Fun with museum collections (and white-spotted juncos)

Museum collections are a scientific resource. They let researchers refer to a single specimen over and over, or look at variation over an entire continent, or go back and look at change over a century.

They can also be weirdly beautiful.


(I’m not working on chipmunks; I just got an excuse to photograph them thanks to one of my chipmunk-studying labmates.)


I don’t think of them as colorful critters in life, but clearly I’m not paying enough attention.


I’ve been measuring junco specimens again, both at my home institution and at the awesome California Academy of Sciences. Every time I go into the collections I find some new odd thing, like this specimen, which was stuffed like a scientific specimen—flat on the back, not at all lifelike—but given glass eyes and wires on her legs so she could be perched on things for decoration. It seems awfully strange now, but it made sense to at least one person in 1914.


My home institution isn’t a public museum, so all of my work there is done out of the public eye. The opposite is true at Cal Acad: they have me measuring specimens in a glass-fronted room with a sign that says “Visiting Scientist” and a camera pointed at my hands so that passersby can see what I’m doing. It’s amazing how you can get stage fright doing something that 1) you’ve done hundreds of times before and 2) your audience has no expertise on whatsoever.

I love that Cal Acad puts real science in view of its visitors. Too, it makes you feel a bit impressive when school groups gawk at you – although admittedly they seem to lose interest in me pretty quickly. But I do find myself hoping no one comes by when I’m handling a particularly misshapen specimen, or wishing that I could put up some photos of live juncos to reassure those school groups that science isn’t always quite so mummified.

Some specimens are beautiful; some are... not.

Some specimens are beautiful; some are… not.

I didn’t bring my camera to Cal Acad, so when I found a specimen I wanted pictures of, I had to use my laptop’s built-in camera. (And I had to keep looking like a serious scientist for my audience. The lab coat helped.)

Junco specimen with many white spots. Also notice the skull in the background.

Junco specimen with many white spots. (Also notice the skulls in the background.)

Isn’t she beautiful? So much white!

2014_collections_CAS2She was collected in 1910 in Alameda County. Want to see another specimen from Alameda County?

2014_collections_splotchyancestorHe’s from 1950. What a head! And you know who is in Alameda County now?

My favorite campus junco.

My favorite campus junco.

You remember my pal the white-splotched junco. Maybe the female white-spotted specimen is this guy’s great-times-100-grandmother, and the white-headed specimen his great-times-60-grandfather!

Or maybe juncos just have white spots a lot. (They do, although “a lot” is a relative term.) I even found one during field work this summer, definitely not in Alameda County:

MGMA. (He's being held in bander's grip - don't worry, he's not being strangled or anything.)

MGMA (“Magma”). He’s being held in bander’s grip – don’t worry, he’s not being strangled or anything.

No scientist of the future will find MGMA in a specimen collection—but they’ll find him described in my field notes, with photos, and a blood sample if they want to do genetic testing. More and more collections are including not just dead bodies but field notes, blood, feathers, photos, and other miscellanea. Looking through collections in 3014 will be a multimedia experience.

4 thoughts on “Fun with museum collections (and white-spotted juncos)

    • I’m trying to look like I’m collecting data to the people watching me, rather than like I’m taking a selfie with a specimen. I am Exhibit A: Scientist – I have to look right!
      But yes I definitely prefer the live birds.

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