By Austen Hufford, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 28, 2012
Past the two stone pumas guarding the entrance and through the large circular atrium behind the University's Museum of Natural History lays one of the largest collections of mammal specimens in the country.
While the University’s Museum of Zoology’s Mammal Division has remained relatively unchanged for the past century, the Internet now allows the collection to reach more people than ever. The museum’s mammal collection has preserved a variety of specimens from the collection’s smallest animal — a three gram Etruscan shrew — to its largest, a 27-foot long humpback whale. The collection also includes many foreign specimens confiscated at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, including the tanned hide of an African golden cat.
The museum’s 130,000 specimens are preserved using four different methods. The most common is to remove an animal’s innards and bones and stuff it with cotton, but researchers also use flesh-eating dermestid beetles to remove skin and flesh to display an animal’s bones. Specimens can also be preserved in alcohol and extracted DNA is stored in liquid nitrogen.
Zoology Prof. Philip Myers, one of the museum’s curators, said people from all over the country come to study the specimens in the museum’s collection, though it is not open to the public. He said a veterinarian from Sea World in Florida visited a few years ago to study the museum’s collection of whale teeth.
Myers explained that his job is largely a balance of keeping specimens preserved and ensuring their longevity for future research, while also making them available for current research.
“Our charge is to make sure nothing bad happens to them, but also to make them available for teaching and research,” Myers said.
Myers has recently found a way to increase access and eliminate potential harm to the specimens. A new website called Animal Diversity Web — an online species information database — has allowed Myers to share the University’s collection with scientists worldwide.
Myers said he came up with the idea while teaching a class about animal diversity in 1995, noting that he thought the best way to help the students learn would be to let them discover the information for themselves.
Myers set out to create a website where students could learn from and add information about the animals. He enlisted Roger Espinosa, a University applications programmer-analyst, and Trisha Jones, a research area specialist, to help him with the technical aspects of the project.
Animal Diversity Web has a large collection of “species accounts” — written reports that describe various aspects of species. There are more than 3,300 species profiles, which together include more than 22,000 images.
The site is unique, Myers said, because the information is organized into an easy to use database that makes searching for species simple.
“Literally, with a couple clicks of a mouse, we can have students generate a table where each row is a species and each column is some attribute,” Myers explained.
Undergraduate students at the University contribute most of the information, with additions from other institutions around the country. Myers said for some classes students are required to research and add a new species to the database.
“We ask students to put a lot into writing these accounts,” Myers said. “It’s not just a matter of going to Wikipedia and looking up a few facts.”
Myers, other co-workers and volunteers then check the reports for accuracy before they are made available online.
“It has to be correct and it has to be legitimate,” Myers said.
Myers said students from more than 50 universities, who contribute to ADB, benefit since it enables their work to be shown to a large online audience. Myers said the site gets about 400,000 visits every month.
For Myers, the website has three main purposes — it can increase animal knowledge, improve undergraduate teaching and showcase University specimens to the public.
“If you’re a high school class in Detroit, you really don’t have access to the diversity of mammals that we have here physically, but you can go online and actually see specimens.”
Recently, Myers and Education Prof. Nancy Songer have rewritten the data at a lower reading level to increase accessibility for younger students. This website, called “Critter Catalog,” is used by public middle and elementary schools in Detroit.
Songer said the website benefits both undergraduates and younger students in different ways. Undergraduate students learn research skills by creating the pages while younger students learn about animals by exploring the information.
Songer and Myers agree that students learn better when they are actively engaged.
“Kids don’t learn very much science if its memorization intensive,” Songer said.