By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
When cataloging specimen lists, one might think the content pretty dry. There is usually a collector’s number, specimen type (scientific or common name), age, sex, location information, and perhaps a museum catalog number. You can find much of this in the online database available through the National Museum Natural History website.
Not everything gets transferred from that specimen list, thus the inspiration for this blog post. Location information in the online database usually relates county, state, town, sometimes elevation, and latitude and longitude. I cataloged my first large number of specimen lists while in the Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History. Entries were frequently rudimentary, but some included detailed notes about habitat, time of day, or weather at the time the specimen was collected. Much of that information is not transferred to the online database. Information with that level of specificity is found perhaps exclusively in field notes.
There were a few of these entries I remember simply for the humor or inexplicability of them. I was so struck by the novelty of their details that I transcribed a few. Below are some of my favorites.
- Eptisicus fuscus, 17 August 1943, Blacksburg, Virginia, “found behind blind on Presbyterian Church” (collected by C. O. Handley)
- Eptesicus F fuscus, 10 July 1929, “caught in my bedroom, 9:00pm” (collected by Leonard Giovannoli)
- [Mammal], 27 May 1924, Reno, Nevada, “in sink at head of cottonwood creek, on sand dune among Artemisia triclemtata?) (collected by E. R. Hall)
- Mephitis m. varians, 15 December 1894, Kiowa County, Colorado, “caught by dead cow” (collected by Clark P. Streator)
- Blarina B., 17 August 1936, Blacksburg, Montgomery county, Virginia, “caught in posthole” (collected by C. O. Handley)
- [Mammal], 22 February 1968, “trapped in kitchen of prison farm at trap site #1. ‘next to brickyard.’ 1.1 km No and 0.2 km west of Con Son town ship, Viet Nam” (collected by M. L. Cunningham)
I also found several references to specimens collected “dead on road.” I can only assume this equates to road-kill. I did a little online research and found that several natural history museums refer to this in the specimen collecting. At first I thought this unusual, but it made me wonder--would this kind of specificity be useful to ongoing research about the effect of roads (especially roads like interstates) on diversity and distribution of wildlife? Studies like these are being conducted by the US Forestry Service.
These unexpected notes give amazingly specific information about collecting locations. Some of the collected specimens relate to the study of zoonotic diseases, like the one collected by Cunningham; knowing that the specimen was collected in a kitchen demonstrates just how closely an animal possibly spreading disease could come to a human population. These listings may seem random and may not get transferred to related databases, but as seen in examples above, their specificity provides a level of detail for which current and future researchers will undoubtedly find a use.