Spooky Spiders?

by Jackie Lebouitz

It’s just about that time of year again when the public dresses up in a variety of quirky and bizarre costumes with the intent of receiving the sugary confection known as candy.

Ah, Halloween. Please take a moment to lift your eyes from the monitor and take in a breath of fresh Halloween air.

Refreshing, wasn’t it?

Well, today, I’d like to give this blog a focus on one of Halloween’s most notable mascots – the spider. While spiders have a reputation for being creepy, it’s important to understand that looking a certain way doesn’t make something automatically dangerous. In fact, spiders have a long history of being pretty cool. Apart from keeping to themselves, they have an important role in controlling the populations of a lot of insect species. They especially like to tear into some tasty mosquito-meat. Before you say, “ya mosquitoes are dumb but like spiders can kill u,” please note that mosquitoes are accountable for over 725,000 annual deaths worldwide*. Spiders, though? Naw, man. A 2008 paper reported an average of only 6.5 people in the U.S. dead as a result of spider bites. Other countries are seeing similar statistics. In Australia, a group of scientists followed 750 cases and found that there hasn’t been a single death caused by spider venom since 1979. That being said, spiders can bite if provoked (though it’s certainly not their first mode of defense), and if you’re noticing a severe reaction, you should probably get that checked out by a medical professional.

But in other news, check out this SWEET ORBWEAVER that changes color in the fall! It’s commonly known as the Halloween spider.

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And in other, other news, we have two new additions to the biology department – Matilda and Crystal.

Grammostola porteri (Matilda)

       Grammostola porteri (Matilda)

Grammostola rosea (Crystal)

          Grammostola rosea (Crystal)

These lovely ladies were a donation from Zoe Wolfe and her mom. Matilda is currently taking up residence in Chris Smith’s office, while Crystal’s new home is a couple doors down at Kim Wills’. They can both be found on the first floor of Stanley Hall, so definitely take the chance to visit!

Note

*Mosquitoes are vectors for various diseases such as malaria and dengue, which are the REAL cause of death here.

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A Digital Museum!

by Chris Angell

In September, we announced that the Joseph Moore Museum had received a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This $149,000 grant will fund student work in digitizing the museum’s vertebrate collections over the coming 3 years.

Many people don’t realize that only about five percent of the specimens owned by most museums are on display in the exhibits. The rest are preserved and stored as an archive that can be used by researchers of all kinds. The Joseph Moore Museum is no exception, with bird, mammal, reptile, insect, fossil, and archeological collections stored away in its collections room. With help from the new grant, museum employees are bringing our vertebrate (bird, mammal, and reptile) collections into the 21st Century: digitizing them with “metadata” (like date and location collected, weight, sex, etc.) so scientists can learn from our specimens no matter where in the world they live.

I asked Wallis Bland, a sophomore projected biology major working in the collections, to tell me a little about her experience digitizing our specimens:

What does digitizing the collections entail?
It means we go through each drawer one by one, and make sure every specimen has an much information as possible in our online collections. At some point these will all go up on the web so people can look through what specimens we have.

Why is digitization important?
It’s a second record for us. We have paper records of everything, but by doing digitizing it we can double check that everything is where it’s supposed to be. And when someone goes through the digital records they can now have exactly where each piece of a specimen is. If your looking for the skull or skin of a specific creature, you know exactly what drawer it’s in as well as who prepared it, the original collector, etc.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I really like being able to go through all the mammal specimens, especially foxes and rabbits. Basically I really like knowing what we have down in the collections and being able to take care of all of them. Also all the really soft animals make me happy!

What experience have you gained working in the collections? Are you interested in museums as a career?
I’ve become much better at being organized and writing notes in a way that other people can follow. Any decisions that I make regarding the specimens and the way they are cataloged needs to be written down, in case the decision was the wrong one and needs to be found and fixed. I am interested in working in museums, either teaching or working in museum libraries and archives, so this is the perfect position for me.

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Mouse Science

by Jackie Lebouitz

There’s a fun, new preschool program at the Joseph Moore Museum! Mouse Science, based on the books by Ellen Stoll Walsh, aims to delight and entertain young’uns while still being a great opportunity for education.

What’s it all about?

Each month, the program will focus on a featured mouse book. After the stories, kids will get to participate in fun, engaging activities that will teach them about color, shapes, math, and much more.

Where?

The Joseph Moore Museum

WHEN?

