New species of clingfish discovered!

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Dr. Kevin Conway, Curator of Fishes at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, and Dr. Phil Hastings, Professor and Curator of Marine Vertebrates at SCRIPPS, describe a new species of clingfish from the Los Frailes canyon in the southwestern Gulf of California. This group of fishes is best known for occurring in rocky intertidal and shallow subtidal reef areas in the western Atlantic. The discovery of this new species the “Canyon Clingfish” is additionally noteworthy because the specimen was collected at a greater depth than most species of this group are known to occur. Read the full description here.

Canyon Clingfish (Gobiesox lanceolatus)

Canyon Clingfish (Gobiesox lanceolatus)

Collection of Birds at Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections adds a rare bird and reaches 24,000 specimens.

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African sunbird specimens being integrated into the collections at the BRTC.

African sunbird specimens being integrated into the collections at the BRTC.

The Collection of Birds at the BRTC now contains over 24,000 specimens!  Historically the collection has focused on specimens from the United States and Texas (63% of the collection) and Mexico (14%), but it also includes specimens from 64 additional countries.  Over the past eight years, the collection has grown from ca. 14,500 specimens, and has added material not only from Texas, but from expeditions to Armenia, Benin, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Italy, and South Africa. In fact, 5% of the collection is now from South Africa. These international expeditions have been related to research being conducted by Dr. Gary Voelker (Professor and Faculty Curator of Birds), his graduate and undergraduate students, and BRTC staff. Because of these expeditions, the collection has not only grown in numbers, but in species diversity as well. This diversity is represented by 1,662 species, from 785 genera and 163 families. The majority of specimens are prepared as study skins; however, the collections include nearly 1,950 skeletons, 315 fluid preserved specimens, 434 egg sets and 3,201 open wings. The Collection also maintains a rapidly growing collection of tissues (over 8,200) and blood samples associated with voucher specimens.

Canyon towhee specimen from Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management area in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, prepped in the field to be added to the collection of birds.

Canyon towhee specimen from Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management area in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, prepped in the field to be added to the collection of birds.

Since the inception of the BRTC, research projects by faculty, students and staff at Texas A&M University have provided most of the material in this collection; however, the collection has also grown through acquisition of the ornithology collections of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Austin College, Southern Methodist University, Midwestern University and the University of North Texas. And, we have a network of people that salvage specimens for us.  Our fantastic cadres of interns and volunteers have been instrumental in helping us deal with this influx of specimens, via preparing specimens and assisting in collection curation.  As the only active ornithology collection in Texas, in terms of research activities, we anticipate continued growth in numbers and diversity that will not only benefit research, but the many Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences students taking courses that extensively utilize the collection.

Specimen number 24,000 is a federally endangered Whooping Crane. This specimen is one of two birds illegally shot in east Texas earlier this year. We’ve been working with USFWS Special Agents to ensure that these specimens and their data are made available to the scientific community thru accession into BRTC. This specimen represents only the 37th specimen of Whooping Crane from Texas, with a majority of the other specimens dating from the late 1800’s.

Whooping Crane received from USFWS makes specimen number 24,000 in the collection of birds at the BRTC.

Whooping Crane received from USFWS makes specimen number 24,000 in the collection of birds at the BRTC.

WFSC Departmental Newsletter

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Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Fall Newsletter – check it out here: WFSC Fall Newsletter!

3 New Species of African Forest Robin

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WFSC team discovers three new species of African forest robins in the genus Stiphrornis!

The paper describing these new species has been published online in Systematics and Biodiversity (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14772000.2016.1226978).  The three species are named Stiphrornis inexpectatus, the Ghana Forest Robin; Stiphrornis dahomeyensis, the Dahomey Forest Robin, and Stiphrornis rudderi, Rudder’s Forest Robin.  The latter, Rudder’s Forest Robin, is named in honor of James Earl Rudder, former president of Texas A&M University. The type specimens for dahomeyensis and rudderi (pictured below) are housed in the Collection of Birds at the BRTC. This discovery provides additional evidence that a substantial amount of cryptic diversity exists in Afrotropical forests, which are in need of further study.

 

Rudder's Forest Robin (Stiphrornis rudderi).

Rudder’s Forest Robin (Stiphrornis rudderi).

 

Dahomey Forest Robin (Stiphrornis dahomeyensis).

