Friday, July 25, 2008

Week the Fourth

This week is our fourth at the museum, and as it ends, we approach the half way point of our internship. It is often said, but never understood how time can move so quickly when one's days are spent bearing witness to so many new things!

This week has truly been the culmination of all the experience the past three weeks has taught us. We have been constantly coming across new methods of performing our tasks more efficiently. Some of these have saved us time, and some have turned out not be be as effective as we had hoped. This week, however we applied the best of our methods and have been lining drawers like crazy, printing out inventory sheets with ease, and transferring information from written source to electronic quickly. I guess it takes a while to find out exactly what will work best and to uncover computer shortcuts. Now that we have we are a working very well together as a team.

I think everyone has also reached a point of familiarity with the area as well. It is always interesting to hear one another's stories of traipsing around the city, or to join in on the adventure when possible, even if it is only a short walk, subway ride or a lunch break.

As a result of rescheduling, we had two collections tours this week! On Wednesday we went on a tour of the museum's wasps' nests. The collection contained over a thousand nests ranging in complexity. We first were shown small, simple, single-celled nests in the type of honeycomb pattern similar to what you've probably seen in your yard at some point. Along the way, Christine showed us nests attached to leaves, camouflaged with intriguing bark patterns and in strange arrangements. The most complex were multi chambered, large spherical or conical nests. I'd stay away from those if you ever see one! The wasps' nests collection contains specimens dating to the early 1900s. This collection is really remarkable because each specimen is extremely fragile. The nests are constructed by a mixture of wasp saliva and wood pulp or mud. In such an instance, maintenance of temperature and humidity conditions is crucial to the preservation of the collection. There are monitors for temperature and humidity both inside and outside of the cabinets and the cabinets have been beautifully lined with archival materials.

Yesterday, we were given a tour of one of Ruth's old stomping grounds, Mammalogy. This tour was incredible! The study of mammals encompasses a wide spectrum. It was fun and interesting to see all the department had to offer. In addition to showing us the collection, Darrin, our tour guide shared anecdotes from the field and enthusiastically catered to our many requests. Since mammalogists are interested in all facets of their specimens, the collection contains skins, skeletons, plasticates, and alcoholics... Each of these types of preservation serve a different purpose and we got to see examples of them all. Personal highlights: tiger pelts, elephant skulls, early 1900s photo archives and a mouse lemur presevered in alcohol!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Week Three

With the end of the third week, things have settled into a routine. On Thursday, we began the last of our varied tasks: inventory. Because the American Museum’s fossil collection nearly doubled when it obtained the enormous vertebrate fossil collection of Childs Frick in the late 60s, the AMNH’s paleo collections contain a large number of uncatalogued specimens unknown to the department’s electronic database. Add to this that the specimens are in the process of being moved up a floor and their cabinets rearranged, and the inventory can be trickier—or at least slower—than you’d expect. Even so the process is important. With a collection so large, a specimen misplaced even by a single drawer can effectively vanish forever.

The rest of our tasks for the week were not new to us and we are perfecting our techniques. Lindsay continues to be terrifyingly ahead of the rest of the game when it comes to entering specimen descriptions from the paper catalog cards into the computer. These element descriptions, when entered, will allow researchers to know which parts of the animal are available for study for each specimen number. We’re all getting better and faster at lining the collections drawers with protective foam, though Ruth has done her best to daunt us. By her calculations, she tells us, we’ll need to be lining 21 cabinets a day in order to finish the necessary 700 that will eventually take up floor 3. We’re somewhere in the 60s. That’s a long way to go. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was Lindsay who replied immediately, “Mm, that’s doable.” We’ll see!

Georeferencing probably poses the most difficulty. Even those of us with the best kept notes to read from have to parse the different variations on a single locality name or the geographic markers—counties, streams, towns, schoolhouses—that may have shifted or disappeared. And then there’s Mongolia. Attemping to pin down GPS coordinates for a location that’s spelled three different ways in notes written by the same person and that’s located in Inner Mongolia these days can really take the shine off of Google Earth. Inconveniently, it seems Google doesn’t know everything.

In the most quotable moment of the week, we missed our mammalogy tour because I had the brilliant idea to cut my thumb with an Ethafoam knife, the first and probably only injury of our summer project. But Darrin, our would-be tour guide and taxidermist extraordinaire, was on the ball when Ruth called to postpone. Without missing a beat, he said, “No problem, bring her over and I’ll stitch her up.” Luckily, my thumb’s alright, and it all ends well if you get a story to tell out of it.

