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Project Lab 

January 28, 2014

Specimen of the week: Rattus norvegicus

The last few weeks up in the Project Lab, I have been preparing some study skins and skeletons of Rattus norvegicus.  But before you wonder where these specimens were found and call the exterminator, I should specify that these are domestic rats, which are slightly different from the rat one may imagine hiding out in the alley.

So what is a Rattus norvegicus?  Its most common names include Brown Rat, Norway Rat and Hanover Rat.  This species is thought to have originated from Asia, and is now found on almost every continent except Antarctica.  This prolific species has also given rise to the “laboratory rat” and also our furry, friendly domesticated house pets, the “fancy rat.”  Although these fancy rats are still considered the same species, Rattus norvegicus, they can look quite distinct from the same species found in the wild.

 

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The main and most conspicuous difference between fancy rats and wild rats is color.  Fancy rats can exhibit a wide variety of colors from white to black, and many shades of brown.  This color variation is extremely rare in wild populations and would most likely be a detrimental feature if exhibited frequently – a white rat is much easier to spot by potential predators!  There are also some temperament differences in domesticated rats that make them more sociable towards their pet guardians.

 

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But why would we have these domesticated breeds in our collections?  If you’ve ever walked through the museum, you may have noticed a small display of domestic dog breed skulls hanging on the wall near Tusher African hall.  Although we may think of dogs as separate breeds, they are all considered to belong to one species, Canis familiaris.  This may bring up the question then, what is a species?  There are many definitions. One definition, perhaps the best known, suggests that a species is a group of organisms that can interbreed and create fertile offspring.  So most dog breeds have arisen with artificial selection, and once established can reproduce on their own, which is also the case in the domesticated fancy rats.  While it may not seem as important to keep specimens of these domesticated animals, they can still give researchers insight into how species have changed over time. Whether it is a morphological difference like pelage (fur) color, size, or shape, or whether it is a genetic variation, these specimens can help researchers piece together the puzzle of a species’ history.

 

Codie Otte

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:00 am

January 15, 2014

Marsh Birds

This week, I prepared a study skin of a wetland bird called a Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the most widespread heron species in the world. There are 64 species in the heron family (Ardeidae), which also includes egrets and bitterns.  Black-crowned Night-Herons forage for fish, amphibians, insects, and other types of food during the evening, avoiding competition with the other heron species that use the same wetlands during the day. Night-Herons nest in colonies with other heron and egret species in trees or other vegetation, usually over water. Adults and juveniles look drastically different, with adults sporting long white ornamental plumes on their heads.

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These birds, like most bird species, will raise any chick in its nest, meaning that they are unable to distinguish between their own biological offspring and those of other parents. In a previous blog, Codie talked about brood parasitism, which occurs when a bird lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, leaving that parent to raise offspring that aren’t biologically theirs. This can be done by more species than the commonly known Cowbirds and Cuckoos! By not being able to distinguish between chicks in their nest, Night-Herons can become victim to this kind of brood parasitism, and have been documented to be parasitized by Black-headed ducks. There is, however, another kind of brood parasitism called “conspecific brood parasitism.” This strategy is when a bird lays its eggs in the nest of a bird of the same species. This occurs in another marsh bird species, the American Coot (Fulica Americana), which has a high rate of conspecific brood parasitism. Females will lay their eggs in other females’ nests, potentially increasing their own reproductive success. Unlike Night-Herons, however, Coots have developed strategies to recognize their own young and reject the young of competing parents.

 

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The strategies that different species evolve to make them as biologically successful as possible are fascinating, from brood parasitism to elaborate dances and plumages, and can be seen in all types of birds. If you’re interested in seeing Black-crowned Night-Herons in San Francisco, you can find them year-round in different wetland areas such as the lakes in Golden Gate Park as well as harbors and piers.

 

Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant & Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:20 am

January 5, 2014

Woah, look at that spider!

 

spider on scope

 

Due to the holidays, I’ve spent extra time in the Project Lab over the last few weeks. One thing that has really surprised me lately is the reaction that a certain member of our lab gets from visitors.  You see, Vic, our Entomology imaging specialist, has a couple of plush spiders at our Big Kahuna imaging station.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard, “woah, look at that spider!” more times than I can count (yes, we can hear you through the glass!).  I recognize that some folks are teasing each other about the giant spider toy, but I also get the impression that some guests have mistaken this spider for a real animal. I’m a bit shocked that so many people seem to think that this is a real spider.  So, this week I decided to set the record straight-sorry folks, but it’s a stuffed animal (not of the taxidermy variety).