Dahomey Forest Robin (Stiphrornis dahomeyensis).

Angela Guajardo, Student Intern

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Case Checks

Checking specimens for condition.

Checking specimens for condition.

The Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, or the BRTC, at Texas A&M University is one of the largest university based natural history collections in the United States. Home to over a million preserved specimens, the BRTC serves as a worthwhile educational tool for the students of Texas A&M. As a student, I have had the pleasure of working at the BRTC in the mammal division under Dr. Jessica Light. The mammal division of the BRTC is comprised of mammal skin, skeleton, and alcohol specimens that have been collected from various parts of the world (mostly Central and South America, the Gulf of Mexico, and the United States) over many years. The skin and skeleton specimens are housed in museum-grade cases for protection; one of the first tasks I was assigned was to check these storage cases for insect infestations.

Some of the first specimens housed in the collections were from the 1930s. Therefore, Dr. Light and her colleagues in the mammal division have gone to great lengths to make sure each specimen is properly protected so that it remains in good condition for future research. Each museum-grade case physically protects the specimens from the elements (exposure to air, light damage, etc.) and insects such as cigarette beetles that feed on the specimen skins. To further deter insects, moth balls are placed within each case. But, since these cases are opened often, they need to be routinely checked for possible infestations. My job required inspecting each individual skin for live cigarette beetles as well as adding more moth balls to cases when needed. I originally thought I would be able to complete this task fairly quickly. However, I could not have been more wrong.

On average, each case is able to hold about 16 drawers, with some drawers holding over 50 specimens depending on size. Naturally, the cases to which I was assigned were either bats or rodents, so there were a good number of specimens per drawer and it took me quite a few weeks to finish this task. Although monotonous, it was a simple job: if I saw a cigarette beetle, I would squish it between my fingers. If the beetle was dry, then it had been dead for a while and the debris needed to be cleaned out from the drawer. If the beetle left moisture, there could be a possible infestation that would require the entire case to be quarantined. If there were no cigarettes beetles visible on a tray, the next step required examining each specimen for any holes or other signs of infestation. During my case checks, I never came across any live cigarette beetles, but there was one specimen that caught my eye. I was almost finished with my case checks when I found a rodent that had several small holes on the ventral side of the specimen. I did not notice any cigarette beetles on the specimen itself, but I thought it would be best to bring it up to Dr. Light. Luckily, Dr. Emma Gomez, the mammal division collections manager, and I were able to determine the small holes in the specimen were a product of an old infestation and would not require any special attention.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jessica Light and researchers and staff at the BRTC. During my time at the collections, I have gained valuable experiences working with fragile specimens as well as expanding my organizational skills. As a senior, I am confident my experiences will benefit me in my future endeavors.

Small mammal prep – Student Intern Hudson Berkhouse

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Specimens prepared for the collections at the BRTC.

Specimens prepared for the collections at the BRTC.

My name is Hudson Berkhouse and I am a senior at Texas A&M University.  For the past two years I have been a Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences major (WFSC; or as I like to say, a Wi-Fi-Sci-Guy), with an emphasis on management.  Prior to becoming a WFSC major, I majored in Biomedical Sciences. I changed my major as a sophomore because I wanted hands-on field and lab experience, both of which are heavily emphasized in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences.  Accordingly, my internship entailed working as a field technician for Dr. Light (http://people.tamu.edu/~jlight2; Associate Professor of Mammalogy at Texas A&M) during the summer between my junior and senior year.  For this internship, I spent the majority of my time collecting biodiversity data at several ranches in South Texas owned by The East Foundation (http://www.eastfoundation.net/).

This work involved trapping small mammals and collecting data from them.  While most of the animals we trapped were ultimately freed, some were retained and prepared as scientific specimens to be installed at the Texas A&M University Natural History Museum, the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC; http://brtc.tamu.edu/home-2/).  The BRTC is a large warehouse east of campus where over one million animal specimens are housed.  These specimens include birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, fishes, parasites, and marine invertebrates from around the world.  BRTC specimens are invaluable and are used internationally for research as well as to teach life history and taxonomy classes at Texas A&M.

