Renovated Maury-Brooke Offers Home for Growing Vertebrate Collection
Cadet Masters the Art
of Creating Study Skins
It’s rare that students find themselves better off when a class they’d hoped to take doesn’t fill – but that’s exactly what happened to Cadet Alyssa Ford ’14 last fall.Ford, a biology major, had done a summer research project with Col. Dick Rowe last year, investigating the nest defense behavior of tree swallows, and she knew she wanted to take another class with him before she graduated. She signed up for Rowe’s ornithology class, but then too few cadets enrolled. At that point, Ford recalled, Rowe said to her, ‘I have something better for you.’”That something better turned out to be an independent study project creating specimens for the department’s bird collection. Each Tuesday afternoon, Ford and Rowe work together in the lab as Rowe, a trained ornithologist, shows Ford how to take a dead bird, remove its insides, and mount the hide over cotton batting and a wooden dowel to create a “study skin” that shows what the bird looked like in life. So far this semester, she’s worked on male and female cardinals, a mourning dove, a Carolina wren, and a catbird, among others.The finished products will be used as teaching tools so cadets can learn what the birds look like up close. Rowe explained that for such purposes, it’s better to have a study skin – because when students are observing birds at a feeder, the birds may fly away before the study is complete.For Ford, the bird project has proven to be a worthwhile learning experience. “I didn’t know what to expect going into it,” said Ford, as she and Rowe worked together on the screech owl one afternoon. “It just takes a lot of time and patience, and sometimes an extra hand or two.”Rowe said that Ford’s interest and timing were ideal. “I was looking for a student to do this, because we knew we had all of these birds in the collection, and [Maj. Paul Moosman] and I were just starting to build the natural history collection,” he commented.Rowe said that he’s been collecting dead birds and storing them in the freezer for the last three to four years, with the hopes of finding a cadet with enough time to devote to the project of turning them into study skins. He has state and federal salvage permits to pick up dead migratory birds, and he also has a number of people who bring him birds they’ve found dead.Joking about his sources, Rowe observed, “They’re sort of embarrassed to be carrying around paper bags with dead birds in them.”More seriously, Rowe explained that just like a householder’s supply of frozen food, frozen birds don’t last forever. The birds are susceptible to freezer burn, which dries their delicate skin and makes it tear more easily.Moosman, who is building a separate collection of mammalian study skins, explained that having a student’s work become part of a permanent collection is rare, because of the skill level required to produce an acceptable specimen.“What Alyssa is doing is highly unusual in our department, especially, but she’s getting so much practice that undoubtedly most of her specimens will be included in the collection,” he said. “You need someone who’s going to get enough experience to get good at it. It’s an art, really.”Ford, meanwhile, has found the bird project a way to tie together what she’s learned from her biology coursework – and it’s also helping her complete a concentration in environmental, conservational, and organismal sciences.“It’s interesting to kind of put everything together,” said Ford, adding that she’d learned a good bit about the anatomy of birds.“I’m helping out [the biology department] and I’m learning what the birds look like.”-- Mary Price
LEXINGTON, Va., April 11, 2014 -- Collecting road kill might seem to be below the dignity of a college professor – but not if you’re Maj. Paul Moosman ’98.
Moosman, a field biologist and mammalogist, is halfway through a project to create museum study skins, or mummified remains, representing all 50 terrestrial mammal species commonly found in Virginia. The object is to have a collection of animal remains available for teaching purposes, so cadets can learn to identify animals, especially different members of the same species, on sight.
“I would like to get at least one specimen of every species the students might encounter,” said Moosman. “Ultimately we’d like to get examples of all of the families of mammals.”
Moosman’s efforts began right after he was hired in the fall of 2008. Arriving at the same time as Moosman was Maj. Anne Alerding, a botanist, and coming to VMI shortly thereafter was Maj. Pieter deHart, who specializes in conservation and ecology.
“All of a sudden we had this suite of new hires with the expertise to begin creating a field biologist program,” explained Moosman.
After settling into his new job at VMI, Moosman quickly realized that to teach a course such as mammalogy, he would need a collection of museum study skins.
The biology department already had what Moosman termed “a pretty respectable teaching collection of skulls,” assembled by Col. Richard “Dick” Rowe, but that was all.
“We completely lacked any type of mammal collection or vertebrate collection aside from the skulls,” said Moosman.
Over the last six years, Moosman has collected animal remains from roads -- all specimens are collected under special permits issued by state or federal agencies to biology faculty members. Moosman has also benefited from hunters sharing their quarry with him. Once, Rowe was riding a bicycle along a country road when he spotted the carcass of a mink. Rowe called Moosman, and within 10 minutes, Moosman was en route to the scene.
“I get some weird looks,” he said of his roadside collection efforts.
Back in the lab at VMI, Moosman begins a process of scientific taxidermy as he removes the carcass from the animal’s skin, and then mounts the skin over cotton batting and wires. Next, he sews up his creation.
“They’re mummified, basically,” said Moosman of his creations. “They dry and get preserved that way.
Moosman has been keeping the carcasses in a freezer, with the goal of turning them into skeletons one day. Down the road, he’s hoping to obtain a collection of carrion beetles, which would eat the flesh and leave a skeleton that could be dried and used for teaching purposes.
This year, with the renovation of Maury-Brooke Hall complete, Moosman is fortunate to have a room dedicated to specimens, with cabinets purchased specifically for the growing collection. Insects pose the greatest threat to museum study skins, he explained, so having a room with its own air filtering system and metal cabinets is vital to the specimens’ long-term preservation.
“What this room is functioning as is a mini natural history museum,” said Moosman. The room is also the new, permanent home for VMI’s herbarium, or dried plant collection.
For Moosman, building a collection of museum study skins and skeletons is a vital part of preparing cadets for the multitude of career options that field biology provides. When he was a cadet, he was unaware that someone interested in field biology could do anything besides become a forest ranger – until Rowe began to discuss other options with him.
“This is just one piece of what we’re trying to do,” said Moosman. “We’re trying to create a field biology curriculum that will send cadets out into the world who are properly trained to work for the [U.S.] Forest Service or work in natural resources or go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D.”
Exposure to all types of field biology experiences, he believes, can only benefit cadets. “We have a lot of students who are really interested in outdoorsy-type biology, and if you give them the right outlet, they can really discover a passion for a new career.”
To see more photos, visit vmi.edu/vertebrate.