 

 

spider puppet

 

Now, I’d like to arm you with some spider facts to help you from getting tricked by big fake spiders in the future (which will be particularly useful during Halloween time)-

 

Our spider puppet is humongous!   I took a ruler to it, and the body, not including the legs, is about 6 inches long and 3.5 inches wide.  If you include the legs, the puppet is about 17” wide!   So how large can the largest real spider get?  The largest spiders in the world are the Goliath Birdeater, sometimes known as the bird-eating spider, and the Giant Huntsman Spider.   Here is how they measure up to our spider puppet:

 

Project Lab spider puppet Goliath birdeater Giant Huntsman
Body length  6” (15.2)  4.7” (11.9 cm)  1.8” (4.6cm)
Leg span  17” (43.2cm)  11” (28cm)  12” (30cm)

 

 

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So, as far as we know, there are no real spiders out there that are as big as our Project Lab puppet spider.

 

Now, of course, if we had a live spider in the Project Lab, we would keep it in a terrarium, not sitting on top of a microscope.   As for preserved spiders, typically, spiders are not preserved as dry specimens (unlike other arthropods like beetles or butterflies).  The reason spider specimens are not stored dry is because they are quite soft-bodied, even though they have an exoskeleton.  Dry spiders shrivel up and are not useful for research purposes (nor do they look all that good).    Occasionally, you may see framed dry spiders available for sale as decorations or educational displays, but this is not the case for research.  Instead, spiders are kept in alcohol as wet specimens.  This prevents spiders from drying out and shriveling up, and allows researchers to be able to bend and manipulate the legs.

 

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So the next time you pass by the Project Lab, feel free to say hi to the spider puppet.  I’m not sure if this spider has a name yet, I’ll ask Vic and get back to you!

 

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:48 pm

December 20, 2013

Lolita’s Butterflies

In the mid 1950’s, the famed Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel Lolita, which at the time was considered highly controversial because of its subject matter, the sexual attraction and relationship between the protagonist and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Despite continuing controversy, both literary and otherwise, Lolita is today considered one of the most important 100 books in American literature today, (it was written in English and published in New York) and has given rise to 2 movies and a Broadway play.

 

Despite his fame as a novelist, few people are aware of his career as a scientist. While in England, he studied Zoology at Trinity College in Cambridge. Nabokov had a life-long fascination with butterflies, and became quite famous in entomological circles as a lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies). After moving to the United States, Nabokov served as a volunteer entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and later became the curator of the butterfly collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a position he held for many years. Nabokov described several species of butterflies, and had quite a few species named after him by other scientists.

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As in his literary career, Nabokov generated some controversy as a scientist as well.  He had some “old fashioned” ideas about emerging science, and didn’t believe that chromosomes and genetics could provide enough information to delineate species (this was pre-DNA). Nabokov distinguished among species of similar looking butterflies by dissecting and microscopically examining their genitalia. At the Harvard Museum, he was said to have studied genitalia for 6 hours a day seven days a week until his eyesight began to fail. Many of his early species were discredited by other lepidopterists, but DNA data have re-instated quite a few of them.

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Nabokov is known for describing the Karner Blue butterfly, Lycaeides mellisa samuelensis, a federally listed endangered species found in the northeastern United States from New York to Ohio. He is said to have written much of Lolita while on a collecting trip looking for this butterfly, which is the state butterfly of New Hampshire.  The Karner Blue feeds entirely on species of Lupine, and is endangered because habitat destruction has destroyed much of its food sources. The federal government has a recovery plan, which it hopes will help restore populations of this small, beautiful creature.

 

Stay tuned for more blogs from the Project Lab…

 

Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging specialist


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:07 pm

December 8, 2013

Volunteer Spotlight- Palma You

Many visitors often ask how volunteers got their start at the Academy and what inspired each person to get involved.  Who better to provide some insight into the mind of the volunteer than some of the amazing volunteers themselves?

The Ornithology and Mammalogy department has a dedicated group of volunteers who prepare specimens for the research collection every Thursday during the Academy’s Nightlife event.  Starting in 2008, many of these Nightlife volunteers attended a 10 week class to learn preparation techniques for birds and mammals and haven’t stopped since!  One of these volunteers, Palma You, has now been preparing specimens for five years in the Project Lab and in her time here has also been able to work on some pretty amazing projects outside of the Project Lab around the museum floor.  I asked Palma a few questions about her volunteering experience here at the Academy:

What you do at the Academy?

I’m a volunteer for the Ornithology and Mammalogy Department; I prepare bird and mammal skins for the research collection.

