Conner Museum Research Collection
What is a Research Collection?
The specimens in a research collection are like books in a library. Each specimen is a physical record for that species at a particular place and time. The specimens in a research collection provide documentation of a species range at the time it was collected. A physical specimen, unlike a photo or video, also stores information about itself, including its genetics, diet, and environmental pollutants, in its preserved body parts.
Most of the birds and mammals in a research collection are prepared as “study skins.” A study skin is the skin of the animal filled with cotton. Information about the specimen is attached to the prepared skin.
For mammal specimens, a skull is usually saved with the skin because many mammals can only be positively identified with a skull.
Study skins can be stored compactly in trays inside metal cabinets.
For most species, we have at least one complete skeleton. For a research collection, the bones of a skeleton are not “articulated”, i.e., they are not wired together to look like they are arranged in the living animal. Each specimen is kept as a disarticulated box of bones. Disarticulated skeletons are more easily stored than articulated skeletons and generally more useful to researchers who often want to examine individual bones.
What is a research collection used for?
Researchers use the collection for a wide variety of problems in systematics, ecology, conservation, and physical anthropology. Examples of the types of uses of the research collection include studies in
- Differences in plumage (feathers) and pelage (fur) between sexes, at different ages, at different seasons, and across the species’ range.
- Genetics: DNA can be extracted from skin and bones of old specimens. Since 2004, the museum has saved frozen tissue samples from incoming specimens. Frozen tissue has higher quality (less degraded) DNA than old skin and bone.
- Stable isotopes: The nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and other elements that make up a living organism have different forms, called isotopes, that occur because some atoms have an extra neutron in their nucleus. The atoms with an extra neutron weigh a tiny bit more than the atoms without an extra neutron. In the fur, feather, bone, and other parts of an animal, the proportion of isotopes with and without an extra neutron will depend on the animal’s diet and the climate, location, and time in which it lived. Stable isotope samples of museum specimens collected at different times and locations can sometimes show dietary changes or changes in the animal’s environment over time.
- Bone identification: Along with skins, the museum has skeletons of most species of birds and mammals in the northwest. Pieces of bones from archaeological digs are identified by comparing the bone fragments against the “known” bones.
The research collection has also been used for scientific illustrations, morphological studies, studies of molt patterns, and supplementing the teaching collections for classes.
Most of our specimens come from Washington state and neighboring states of the Pacific Northwest, but we also have specimens from other parts of the United States and the world, notably California, Alaska, Nebraska, Nevada, Central America, Mexico, east Africa and the Mariana Islands.
The collection is available to professional scientists and qualified university students. It is not open for public display. For inquiry on use or loans please contact our curator, Dr. Kelly Cassidy, by e-mail at email@example.com.
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We currently have over 39,000 mammal specimens in the research collection with nearly 30,000 of these prepared as study skins with accompanying skulls. These are supplemented by 7,700 skeletons, 500 bacula and 600 fluid-preserved specimens.
Our collection of birds includes approximately 14,000 study skins, more than 900 skeletons, 200 sets of eggs and a few nests. Several years ago we began preparing an open wing from each individual. Our wing collection now numbers over seven hundred. 1,850 fluid-preserved specimens round out our bird holdings.
The museum has several thousand reptile, amphibian and fish specimens. We will know the number more precisely when we finish the computerization of these collections. As with the birds and mammals, most of these specimens originate from the Pacific Northwest.
Bird record computerization
Almost all bird records are computerized and available via VertNet.
Mammal record computerization
Most of the mammal records are computerized and available via VertNet. The only significant group of mammals not yet online are the Peromyscus (deer mice). Those records are being entered and are expected to be online by the end of 2016.
Herp and Fish record computerization
Most of the records for herps and fish have been entered into computer files from paper catalog entries, but these records have not been checked against the physical specimens in the collection, nor have species names been updated. These unverified records are not available online, however, researchers that would like to check the files for possible specimens of interest can contact the curator, Dr. Kelly Cassidy (firstname.lastname@example.org) to request that the files be emailed to them.
Qualified researchers and graduate students may use the collection pending approval from the curator. For those wishing to visit the collection or use specimens, contact us via e-mail (email@example.com), phone or letter to make arrangements.
We loan specimens for legitimate research purposes. The museum will ship some specimens through the mail. Some fragile or rare specimens must be checked out in person. To request a loan, contact us by e-mail, phone, or letter.
Our two highest priorities now are to continue computerizing the collection and build up our frozen tissue collection. Specimen preparation is an ongoing project.