The specimens that we chose to retain from the field, to be installed in the BRTC as scientific specimens, had to be prepared in a way that ensures their preservation.  Specimens kept for preparation were carefully and humanely euthanized and immediately stored at freezing temperatures to preserve them until they could be processed.  After they could be transported back to the BRTC, the careful work of specimen preparation could begin.  The specimens were removed from the freezer and allowed to thaw.  When I prepared my specimens, I would first brush them for ectoparasites, which, if any where present, I would collect in a small vial for use by other researchers.  The animal would then be weighed, sexed, and measured.  I would then take a small, round biopsy sample from the ear of each individual as well.  This ear sample would ultimately be used to determine what types of pathogens, if any, the animal was carrying thus enabling researchers to develop a pathogenic profile of the area from which the animal had been collected.

Once the tasks dealing with the external part of the specimen had been accomplished, I could then begin to remove the animal’s pelt and stuff it with cotton and wire.  This had to be done very carefully, following specific protocols, so that the pelt could be retained as close as possible to its original condition.  See previous posts by Noel Lyon (http://brtc.tamu.edu/2015/06/10/small-mammal-preparation-at-the-brtc/) and Stefan Hill (http://brtc.tamu.edu/2015/07/06/mammal-preparation-at-the-brtc-stephan-hill/) detailing the preparation process. Because the collections at the BRTC are used to teach university classes as well as for research, it is important to make sure that all specimens are in good condition.  The animals we collected from the East Properties, for instance, are ultimately going to form a collection specifically intended to present a biodiversity profile of the South Texas region.

 

Specimens installed into the research collection.

Specimens installed into the research collection.

Another important part of the preparation process is the removal of the individual’s organs and the retention of their inner tissues.  Any tissues which are kept are potential data sources for future projects.  Keeping track of these tissues ensures that the maximum amount of data is retrieved from each specimen, making the most of these valuable resources. I usually retained heart, kidney, and liver tissues from my specimens and I placed these tissues in clearly labelled vials stored at freezing temperatures.  The finished product was a stuffed and sewn pelt, an intact skeleton (which had to be left in a cleaning tank for tissue removal; see previous posts by Stefan Hill (http://brtc.tamu.edu/2015/06/03/stefan-hill-dermestid-care-level-expert/)), and several vials containing various tissues for future research.

Specimen preparation is an interesting job, but one that needs to be undertaken carefully and methodically. The two other undergraduates I worked with, Joshua Brown and Hunter Folmar, were extremely helpful and always willing to give me advice, as they both had more experience in specimen preparation than I did.  I would also say that learning how to humanely cull these animals and carefully prepare them as intact specimens was the most important skill I learned during my valuable experience as a field technician.  This is because the preparation process not only taught me how to properly clean an animal but also gave me a much better understanding of mammal anatomy.

Data Collection – Student Intern Hudson Berkhouse

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My name is Hudson Berkhouse and I am a senior Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences major at Texas A&M University.  One of the reasons I was originally drawn to this major was that it combines a thorough scientific education in many wildlife-related scientific fields with hands-on training and experience.  Accordingly, students seeking a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences must, at some point in their undergraduate years, fulfill an internship that is in some way related to their studies.  For my internship, I was able to work as a field technician and on several other tasks for Dr. Light, a professor of Mammalogy, at Texas A&M during the summer of 2015.

Student intern Hudson Berkhouse.

Student intern Hudson Berkhouse.

The field-based project I worked on was a biodiversity research project in South Texas based at several ranches owned by the East Foundation (http://www.eastfoundation.net/).  During my internship, I traveled with other field technicians to the ranches to collect data concerning the presence and abundance of small mammals.  Because most of the land in Texas is privately owned and therefore difficult to access for research purposes, this project is able to provide important data towards a better understanding of the distributions of wildlife spread across Northern Mexico and Southern Texas.

As I mentioned earlier, my team was concerned primarily with data collection on small mammals, or “smammals” as we affectionately referred to them.  Towards this end, our daily routine consisted of setting Sherman traps in the early evening when it had begun cooling off, retrieving those traps early the next morning before it got too hot, and collecting both data and specimens from the animals we had trapped.

Although every aspect of this process was interesting to me, I specifically want to describe the data and specimen collection process.  When we went out into the field to retrieve our traps in the mornings, we made sure to bring all equipment necessary for gathering data with us.  Collecting the data as soon as possible was important because it reduced stress on the animals, ensured that whatever specimens we chose to retain would be in good shape, and protected the accuracy of our data by reducing opportunities for human error.