 

Palma

 

How did you learn about volunteer opportunities at the museum?

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be accepted for an internship with the O&M Department working with the Collections Manager Moe Flannery. I was pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies when the Academy needed help with moving the O&M collection from the temporary space on Howard Street to the new Renzo Piano building in Golden Gate Park.  Being a fan of modern architecture, and of being green, I wanted to see the building behind the scenes. At that time, I was more interested in the building and the effort to be green than the collection.

 

Why did you decide to start volunteering?

A couple years ago the Academy needed more preparators because the freezers were maxed out. The freezer is where donated specimens are stored until they are prepared for the collection. The Academy offered to train a group of interested people. I jumped at the opportunity to learn a new skill.

 

What is your favorite thing about volunteering?

There are two. 1) I have the opportunity to see animals up close and to learn and appreciate the details of a species. In nature, I have to observe from afar. The details are hard to see especially if the bird or animal doesn’t want to be seen. 2) A great deal of satisfaction is derived from knowing the work I do ensures the preservation of a specimen for future study.

 

What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve been a part of?

The outstanding ones are the articulation of Orca 0319, the Ostrich project* and the move from Howard Street to GG Park.

 

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*The Ostrich project volunteers helped raise Ostrich chicks as part of the Earthquake exhibit.  These chicks are no longer on display, but you can see them in action on our Earthquake exhibit blog page.

You can also check out our blog about the articulation of Orca O319.

 

What is interesting to you about the O&M collections?

The specimen labels are a considerable niche of history on their own. They show a style of handwriting, what information was considered important at the time, how the specimen was prepared, who the collector and identifier of the species and was from where the species was collected.

 

How does volunteering relate, if at all, to your current/former occupation?

Recently I’ve developed my skills in conservation of works on paper. The bench work includes cleaning, hydration, preservation and repair of fragile archival collections. Bird and mammal preparation is very similar to repair of paper because every specimen or artifact has its own history. I exercise my problem solving skills for every project regardless of whether the subject matter is animal or vegetable fibers (paper).

 

Lastly, what is your favorite exhibit here at the museum?

Human Odyssey.


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:01 pm

November 24, 2013

Typhoon impacts on coral reefs

I am sure most of you reading this have heard about the devastating typhoon that hit the central Philippines (Typhoon Haiyan). For me, this typhoon is extremely personal since it has destroyed many of the areas in Bohol I conducted field work with Project Seahorse this past March and April. The biologists I worked with are now helping with relief efforts. It is the strongest typhoon on record (sustained winds of 195 mph, gusts at 235 mph) and is a perfect example of the Earth’s weather becoming more extreme due to climate change. The deadly tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest this month also testify to this.

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The effects of Typhoon Haiyan on land have made me curious about its effects on the coral reefs surrounding the islands most hard hit. Research has not been done on this yet since the typhoon struck less than two weeks ago, but the damage to the reefs are most certainly going to be significant. We know this, based on what previous typhoons have done to reefs. Typhoon Caloy, which hit Apo Reef in the Philippines in 2006, decreased the coral cover to 18% from 51%. Strong waves and currents created by typhoons can break apart reefs and smother them in sand and debris. This reef damage in turn causes the populations of fish to decrease, affecting those who depend on the reefs for livelihood and food. The population in the Philippines is burgeoning and so now more than ever, it is vital there is enough fish and shellfish to sustain it.

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Coral reefs are a buffer to the land when typhoons strike. With more frequent and violent typhoons, coral reefs will struggle to re-grow, and as a result, the buffer they create will be weakened severely when future storms make landfall. This is why now more than ever coastal management of coral reef resources is important. The Academy is working with the Philippine Province of Batangas to strengthen their coastal management and conservation practices, so in the event that another violent typhoon strikes, their oceans and communities will be prepared.

There is still hope for our fragile planet and humanity. You can do your part by decreasing your carbon footprint and helping those who have lost everything in the Philippines. In the words of my graduate advisor, Dean of Science, here at the Academy, “Filipinos, like the biodiversity rich ecosystems that abound here, are also strong and resilient and will rebound. It is in the nature of the Filipino spirit.” This is so true and reflects my love for the Filipino people, their culture, and their bio-diverse ocean.

