A Collection of Sri Lankan Bird Skins.

Written by Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.

The Temporary Number

During the course of my work in the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, (NMI) I came across a couple of boxes of bird skins that were in the wrong place. By deciding to move them to their correct place, I opened a metaphorical can of worms. It turned out that these 200 bird skins had been assigned modern numbers during a volunteer project 16 years ago. In the intervening period, the original accession number had been discovered. Never one to leave a wrong number in place, I took on the challenge to renumber this collection before rehousing them.

The Donor

First, I read the acquisition register and found the donor to be a gentleman named Colonel James Grove White, a career British Army officer. Upon retirement, Grove White came to live in Co. Cork in the south of Ireland, and like many British men in Ireland at that time, he came to hold high office during various periods, and was very active in the local community. It was during his time in Ireland, almost 100 years ago, that he donated his collection of “Ceylonese” bird skins. Presumably these were collected by him while on duty in Sri Lanka, although there is no documentation in the NMI to contribute the field collection details, other than the labels on the birds themselves.

Approximately 200 bird skins were donated, and in his correspondence with the NMI, Grove White said “I am glad to know that some of the birds may be useful. I know that there were 2 or 3 rather rare ones.”

Fig 1: Letter from Colonel Grove White to Mr. A. R. Nicholls, Keeper of the Natural History Division, 04-04-1923.

Once I had renumbered the specimens, and integrated them taxonomically in our bird skin housing, I wanted to investigate just how rare these particular specimens are now, and how valuable they are to our existing collection.

Fig 2: bird skin specimens integrated into existing bird skin storage.

Of interest to me was: IUCN status of the birds, endemicity, and uniqueness in the collection. One of the limitations of this brief study, however, was that I did not have the time to reidentify dubious taxonomy.

IUCN Status

The vast majority of the Grove White bird collection is currently considered to be of least concern thankfully. One of the species, Dicaeum vincens (Sclater, 1872), is near threatened and one, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus (Pennant, 1769), is vulnerable.

Endemicity

As can be seen below, almost three quarters of the species collected are widespread. Almost 20% are endemic to Sri Lanka. 10% are commonly found in Sri Lanka and neigbouring countries. One species, Turnix suscitator bengalensis Blyth, 1852, appears to be endemic to neighbouring countries, but not Sri Lanka, so that is an interesting find (see Avibase and GBIF).

Fig 3: how endemic or widespread were the specimens the Grove White donated?

Uniqueness in Collections

How important are these specimens to our existing collections? One way to ascertain this is to check our database see if we already have those species represented, and if so, by how many specimens?

Fig 4: uniqueness in collections

Here we can see that of all the species donated, almost 30% of them are the sole representatives of their taxa in the NMI collection. Another almost 30% have a small number of specimens already in the collection, and these existing specimens can allow us to investigate intra-specific variation and also assist with future identifications. Lastly, almost 45% of the taxa donated were already represented in the collection in abundance.

Conclusion

The benefits of this body of work are manifold:

  • I have assigned the correct accession numbers to the specimens, confirming their provenance.
  • All object records in our collections management system, Axiell Collections, have been improved by the addition of the acquisition details.
  • The biographical research relating to the donor has been added to the Persons and Institutions module of Axiell Collections.
  • The Sri Lankan geographic locations in the database were also tidied and improved to enhance searchability.
  • The specimens are now integrated taxonomically and can be found alongside their conspecifics and are available for research.
  • Finally, analysis of historic and potential acquisitions can help us to realise the contribution that specimens can make to systematics, biogeography, genomics, morphology and other areas of avian research.

A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country

Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.

I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.

I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.

As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.

Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!

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A Remarkable Collection Of Fossil Birds From The Eocene

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

In November 2021 National Museums Scotland acquired a remarkable collection of fossil bird skeletons dating from the Eocene, approximately 54.6-55 million years ago. The story of how this collection ended up in Edinburgh is a very long one and began more than 25 years ago. 