Next week… the half way point!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Week Two

This week we started Geo-referencing the horse collection. We concentrated on four main locations: Lusk, Ainsworth, Mongolia, and Skinner’s Quarry. To maximize the benefit of these fossils it is important that our information is as complete as possible. Knowing the precise location where a fossil was found is just as important as the fossil itself. It is the task of the interns this summer to fill in as much information about the locations of finds as possible. Country, State, and County are crucial pieces of information to have but they are not always stable in their definition. Determining the latitude and longitude of a locality is an excellent way to ensure that future generations will know precisely where a specimen was found. This is being accomplished by consulting Google Earth, Topozone, and other web based applications that make this endeavor possible and easier than ever.

On Wednesday we were treated to a tour of the Ichthyology Department. They are currently receiving shipments of fish from the Congo where a team of scientists are collecting and conducting research. The Ichthyology Department utilizes a few methods of specimen preservation. The most common is alcohol which allows the entire specimen to be preserved, some specimens are stored in skeletal form, and some are cleared and stained. An enzyme is injected into the fish that turns all tissue clear and stains are used to color the bone and cartilage. This allows one to view the skeletal morphology without visiting the bug room first! The most interesting specimens shown were the Tetra skull with huge teeth, the Tiger Shark jaw, an Electric eel, a Marlin skull, and two gigantic Coelacanth specimens. The female specimen here at AMNH was responsible for settling a long running debate on the development of this unique species. She was carrying 5 pups when she was collected, showing that Coelacanths do not lay eggs but give birth to live young. These finds are crucial in contributing to our understanding of life strategies employed by species and ultimately of their evolution.

We are picking up the pace a little bit each day as we line the drawers on the third floor. It seems a daunting task at the moment as we are still coming up with new ways to increase our speed without causing damage to the fossils. A good lesson in patience and perseverance.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The beginning....

As part of the rehousing project in the perissodactyl collection at the AMNH, four intrepid interns will spend the summer in the AMNH’s world class fossil horse collection—the sort of thing that makes inventory interesting. The first week of the internship passed as four days of precisely planned training, early stages of our tasks, and our reward for traveling to an institution like the AMNH--tours of the other departments around us.

Some of the training was simple demonstration: cutting an ethafoam template to line and protect a drawer of specimens. Some of it reminded us more of our college lectures as we gave our attention to the volumes of information in Chris Norris’ thorough power point presentations.

With our training behind us, we have begun on the biggest of our summer tasks: carefully removing and replacing the specimens of each drawer of equidae specimens in order to line the bare or cotton-lined drawers with protective Ethafoam. Unlike the cotton lining that was previously found in some of the drawers, the Ethafoam will not outgas as it decays, possibly effecting and damaging the specimens chemically.

Between shuttling quickly between training sessions and work periods (and the staff cafeteria with its unexpectedly luxurious selection of cakes), curators and experts in other departments were kind enough to show us around their domains. Ivy took us to her fossil fish, where we saw the remains of a mysterious shark relative Helicoprion known only by its ostentatious tooth whorl.

At the Vertebrate Zoology prep lab, Neil showed us the mildly gruesome flipside to any museum's neatly mounted recent skeletons: the maceration tanks and the flesh-eating beetle room. Both are methods to remove the flesh from the bones of a carcass. Of the two, the beetles are probably the pleasanter. They eat only dead, dry flesh, and smell no worse than a musty pet shop or the elephant house at the zoo. You can flip open the lid and observe their methodical work without much discomfort. As for the maceration tanks, tanks in which the fleshy bones are put in water and left to rot for a long period of time—Neil mentioned casually that forgetting to change out the water in which the meat has been a rotting feast for weeks for huge numbers of bacteria before leaving for the weekend is a mistake you’ll regret. The regret might have something to do with the fact that the air outtake for the maceration room is disastrously close to the air intake for the planetarium next door.

Other sights seen on the various tours include the bizarre curling shells of the heteromorphy ammonites, the giraffe skins in Mammology’s collection, and the false brontosaurus skull that had been mounted onto what is now Apatosaurus.

And tomorrow… a bit of a rest. Happy Fourth of July.