Thursday, March 17, 2016

Incoming at the Museum

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research, collections, photographs

A few weeks ago a new donation was brought to the Delaware Museum of Natural History, the shell collection of a Mr. King. It consisted of a dozen or so glass-topped drawers of shells in boxes. The curators and Alex the collection manager for mollusks cleared out some space in a freezer, and in they all went.

All specimens brought to the museum are frozen, thawed just long enough for insect eggs to hatch, and frozen again, which kills all the pests that might have arrived with them. I have seen boxes that had been stored in a humid basement for decades, that brought in the usual array of basement critters—crickets, spiders and roaches—plus, no doubt, such subtler creatures as carpet beetles.

I remember my butterfly collection, assembled when I was between 10 and 13 years old. I spent a lot to buy shallow glass-topped boxes, stuffed them with cotton, and put butterflies in artistic arrangements. Within a year or two, all the bodies, and parts of some wings, were eaten by the larvae of carpet beetles. I found out the hard way why insect collections are pinned and kept about an inch above the substrate, and are best kept in cedar-lined trays. Many mollusk shells, particularly when the animal was captured alive and dried, have if not the dried body, traces of "meat", which is relished by the tiny larvae. Of course, in a sense, the larvae do you the favor of destroying all traces of soft tissue, leaving only the shell, and of course, their "frass" of dust-like droppings and cast-off molts. Museums don't consider that a "favor". Traces of tissue can later have their DNA analyzed, which is being done more and more frequently as the cost of the process drops.

So, into the freezer with the whole collection!

A couple of days ago the de-bugging operation was complete, and Alex spread all the drawers out on the tops of low cabinets to sort through. I managed to get a few pictures before all the specimens were re-assembled into new boxes and trays with new DMNH labels added.

In the order I took them:

First, a drawer of chitons and tusk shells. Chitons are mollusks with eight shells held atop a sluglike body. The largest one at the top of the image is about six inches long. Tusk shells, or scaphopods are small; a few boxes of them are at left and top left. They are hollow with a hole at each end; they are like tapering tubes.

Second, twelve of the drawers laid out atop several cabinets. The glass has been removed from the drawer at far right, which is the one pictured above, holding the chitons and tusk shells.

Third, a drawer of bivalves, mostly of the kind we call clams.

Fourth, a closeup of two of the bivalve specimens, single shells from two different clams, one from the Middle East and the other from China. They are of different species in the genus Circe. I took this picture to show the labels that the collector, Wilbur L. King, had pre-printed and hand-filled out. It seems nearly every collector comes up with a slightly different way of making labels. I am almost tempted to gather examples (photos) of as many different label styles as possible! Almost…

This also shows that Mr. King was either a world traveler or traded with collectors worldwide, which is a popular means of obtaining a great variety of specimens.

Each of the drawers contained 40-50 specimen lots, so our Alex has had his work cut out, preparing fresh boxes (acid free) for them all, either entering them into the mollusk database or supervising volunteers to do that, and printing DMNH labels for them, and then putting them away. He gets a lot of walking done! I suspect if he wears a FitBit that he has no trouble getting in 10,000 steps or more daily.

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