Last weekend at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, I learned a new meaning of flipping the bird. (For those not familiar with this quaint colloquialism, it usually refers to a hand motion in which you wave your middle finger in someone’s direction.)
A group of 20 or so who were attending the ScienceOnline2010 conference in the Research Triangle went on a guided tour of the ten-year-old building, which – unlike many older natural history museums – organizes its permanent exhibits by natural habitats rather than taxonomic groupings. Exhibit Director Roy Campbell took us on a whirlwind tour of the museum’s four floors of exhibits, starting with a striking central hall featuring North Carolina’s natural treasures (the carnivorous Venus flytrap plant, the bobcat aka mountain lion, etc.).
As Roy enthusiastically described some of the highlights, we traveled through coastal North Carolina, various forest habitats, and more, including a section on the museum’s history. We stopped to ogle a giant blue whale skeleton hanging overhead, and heard how the museum’s builders had to add extra structural supports at the last minute to accommodate the weight of the water in a 20-foot waterfall whose faux rocks artisans had carved from concrete.
The best part of the tour, at least for me, was the behind-the-scenes, belowground view of the museum’s research and collections section. We split into two smaller groups, and Roy introduced us first to Becky Desjardins, collections manager of birds at the museum. In the short time available, Becky gave us a peek at a few of the museum’s 20,000 bird specimens, which are kept in special cabinets that protect them from light and humidity.
Becky pulled out a shallow cabinet drawer, revealing neat rows of kestrels. She took out one specimen and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. Though I have a bit of a phobia when it comes to being near live birds (as a teen I once freaked out when a friend’s pet parakeet escaped from its cage), I found myself eager to hold this beautiful and unthreatening dead one. The kestrel, which like all the bird specimens was stuffed with cotton, was amazingly light.
As we passed the kestrel specimen around, Becky explained more about the museum’s storage and preservation methods. The birds are fumigated initially to kill parasites and other organisms that could degrade the feathers or skin, hence the slightly acrid, sulfurous smell that emanated from the open cabinets. And, she said, once a year the collections staff pulls out every drawer and flips each bird over to check for signs of damage. Suddenly, flipping the bird acquired an entirely new meaning for me.
In addition to the kestrels, Becky showed us drawers of hummingbirds with iridescent feathers of various hues, and honeycreepers with delicate curved bills.
Roy tore us away from Becky and the birds and handed us off to Lisa Gatens, Curator of Mammals. Lisa struggled to choose which specimens to show us from her obviously beloved collection. She settled first on jumping mice, which can leap three feet in the air or six feet horizontally thanks to their powerful hind limbs. We moved on to bats, and finally to the skeleton of a right whale. Along the way Lisa pointed out the various bones in the animals’ limbs, demonstrating the homology between the humerus of the jumping mouse, which is much larger in the rear than in front, the needle-thin bat humerus, and the massive whale humerus.
Our last stop was the paleontology lab, where historian of science Paul Brinkman and Curator of Paleontology Vince Schneider described how they remove rock from fossils collected in the field, using tools ranging from sandblasters to implements you’ve seen in your dentist’s office (ouch!). Paul and Vince have unearthed fossils from several locales in North Carolina, which are more challenging to work in than the exposed rock beds found in the western U.S.
Our tour ended there, leaving me wanting more. Maybe some of us will return after the museum’s Nature Research Center, scheduled to open in 2011, is complete. This 80,000-square-foot addition to the museum, whose skeleton we admired from the museum windows, will focus on engaging the public in understanding scientific research – just as many participants in ScienceOnline2010 aim to do.
NOTE: To see more photos from the museum tour, view my album on Picasa.