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An insider's view of the natural history museum


Tuesday, June 11, 2013, by Faith Neff
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Down in the depths of the Natural History Museum we tread. Here in this tight room, alongside 1.4 million dried and jarred fish samples, we learn about the importance of sample databases. When someone discovers a new species, they first have to go to places like the Natural History Museum to make sure it has not been found already. Nowadays we also use DNA testing to make sure that the discovery is valid. Once it has been established that the species is something new, a specimen sample is kept at the museum in case there is any dispute later down the line. But that's not all the samples are used for! Many fish, like the one pictured here, are very small and contain like a MILLION bones. Keeping track of which bone is the second rib versus the forty-second rib can be tough. However, when kept in alcohol the fish skeletons can remain intact and the bones and cartilage can be dyed different colors, like the one seen here.

[Photograph Credit: Trynn Sylvester]After we had our fair share of fish, we moved up into the rafters to check out the bird collection. The first thing that we all noticed was the smell, which was almost intoxicating. But our attention quickly shifted when they brought out the birds of paradise. Although the females are pretty bland, the male birds of paradise are definitely dressed to impress. Then we got to check out the hummin birds. The blues and greens, seen in the humming birds here, are colors caused by the structure of the feather, which allows them to last much longer than pigments that produce the other bright colors on birds.

[Photograph Credit: James Leitner]As you can see, each bird has a unique tag. These tags tell important stories about where and when the bird was found, who found it and how much it weighed. The bird collectors have to prepare the birds in a special way. Otherwise the fat left in the bird's body can leach out of their feet and cause their tags to decompose. This process also attracts beetles, which can damage the precious specimen. But wait: the beetles are not all bad! When we want to look at the bird's skeleton on its own, the museum uses beetles to eat the bird clean down to its bones. How cool is that?

After exploring all this sweet stuff, we got to hang out and mentally digest all that we had learned. Here is a picture of me and some Harvard Forest friends chillin' on the Natural History Museum's lawn.

[Photograph Credit: Hannah Wiesner ]

Faith Neff

Quirky Q&A with Faith

Are sharks mean because they feel unloved, or do they just have a mean way of sharing their affection with others?

Sharks aren't mean. In fact I think that they are the greatest scientists of all since they are just overwhelmingly curious creatures.

What is the most rewarding experience you have had and what made it so?

Spending a month rafting down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Getting to spend so much time with amazing people while exploring sure a cool place taught me a lot about perspective.

What trip would you most like to take in your lifetime?

I would like to spend a year or so traveling around the world. Only traveling in one direction, just to make it interesting.

What object would you like to be able to draw really well?

I think that it would be really useful to be able to draw plants really well, especially in this program.

Would you rather see a movie, a parade, or a magic show?

I love watching movies. It really helps me relax and unwind. However, I have never seen a magic show and think that that could be really fun as well. 

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