A trip to the MVZ

Berkeley Connect ESPM students tour the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

On March 20th, Berkeley Connect ESPM students were given a tour of the fascinating Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ). This natural history research facility, which is not open to the public, is home to 700,000 carefully preserved specimens, the largest collection of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles of any university museum. Its mission? To document the diversity of the creatures that inhabit our world! As we also learned, its specimens are very important in a wide array of studies on both animals and environment.

Beth Womack, a graduate student researcher affiliated with the museum, began by showing us its collection of birds. Berkeley Connect students gathered around as she showed them specimens of sunbirds, a family of tropical Old World birds whose beaks and bright colors resemble those of hummingbirds. Unlike hummingbirds, however, sunbirds cannot hover. Next on our tour was the egg collection. Beth displayed a selection of peregrine falcon eggs as an illustration of the key role that the MVZ’s collections have played in scientific research and public policy. The peregrine falcon eggs were part of a study that proved that DDT, the now-infamous pesticide, was indeed harmful. Using preserved eggs from the museum, scientists were able to measure and compare the thickness of the eggs before the use of DDT to the eggs of peregrine falcons exposed to DDT. This data led them to conclude that exposure to DDT led to much thinner eggs that often broke before they could hatch and proved that DDT was the cause behind the alarming drop in the population of peregrine falcons and other large birds. Reaching these important conclusions would have been impossible without the kind of careful specimen preservation that is the mission of the MVZ.

Beth also showcased her own work studying falcons. Researchers have found that falcons vary greatly in color, with both dark and light morphs represented in many species. Many speculate that this variation is closely tied to hunting grounds, but researchers have been unable to explain the color variation among falcons inhabiting the same area.  Beth’s original hypothesis, that the variation might be based on sexual selection, proved not to be true. She is currently exploring other factors that might be responsible for the falcon’s color morph. “That is why it is so important we have so many specimens,” Beth said. “If we only kept one specimen of each species, we would not notice the differences between individuals of the same species.”

We then moved on to the herpetology room, nicknamed the “herps” room. Beth and Rachel Walsh, another graduate student researcher, brought out preserved ensatina salamanders, most commonly identified in biology books as a ring species. Having shown us both salamanders and other “herps,” which are fluid-preserved in large jars, Rachel went on to describe her research with chipmunks. She is one of a group of researchers that is conducting the Grinnell Re-Survey, which involves re-surveying the vertebrate diversity that Joseph Grinnell, founding director of MVZ, documented and collected more than a century ago. The Re-Survey enables researchers to analyze the effects of climate change on a wide range of habitats and animals.  The subjects of Rachel’s research, chipmunks, can be found on all altitudes of certain mountainous areas, but the Re-Survey has revealed that many species have either changed their habitat–moving further up or down the mountains–or disappeared altogether. Rachel hopes to discover what factors are changing chipmunks’ habitats by analyzing two species–the Alpine and the Lodgepole–one of which has moved and one of which has remained in the same habitat since Grinnell’s original survey.  This is just one way researchers are using the data from the Re-Survey: by comparing contemporary specimens to specimens from Grinnell’s survey, they are better able to understand how the world is changing.

Students also got the opportunity to explore the bone room and pelt room. In the bone room, students were able to look at skeletons of a variety of different animals, including some that are now extinct! The bone room is kept at a specific temperature and humidity to preserve the skeletons. The pelt room, too, was home to a great number of animal pelts – everything from otters to armadillos. Perhaps the most surprising pelts we saw were a number of rugs, which had been donated after being confiscated by the customs departments at various airports.

We all felt incredibly lucky to have been given this behind-the-scenes look at the MVZ.  Not only did we get a look at the remarkable diversity of animal species on our planet, but we also saw and heard about the amazing research that Berkeley students and faculty are doing!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant