January 26, 2010

Filling in for Mammalogy: Part 2

A few weeks ago, I blogged about what it was like as a graduate student to temporarily be put in charge of managing an entire collection of mammals. The job comes with a lot of responsibility, including facilitating the visits of researchers who study specimens from the collection.

While I have interacted with visitors to the collection before, this was the first time that it was my responsibility to make sure they had what they needed, knew where to find the specimens they were looking for, and ensure that all the proper paperwork was filled out. Interacting with these researchers and hearing about their work (not to mention watching them take the data they needed) was definitely one of the most interesting parts of my job.

A budding young researcher uses a special tool to measure the size of a rodent during a behind-the-scenes tours of the mammalogy collection.

The first visitor was Jonathan Calede, a graduate student at the University of Oregon. Jonathan is studying the diet of burrowing rodents that lived during the Miocene. This doesn’t sound difficult until you find out that the only specimens he has to study are tiny fossilized rodent teeth! Luckily, the Burke’s mammal collection provides modern rodents for researchers like Jonathan to study. Since we know what modern mammals eat, their teeth serve as great comparisons.

Jonathan has taken some specimens back to Oregon with him, but most of his work was done in the mammal collection itself. First he chose which specimens to study and cleaned the teeth with ethanol. He then made molds of the teeth using the same blue molding compound that dentists use. When the mold is dry it can be peeled off and later filled with epoxy to make a cast of the teeth.

The second researcher was Casey Self, a University of Washington biology graduate student. Casey is also studying teeth and their relationship to diet, but in modern bats rather than rodents. She uses the Small Animal Tomographic Analysis facility (SANTA) in the Department of Pediatrics to micro-CT scan the bat skulls and measure the volume and surface area of the tooth roots. Because Casey cannot remove the teeth from the skulls (as that could compromise the specimens in the collection), this is a non-destructive, highly accurate alternative. Casey has used the collection many times before and will definitely be back to complete more research in the future.

The final visitor was Jacob Fisher, an archaeology PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Jacob uses the mammal collection to identify prehistoric faunal skeleton remains from Five Finger Ridge, an archaeological site occupied during the Fremont-period (AD 450-1350) in central Utah.

During his most recent visit to the mammal collection Jacob focused on identifying rodents, which provide important data on the past environmental conditions at the site. There are larger questions that Jacob is trying to answer with his research. In his words: “the goal of my research is to understand how people impacted the environment, and in particular how underlying motivations for hunting by men may result in resource depletion of some game animals.”

All of the Burke Museum’s collections, not just mammalogy, support interesting research. I am glad I had the opportunity to help a few of those researchers in my time filling in for our regular mammalogy collections manager.

Posted by: Justine Walker, Mammalogy