1:00 – 2:00 pm on the 4th Tuesday of every month

This month’s book will be Mouse Paint, where kids can explore color through a number of exciting and informative games.

ellenmouse

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Fold the Flock

by Chris Angell and Jackie Lebouitz

On Monday, September 1st, over fifty people came together at the Joseph Moore Museum to learn about and commemorate the loss of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. Exactly 100 years earlier, on September 1st, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The situation was strikingly different when European settlers first arrived in North America. Passenger pigeons were reported to make up forty percent of all land birds on the continent, with populations along the East coast and as far West as the Rocky Mountains. When these billions of birds migrated in their huge flocks, they sometimes eclipsed the sun! In fact, these migrations gave the birds their common name “passenger” from the French word passager, meaning “passing by” (not to be confused with the messenger or carrier pigeons used to send messages before the invention of radio—those were domesticated rock pigeons, the kind you find in cities all over the world).

Because they were so abundant, passenger pigeons were a popular cheap source of meat. Hunting and deforestation quickly devastated their populations. Although nineteenth-century conservationists did try to call attention to the plight of the passenger pigeons, most people found it absurd that such an abundant animal could be under threat from our actions. Yet, by the 1890s they had nearly disappeared, and at the turn of the century, the only known passenger pigeons were a group kept in captivity at the University of Chicago. And in the fall of 1914, they were gone altogether. The swift demise of this one-countless bird was a bucket of cold water to the conservation movement in the US. If passenger pigeons could go extinct, what else could?

To commemorate Martha and her long-gone brothers and sisters and to raise awareness about the importance of looking after the plants and animals we share our planet with, thousands of individuals and organizations all over the world are working together to “Fold the Flock.” Each person attempts to fold as many origami passenger pigeons as they can. At our Fold the Flock event on September 1st, visitors learned how to fold pigeons and discussed the importance of remembering species like the passenger pigeon. They even had a visit from Martha herself! Over the course of the evening, we folded 119 pigeons. Even our museum fairies got in on the action by making a few little birds of their own.

On the Fold the Flock website, you can watch the ever-increasing number of origami pigeons made worldwide. They’re already more than halfway to their goal of one million pigeons. If you would like to contribute to the flock and learn more about passenger pigeons, come visit the Joseph Moore Museum or go online at www.foldtheflock.org.

Just some reasons to help us understand why conservation is so important

A group of students fold passenger pigeons to commemorate the passing of Martha

The fairies wanted to join in on the fun, so they put up some of their own origami pigeons!

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Talking the Talk

by Emily McGrew

As scientists, we often get caught up in the day-to-day concerns about experimental controls and reading the next chapter for class, so we don’t take time to think about our context in the wider fields of biology, science and the world.

After a long day of presentations on very specific research topics, the speakers gathered together with the audience to discuss how ecology and evolutionary biology fit into a broader context.

The moderator illustrated his first question with a diagram showing how the effects of climate change get passed on to systems that humans rely on, causing an alteration in human behavior. He wondered if there was a way to proactively change human behavior to prevent this chain from functioning, instead of reacting when it does.

Overall, the panel’s response dwelt on communication. In order to change human behavior, people must be informed. Twitter especially, but also other social media sites, came up as a great way to connect with other scientists and their work. It seemed like many were using Twitter as something analogous to an open source publication network.

In terms of communicating to the public, methods for talking to journalists about complex scientific research and concepts were discussed. Outside of the traditional channels of journalists, though, there wasn’t much covered. Whether this reflected the limited time available and the fluidity of the conversation or a lack of ideas on communicating with the public was unclear, but the failure to piece together the use of social media and communication with the public at large is a vital piece of the puzzle that was missing from the conversation.

In the course of this discussion, an audience member raised perhaps the most contested perspective of the afternoon. He asked if the failure of the traditional scientific spokesman, in the tradition of Jacques Cousteau and C. Everett Coop, was to blame in the radical decrease in overall appreciation of science in the public sphere and articulated a desire for a new man to take up the mantle.

The gasps and furious whispers were audible as he wrapped up his comment, and immediately the rebuttals began. Among many objections to his position was the counter that there are still spokesmen for science, among them Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another objection I would raise is that science does not need a single spokesman; it needs a wider variety of scientists, all of whom can connect with the public and be excited about science with them. A lone white man is no longer the best way to tell the story of science. Women, people of color, and collaborations all speaking about science are the components that will diversify the scientific experience and allow everyone to find a way to connect with science.

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To defuse the furor that erupted after the spokesman comment, the moderator moved the discussion to the forward-looking topic of advice for younger scientists (especially exciting the undergraduates in the room). The panel’s advice ranged from the academic, taking more statistics and computer science courses to better understand the tools of a modern biological laboratory, to the practical, being able to break your research down into chunks that your (non-scientist) grandmother can understand. Other useful tips included actively trying to connect other scientist’s research to your own and asking questions, as well as gaining experience as a science writer as well as researcher.