Please can you show me your collection of Eocene birds?” This was the question that greeted me when I first met a Mr Michael Daniels more than 25 years ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, who lived in Edinburgh, this meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term correspondence, which ended sadly in 2021. My answer was “Well I would love to show you our collection of Eocene birds, but we don’t have any.” Michael proceeded to tell me about his remarkable collection of several hundred skeletons and part skeletons that he had discovered in nodules of the London Clay, which had eroded out of the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. In later years I visited Michael and Pam at their home and got to see the collection in its countless drawers and boxes in his study. I was astonished at the amazing variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes.  Many of the bones were minuscule, requiring great patience and skill to extract from the substrate.

Some of the many hundreds of fossil bird bones from Walton-on-the-Naze © National Museums Scotland

Michael Daniels was a passionate self-taught palaeontologist, who visited various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest. He developed a more specialised interest in the Tertiary Eocene London Clay in the early 1970s, having been a founder member of the Tertiary Research Group in 1969. On retirement in 1985 he moved with his wife to Holland-on-Sea, so that he could pursue this interest at Walton-on-the-Naze.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July 2022

Compiled by Olivia Beavers, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

Just over a month ago the SPNHC/ BHL / NatSCA conference was underway. As my first SPNHC and first NatSCA conferences, it was a great introduction into the sector and I enjoyed meeting all of the NatSCA members that were able to attend the event! One of the highlights were the National Museums Scotland store tours! If you missed out, you can get a glimpse of the natural history collections here.

Yorkshire Natural History Museum

The Yorkshire Natural History Museum is a new, small public museum opening in Sheffield – Saturday August 13th 2022! The museum includes geology, palaeontology and botany collections with a significant research collection of fossils from the Yorkshire Lias. Their website is currently under construction but you can check out their twitter account @YorkshireNHM.

Harnessing the Power of Natural Science Collections – Community Event

This event is currently underway, but if you’re quick you might catch the last half! The event is open to all UK natural science collection holders, interested in attending and learning more about the scoping work and the next steps in the plans for a national digitisation programme. Held via Microsoft Teams, July 14th, between 10:00-12:00. Please follow this link to access the meeting. 

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Freezing Specimens And How To Mitigate Freezer Burn.

Written by Jazmine Miles Long, Taxidermist. https://www.jazminemileslong.com, Twitter: @TaxidermyLondon; Instagram: @Jazmine_miles_long

In my opinion there isn’t one system to do things correctly in taxidermy, every museum or taxidermist may have their own preferences and strategies already in place. This is simply a guideline that works for me, and I hope it can help others to mitigate some of the problems I encounter when working with skins that have been frozen in a way that has accelerated freezer burn. Following this advice might get more time out of frozen specimens and give you a greater chance that they can be mounted once the budget or staff time is there to pay for taxidermy or processing cabinet skins.

What is freezer burn?

Freezer burn happens when the moisture is evaporated out of the animal’s skin and muscles over time in the freezer. Most specimens even if they are well packed in the freezer will still get some freezer burn over a long period of time but it will be much worse if the specimen is poorly packaged or has something absorbent (like a paper label) inside the bag with it.

You can tell if a specimen has freezer burn because it will look white and dry in areas such as the feet, hands, around the eyes, ears, and mouth. And when you start skinning the skin will be yellowed and hard to remove rather than red, fleshy, and easy to peel away.

Firstly, I advise to always freeze your specimens before handling or skinning them. At a minimum you could record the specimen’s weight before freezing as this measurement is affected slightly after freezing. I personally would not take any other measurements until after they have been thoroughly frozen (unless you want to collect live parasites). As the animal dies, any parasites on the skin of the animal will leave the body as it cools and hop onto the next willing subject which will be you or any living creature in your lab! A note that fleas are not killed over night, if you freeze a fox for example leave it in there for at least two weeks before defrosting. It completely depends on the temperature of your freezer however so if you start to defrost an animal the fleas will defrost first, so if there is movement you know to refreeze! Obviously very large animals may need to be skinned straight away, so in this case my advice is wear appropriate PPE.

Great Spotted woodpecker. Image by Jazmine Miles Long.
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