 to 10,000 years ago to battle the brutal climate of glacial Europe.

That completes our trip around the world, highlighting artifacts from the ethnology and archaeology departments at the Sam Noble Museum. These departments house extraordinary collections, especially from Native North and Central America. Additional stories about artifacts such as these can be found on the Archaeology and the Ethnology blogs.  

The Sam Noble Museum hopes to incorporate a permanent display for artifacts such as these in the coming years. Until then, feel free to view the ethnology department’s online catalog.

For more international adventures, be sure to visit our latest exhibit, The Art of Sport + Playa display of international balls, created with unique materials from around the world.

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!

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?

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Eight

On Monday, we asked our Facebook friends to solve a little ITTB teaser in preparation for today’s post: “This type of bird is also the name of a county in central Oklahoma.” Think you know what it is? Our Facebook friends certainly do. Today we’re talking about the wildly-plumed, internationally known kingfisher.

Kingfishers are a group of brightly colored birds that are famous for catching fish by swooping down from a perch, as shown in the video above from BBC Wildlife. They are found all over the world, but the largest number of species is found in Africa. The Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) is the largest kingfisher in the world, usually between 16.5 and 18 inches, and is a resident breeder over most of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. 

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A Giant Kingfisher from the SNOMNH ornithology department

For comparison sake, the African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) is the second smallest kingfisher, usually measuring in around 4.75 to 5.11 inches. This species is only slightly bigger than its closest relative, the African Dwarf Kingfisher (Ispidina lecontei). Unlike most kingfishers, they are insectivorous and found in woodland and savanna terrains away from water. 

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An African Pygmy Kingfisher from the SNOMNH ornithology department

Both of these specimens were donated by Jack Hill II, a student of curator Gary Schnell. When he was a child, he and his father collected these birds in Ethiopia in the 1970s. How’s that for father-son bonding? What’s so unique about these specimens is that, thanks to Jack Hill II, the Sam Noble Museum now houses the largest and second smallest species of kingfisher in the world. What do they look like side by side? We’re glad you asked.

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Giant Kingfisher and African Pygmy Kingfisher side by side

So, what’s in store for next week, you ask? Well, dust off your time machine because we’re going back 455 millions years. That’s right, 455 million years. Just let that sink in for a moment. Though it may come from a long-gone era, this specimen was actually found not so far from home. Any guesses as to where? Tune into Facebook Monday and tell us what you think for this week’s teaser!

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!