 

Carissa Shipman

Graduate Assistant in Public Programs

Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:37 am

November 3, 2013

Specimen of the Day: the American White Pelican

I recently prepared a study skin of an American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) that we received this month, the largest bird that I have ever worked on! Previously, I’ve written about a group of birds called Boobies that live mostly in tropical areas that we don’t get in our collection very often. Pelicans, while much more common in this area than Boobies, also are not found as salvageable carcasses often, so they’re just as welcome in our collection. Pelicans are seabirds seen on all continents except Antarctica. There are 8 living species: the Brown Pelican, the Peruvian Pelican, the Spot-billed Pelican, the Pink-backed Pelican, the American White Pelican, the Great White Pelican, the Dalmatian Pelican, and the Australian Pelican. We see two species in North America: the Brown Pelican and the American White Pelican.

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While many people are familiar with the Brown Pelican (commonly seen soaring over waves or diving for fish), the American White Pelican is a larger relative that we rarely receive carcasses of and is almost never seen in or around San Francisco. They breed inland as opposed to on coastal areas, but you can see them in on the coast in the winter. They’re larger than Brown Pelicans not only in bill and body size, but also have the second largest wingspan of all North American birds (second to the California Condor), ranging from about 7.8 to 9.8 feet! They don’t catch fish like you might see Brown Pelicans do, diving from great heights; instead, they can do very short dives or simply dip their head underwater to scoop up food in their pouch (called a gular pouch).

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One of the coolest features that sets the American White Pelican apart from all other pelican species is the fact that adults grown a “horn” on top of their bill during the breeding season. This horn is likely grown to attract a mate and is shed when the breeding season is over, then grown again the next year. It’s one of those bizarre-looking features that we may not find attractive, but has its purpose in nature.

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I was excited to get the chance to work on such a large bird – I always love a challenge. It took me the better part of a day, probably 6 hours total, to skin, clean, and stuff this pelican. The remaining skeleton will be cleaned in one of our maceration tanks and will be available for researchers to study. This is one of the things I love about my job – seeing species up close that I don’t often get a chance to see in nature!

 

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If you want to see some American White Pelicans this time of year, look for them in the coastal areas of Marin, the East Bay, and San Mateo.

 

Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant / Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:00 pm

October 16, 2013

There’s Bugs in My Paint, and I’m eating WHAT?!!

Cochineal

Before I became a biologist, I spent about 15 years as a licensed painting contractor. During the warmer months, a constant annoyance was the fact that insects were attracted to the bright colors and strong reflections of fresh paint, and my pristine white living room wall would be full of moths and gnats imbedded in the fresh paint, requiring me to carefully pick them out and touch up the paint, something that really ‘bugged’ me.  I no longer make my living this way, but last month I was helping a friend restore and paint a house that had smoke, water and mildew damage, and I remembered from my contracting days that the best way to solve these problems was to use a shellac-based primer. Then it dawned on me…shellac is a product made from insects! Shellac is produced from the secretions of the female lac bug, (actually a group of similar species of plant juice sucking true bugs). Depending on the host plant, it may be a pale yellow through a dark crimson color, and has been used historically as a dye and medicine.

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India is the prime producer of lac, and the insect that produces most commercial lac is known as Kerria lacca, though there are several other species and countries that produce lac.  When it is refined, lac can be dissolved in ethyl alcohol to form shellac, which is used as a wood finish and sealer ingredient, as is also used in some nail polishes.

 

Paratrichardina decorella

 

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But wait, there’s more!  As Halloween and Thanksgiving approach, many of us will be looking forward to some of our favorite treats, such as ‘candy corn’ and other candy treats.  An examination of the ingredients in my candy corn showed confectioners glaze listed right after sugar and corn starch. Confectioners glaze is food grade shellac. I’m eating bug secretions!  Many other candies and other food products make use of shellac as an ingredient, coating, or polish (some citrus and apples). Many pharmaceuticals also use shellac as a pill coating.  These revelations got me to thinking about other insects that find their way into our food supply (other than the FDA allowable percentage of insect parts in peanut butter and grains).  I remembered that last year, Starbucks came under fire for using carmine coloring in one of its Frappuccinos®, because carmine is the product of the cochineal bug, a scale insect related to the lac bugs (Carmine, cochineal dye and natural red #4).  This scale insect inhabits Opuntia cactus in Mexico and South America, and produces carminic acid as a deterrent to predators. Though the thought of eating bug secretions might gross you out, these are natural products and are no doubt safer than the coal tar derived red food colorings used in its place. Carmine is also used as a red coloring in cosmetics like lipstick and make-up, and has also been used as a fabric dye.

As an entomologist, I have become aware that one way or another, we are never far from the presence of insects. These are just a few more examples of how insects are pervasive in human affairs.