The panel was, overall, informative not only about the specific field of science the symposium focused on, but also about how scientists communicate with each other and the public.

 

 

 

 

 

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Highlights from the Symposium Talks

by Leah Everitt, Elisabeth Sorrows, and Emily McGrew

Our favorite talks from the University of Michigan’s Early Career Scientist Symposium on March 29:

Leah: Cool Cow Genes

My favorite talk at the symposium was entitled “From the Aurochs to the Anthropocene: domestication and global movement of cattle in the past 10,000 years”. This talk focused on cattle genetics and when bovine were domesticated. I found it really interesting to hear that bovine were actually domesticated in two different places around the same time. Because of these two distinct domestication events there are marked morphological differences between the two different types of domestic cows. But the most interesting thing to me was how the data was analyzed. They took DNA from different groups of cattle and determined how much of their DNA was from each of the two domestications. By doing this they could map where different groups of cattle had come from and how they had moved across continents. They have done similar studies like this in humans and I thought it was so cool that they were now doing this in other animals.

Elisabeth: “Climate-induced shifts in flowering phenology: demographic consequences and community-level responses” from Amy Iler

Dr. Amy Iler’s presentation was titled “climate-induced shifts in flowering phenology: demographic consequences and community-level responses”. Dr. Iler started off by discussing how scientists often focus on when plants started flowering, when the snow first fell and melted. She showed that the ranges of start times for an event are is not the only important piece of data to record. They must also record the end and the peak because it is important to see how the whole range is and if the whole range shifts. however the whole range does not have to uniformly shift, the first date, last date, or peak could shift. For many years people have recorded the first snow-melt but this is not as accurate, so Dr. Iler looked at the runoff to be a more accurate representation of snow-melt. Dr. Iler was focused on looking at the plants. She found that the amount of time the flowers were in bloom had been extended by a month over a significant period of time. Even though the flowering period had been lengthened the number of flowers that were recorded each year stayed the same.

Emily: “Synergistic interactions between eutrophication and climate change: implications for water quality in lakes” from Cayelan Carey

Cayelan not only had a cool topic, but the techniques she utilized in her presenation made everyone sit up and pay attention. To get into her research question, she presented the idea that the combined effects of global climate change and increased nutrient pollution synergistically interact to increase cyanobacterial algal blooms in freshwater lakes. After explaining this idea, an enormous, bleeding, gaping zombie appeared as her next slide. Cayelan waited for the laughter to die down before calling out the “synergistic interaction” theory as a “zombie idea, preying on the brains of unsuspecting grad students”. Her research focused on debunking the synergistic interaction idea. She used a combination of historical studies and current experiments to investigate the factor most strongly correlated with increased cyanobacterial blooms. Through these analyses, she identified water column mixing as the most indicative factor of increased algal blooms. When different layers of water are allowed to mix, the number of algal larvae pulled up from the bottom of the lake increases and leads to population explosions. However, the current trend in water column mixing is actually trending to more stable lakes with less mixing, and therefore fewer algal blooms. Cayelan very effectively “killed” the zombie idea of synergistic interaction leading to increased algal blooms, through careful research and engaging presentation.

 

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Overall Impressions of the Symposium

by Leah Everitt

I thought that the symposium was a fantastic experience overall.  Each person in the group liked different talks that we went to.  It was great talking with everyone afterword about the different things they found interesting because they were excited about that subject.  I think that the discussion we had in the car on the way back where we went over all the talks and what we liked and didn’t like really made us all synthesize the information we had learned.

In my opinion the panel discussion at the end of the conference really tied all of the different talks together and put them into a greater context.  The talks covered everything from plant diseases to ancient DNA so being able to talk to these researchers about how they thought of their research in the broader categories of Ecology and Evolution really brought everything together.

Apart from the talks I think that it is also important to mention that in between these talks we had time to ask researchers and other scientists about their research and careers.  In particular I was very interested in doing this because I am planning on doing graduate studies in biology.  It was amazing to have the opportunity to talk to people a few years ahead of me on a similar path to one I am about to take.

In conclusion if I were presented with the opportunity to go to another symposium even on a topic that I wasn’t very interested I would still go.  The talks are interesting, tying the research into a broader context really reminds you why you study science and meeting people in your field can really help to define what path you would like to take.

