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January 6, 2003

Museum of Natural History Collections aids researchers campuswide

By Jennifer McNulty

When hungry rodents began devouring the seeds of a rare native plant that UCSC junior Adrian Deveny is studying at the Fort Ord Nature Reserve, he knew where to turn for help identifying the critters.

Photo of museum curator

Some of the specimens at the Museum of Natural History Collections date back to the early 1900s. Tonya Haff is senior museum scientist and curator of the museum. Specimens include drawers housing an extensive collection of Santa Cruz County insects, below. Photos: Jennifer McNulty

photo of insect collection

Tucked into a small room on the second floor of Natural Sciences 2, the UCSC Museum of Natural History Collections is a treasure trove for anyone eager to learn about plants, animals, birds, and reptiles, especially those native to the Central Coast of California.

Deveny fashioned a wax cast of paraffin, peanut butter, and oats to capture the teeth marks of the rodents and set out the tasty "traps" below the Ceonothus shrubs he's monitoring at the reserve. After the critters nibbled, Deveny brought the "wax indicators" to the museum to compare the markings to the teeth of several specimens in the museum collection. With the help of Maggie Fusari, director of Natural Reserves, Deveny was able to come up with three preliminary matches: kangaroo rats, wood rats, and deer mice.

"The kangaroo rat was totally bizarre, because we didn't think there were any at the reserve," said Deveny, who initially examined the impacts of grazing deer on the reproductive success of the shrubs. Looking at the impact of rodents on seed output was an unexpected turn.

"If I didn't have access to those skulls, I would've had to compare the wax indicators to a book," said Deveny, who's majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. Instead, he was able to actually remove the jaws from the skulls and physically match them to the teeth marks. "The differences are less than one millimeter, so it has to be really, really precise," said Deveny, who will use a dissection microscope to confirm his findings. "With a book, I couldn't have gotten that exact fit."

Deveny's experience highlights the key role the museum's collection plays in research virtually every day.

"These collections are so valuable," said Tonya Haff, senior museum scientist and curator of the museum. "There's nothing like seeing the real plant or the real animal up close to help you learn about it and to help you remember the field characteristics."

The museum is the only facility like it on campus, boasting a collection of more than 50,000 specimens, including some endangered species. Though not a museum in the popular sense--there are no fancy displays, and it's not open to the public--the collection is available to UCSC faculty, students, staff, and researchers. Called a "teaching collection," the museum offers one or two specimens of each species in the collection.

The museum was founded in 1994 by curator Jeff Davis, although many specimens were collected in the 1980s by participants in the Environmental Studies Field Program. Haff has run the museum for about a year. Today, faculty in environmental studies and biology use the museum's holdings during lectures and lab sections, art students and graduate students in the Science Illustration Program rely heavily on the museum for reference materials, and researchers turn to the collection for valuable historical data.

"The museum is indispensable for us," said Jenny Keller, a lecturer in the Science Illustration Program. "There's nothing to replace a specimen for providing detail. When we put an insect under magnification, it becomes this incredible world of color, pattern, and structure. Those are the kinds of things we like to show people in our illustrations."

Barry Sinervo, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he uses the amphibian and reptile collections extensively and "could not run" his course without the museum. "We're augmenting the collection all the time," said Sinervo, who hopes to entice a student into preparing a recently acquired badger carcass as an independent-study project.

Surrounded by metal cabinets and cases packed with carefully prepared specimens, some of which date back to the early 1900s, Haff said handling specimens aids field learning, too. Most students first learn about a species in a book, but seeing a specimen is an important second step that helps prepare them for fieldwork.

Cradling a Cinnamon Teal in the palm of her hand, Haff offers a quick lesson in duck anatomy.

"There are a lot of nuances you can't get from a book--like the texture of the features, the serration on the bill--that tells you how they feed, they're strainers--and look at the webbing on the feet. Birds have several different toe arrangements. See the iridescence on the feathers?"

Gently opening a paper folio to reveal a delicate plant specimen, Haff examines the fine penmanship of Miss Kate Conger, who prepared the Allium sample from Butte County in 1907. "People used to have such nice handwriting," sighed Haff.

Each quarter, about six undergraduates work with Haff, either as volunteers or earning independent-study credit, learning the art of preparing animal and plant specimens, cataloging reptiles and amphibians, and trying to keep the backlog of specimens awaiting preparation to a minimum.

"There is an endless number of projects," said Haff, opening a jam-packed freezer to reveal a heap of paper-wrapped fresh specimens. "There's a huge backlog of things to be done."

Haff, who works 30 hours a week, runs the museum on a shoestring budget of about $1,000 a year that covers the cost of supplies, such as ethyl alcohol and herbarium paper. She hopes to make the museum's collection available to more people by creating an online catalog of its contents. Right now, about 80 percent of the collection has been cataloged. "We need a web site," said Haff. "That's my top priority. A museum functions like a library--it's hard to use if you don't know what's available and you have to ask a librarian about every single thing."

In the meantime, Haff offers tours of the museum to classes, and she oversees lab sessions held next door. It is illegal to kill native wildlife, so the collection is growing largely through donations from similar institutions, from individuals, and through salvage collection. Haff has a salvage permit from the California Department of Fish and Game that allows her to collect carcasses that are killed on roadways, for example.

Community members have made significant contributions to the collection, from the blond pocket gopher that's an outstanding example of variation within a species to the vast collection of Santa Cruz County insects collected over a 10-year period by local biologist Randy Morgan. UCSC is fortunate to be housing part of Morgan's impressive research collection, said Haff, opening drawer after drawer packed with shiny beetles, delicate dragonflies, and tiny ants.

"It's a huge database," Haff said of the 20,000 specimens Morgan has loaned the campus, complete with detailed field notes about each insect. "Once it's cataloged and available, it will be quite useful to students doing research on local insects."

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