Until next time,

Vic Smith

Curatorial assistant and imaging specialist


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:34 pm

October 9, 2013

Attack of the jellyfish- a sign of imbalance in the ocean

The subject of surging jellyfish populations in the ocean came up in discussion this week at a social gathering at the Academy.  I admire the beauty and elegance of jellyfish, but their numbers are disrupting the balance of marine ecological systems. Rising sea temperatures, overfishing, decreases in shark and sea turtle populations, increases in low oxygen levels, and run- off from agricultural fertilizers are just some of the factors, which may be leading to their proliferation. Little historical data documenting their populations has made it difficult to be absolutely certain there are more, which is also leading to greater challenges to devise solutions to tackle the problem. Scientists from the University of British Columbia do have evidence showing 2,000 species of jellyfish have been appearing early than normal each year.

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Their large numbers are becoming a nuisance since they are clogging pipes, which bring in water to nuclear power and desalinization plants. If cool water does not make it to the turbines of nuclear plants in a timely fashion it can lead to a devastating fall out, like that of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Increases in jellyfish may also be exacerbating ocean acidification (increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean lowers the pH, making it more acidic), since marine bacteria are less able to take in carbon from decaying jellyfish than they are from fish and other marine organisms. Rather than using this carbon to grow, the bacteria are breathing it out as carbon dioxide. Jellyfish are also disrupting marine food webs, since they are consuming larger amounts of plankton, depriving smaller fish of their food. Since fewer organisms feed on jellyfish, nutrients are also not being adequately transferred up the food chain.

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The box jellyfish, the most toxic jellyfish in the world responsible for over 5,000 deaths since 1954, has turned up in some unlikely places due to increases in ocean temperatures and changes in currents. Some have migrated as far north as North Carolina from the Caribbean. These occurrences have raised concerns about safety along beaches up and down the Eastern coast of the US.

So, you might be thinking, but what can I do about it?   Just a few of the ways you can help with the jellyfish infestation in our ocean include: supporting sustainable fisheries including those that prevent excess by-catch of jellyfish predators, such as sea turtles, and purchasing organic foods, which do not contribute to excess fertilizer input into the ocean.

Stay tuned for my next post on the Fukushima Daiichi plant nuclear fall out and its impact on the ocean.

 

Carissa Shipman

Graduate Assistant in Public Programs

Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:00 am

October 2, 2013

Specimen of the Day: Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Today in the Project Lab, I prepared a study skin of a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  Although not as prominent as their other sparrow contemporaries, I often hear Song Sparrows speaking to each other in Golden Gate Park through series of “barks,” saying “here I am” and “where are you?”  These small birds can be identified by their streaked breast with central dark spot and heavy malar stripe.  As I walk to work, I start to wonder what interesting things can be learned from this bird.  What in our collections can help us understand more about Song Sparrows?

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The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently classifies the Song Sparrow as a species of “least concern.”  Species in this category are seen as stable populations that presently do not fit into the threatened or extinct category.  Although they are a species of “least concern,” it doesn’t mean they don’t face fierce competition from other birds.  Song Sparrows can be victim of brood parasitism, which is when one bird species lays their eggs in other bird species’ nests.  So how does this happen, and why?

Bird nests come in a wide spectrum of shapes, sizes and materials.  Some birds build completely enclosed nests and other birds lay their eggs directly onto the ground.  Song Sparrows are open cup nesters, meaning their nests look like a cup or a bowl.  Eggs are laid at the bottom of the “cup” and the parent provides warmth and cover by sitting inside the nest.  When these nests are left unattended, brood parasites can swoop in and place their own eggs into the exposed nest.

Insert photo of nests.

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Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) will lay their eggs in nests of Song Sparrows when the moment is right.  Both lay eggs that look very similar, which may be an adaptation that allows brood parasites to deceive the host.  For Song Sparrows, sometimes the egg is noticed right away and the parent will kick the Cowbird egg out of the nest, but other times the parent will unwittingly raise the Cowbird chick, occasionally to the detriment of its own young.  The Cowbird adult is effectively relieved of parental duties and can invest energy into foraging and breeding, rather than nest building and raising young.

Brood parasitism is seen in cuckoos, some ducks, and a few different passerines. There are many theories as to how this strategy has arisen over time.  The relationship between the brood parasite and its host can be complicated, constantly evolving with one trying to outwit the other.  Song Sparrows and Brown-headed Cowbirds are only one example of this fascinating phenomenon.  Eggs and nests here in the Academy’s collection can be used to study brood parasitism and how it evolves over time.  How much of a role does egg mimicry play?  How much of a role does nest shape play?  These are questions that can utilize the amazing egg and nest collection right here in our very own museum.

 

Codie Otte

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:00 am
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