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Touring the Museum at UMich

by Katherine and Elisabeth Sorrows

Looking around the museum

Each of us found a different section that we really enjoyed. We looked at the Smilodon and the Mastodon. They have Mastodon footprints to look at and the right hind leg of the Mastodon was printed on a 3-D printer so you could see the pixels on the leg. If you didn’t know what to look at you would miss the pixels. They have a new exhibit of a snake about to eat dinosaur eggs. They were recently discovered where an avalanche had occurred.

We also looked at exhibit design and Katherine really liked the design of the exhibit about petrified wood. She really liked the design of the exhibit there was different tiers of information, the information was also laid out in a way that it was not overwhelming. The petrified wood was a really pretty object, it was a very big piece and had been polished so you could still count all the rings. There was an amazing new exhibit of a very recent discovery of a dinosaur nest with a snake about to eat the babies. Heather had been reading about the study so she was excited to share what she had been reading as well as to look at what was in the exhibit. We also discussed the presentation of the content. As well as how they were able to make an exhibit so quickly after it had been discovered.

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Discussion with Exhibit Staff

We met with Kira B. and John K. in one of the exhibits, they work on education and exhibit design respectively. One thing I learned from them was how much the exhibit designer can influence a museum even long after they are gone. The exhibit we sat in had dioramas of different geologic time periods. The designer at the time, sometime in the 60s, was not interested in the Triassic period so there is no diorama about it, and the exhibit has mostly invertebrates. For this exhibit visitors were not considered as much, there was no visitor survey for the exhibit. We also discussed different types of exhibits and the pros and cons of having more technology or less. One exhibit idea that worked well was using post-it notes as an interactive method of getting visitors to share their opinions. We also talked about what a museum was for. Some of the things we agreed with Kira and John about were that screens can be used at home, museums should be more about interactive, allowing visitors to touch and feel things that cannot be felt at home.

I enjoyed learning and thinking about the running of museums, and the variety of projects they were involved in. One thing we discussed was having to prioritize exhibit design, deciding which exhibits are most important to update or do. There is only so much that can be done with the resources and people that are there. We also talked about how to write exhibit labels and looked at the ages of exhibits.

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Exploring the Museum Collections at UMich

by Katherine and Elisabeth Sorrows

First Day at University of Michigan

We got to interact with current PhD students, meet with an EC alum who works in the museum, explore the collections and museum and talk to the museum staff. We will focus this week on our interactions with the collections. Look NEXT week for our blog about the museum.

Coffee Break: Meeting Doctoral Students

We arrived Friday in the morning in time to join the Ph.D. students for their coffee break. People from different departments of science would come together and have coffee everyday. Some students were using the time to check in with their advisors or just hang out and talk about topics either related to their research or current news that is going on around the world. Some were also chatting and hanging out as any students would.

Mollusk Collection

We were able to meet with a few different people throughout the day. We met with Diarmid O’Foighil who is the Director of UMMZ as well as the mollusk curator. One thing that surprised me was how small some of the mollusks were, many of what we looked at were tiny dots in little tubes. There were also really big mollusks, the diversity was really interesting, it was fun to look at both together. We also learned about some disease research taking place about mollusks.

Bird Collection

I really liked getting to see the bird collection. Janet Hinshaw, an EC alum, showed us the collection. We said we wanted to see some of the extinct birds, type specimens, birds of paradise and some from Hawaii.  It was really cool to get to hold some of the extinct birds; the ivory billed woodpecker, northern flicker, Norfolk Pigeon, and the flightless Stephens Island Wren. The Birds of Paradise got their names by Europeans who received footless and sometimes wingless specimens that had been prepared by the native traders. They removed the wings and feet for easier transport and for decorations. The Europeans wondered about the mythical footless and wingless birds and how they kept themselves aloft by their plumes.

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Mammals

We met with Cody Thompson in the mammal collection. We got to see many different small and large taxidermy mammals and the skins collection. The museum is moving soon so we looked at the collections and talked some about how to move such big collections. We also talked about the importance of choosing what your museum can take and saying no to certain animals. It is important to consider the size of the collections, the space, and the amount of preparation that will be needed of the offered specimen will require.

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On the Road Again

by Emily McGrew

Even museum staffers occasionally take a break and hit the road for a springtime road trip! Two weekends ago, Heather, our director, drove a minivan full of sleepy museum staffers to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We had the chance to meet with a few members of their museum team and explore the museum and collections, as well as attend a symposium entitled, “Humans as a Force of Ecological and Evolutionary Change”.

We learned and thought a lot during our time there, and we’d like to share it with you! Over the next two weeks, we’ll be posting a series of articles from staffers who went on the trip, covering all of our experiences. We look forward to hearing your responses!

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