 

Perognathus returns to the field after being processed.

Peromyscus returns to the field after being processed.

Some of transects where we trapped were intended to yield data only, whereas others were set with the goal of specimen retention.  Animals found in traps that fell into the former category were weighed, sexed, measured, and freed. During this process we took note of any obvious deformities or ectoparasites that could be found on the animal.  The most important data from these transects involved which species could be found at different locations throughout the ranch. The goal of the latter type of transect (where specimens were retained) was to collect a few specimens of each species, destined for preparation and preservation.  Accordingly, those animals belonging to species that had already been collected were freed, whereas members of the different target species were culled and preserved.  Throughout all of these steps it was impressed upon me that minimizing the stress each animal must undergo, whether they are to be freed or culled, is of the utmost importance.

Part of what made this internship such a valuable experience was the insight into field work it gave me, as well as a much better understanding of what it is to do scientific research in my field of study.  I also greatly enjoyed getting to know my coworkers in an arena outside the classroom.  As a result of my job that summer, I know and respect my fellow students more, and have a much better understanding of the professional aspects of my major.

Sherman trapping at the APC – Lauren Wimbish

During August, I went into the field to trap small mammals at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, Texas. I spent August 19-21 at the refuge with two graduate students from the Light Lab who were collecting samples for their research. The purpose of this research was to examine the effects of invasive red imported fire ants on small mammals, ticks, and tick-borne pathogens. On the first night we arrived, we set out 60 Sherman live traps at each of four transects distributed across areas where fire ants were present and where fire ants were chemically reduced. The Sherman traps are small rectangular boxes that are baited with sunflower seeds and are placed on the ground with one end of the trap left open. When an animal enters the trap and reaches the other side where the bait is located, the trap closes. Sherman traps are live traps, which means no harm comes to the animal.  While putting our traps out, we also collect any ticks that crawl on us. That first night, we caught about 20 ticks! The ticks kept getting onto our clothes, which made it easy to collect them. The only downside to seeing so many ticks was that we had to thoroughly check ourselves to make sure none of the ticks latched onto our skin or got underneath our clothing. The next morning we got up at around 7am to go check the traps. Checking the traps early in the day is a necessity to prevent any trapped mammals from over heating and to avoid unnecessary ant predation.  That morning we caught nine mammals. We checked each of the nine mammals for ticks, weighed them, placed an ear tag in their ear for mark-recapture purposes (if not already tagged), took an ear biopsy for pathogen screening, and took a blood sample if they were large enough (so as not to negatively affect the health of the animal). After taking these samples, we released the animals back where we caught them.  Going through and checking the traps and taking samples only took a few hours, so the middle of the day was free time. I spent the day reading and talking to the staff at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.  At around 6pm, we went back out and reset all of our traps for the night.  The next morning we went out and picked up all of our traps. We ended up catching eleven mammals that morning. We took the mammals back to our trailer where we were staying and set up a table to take samples from all of them.  One of the animals, which was a cotton rat, escaped from our grasps and went on the run. The little sucker was fast, but with teamwork we were able to trap the little guy and finish taking samples. After taking samples and releasing the mammals we packed up our stuff and headed back to College Station.

 

Mammal preparation at the BRTC – Stefan Hill

Hands down, the best job I have had while interning at the BRTC was preparing mammal skins for the collection.  Although I haven’t had much time to prep any skins on my own, I am hoping that will change in the last few weeks of my internship.   Of all the tasks given to me this semester, it is not only the most fun but has also been the most rewarding experience of my time here.   Prepping a mammal and providing a skin and corresponding skeletal material to the collections allows me a rare opportunity as an undergraduate to actually contribute to the scientific community –even if it is on relatively small scale.  Hands-on projects that require a certain degree of dexterity and finesse have always been my strong points so this was something I was eager to learn about from the beginning.   However, after a few sessions of sitting with Dr. Light learning on how to carefully remove the skins from a couple of different types of mice, I realized just how hard this can be.   Working delicately to remove the skin while preserving the fragile tail, nose pad, ears, and limbs of a specimen that weighs only a few grams proved more challenging than I anticipated.   I learned it is definitely a skill that takes a lot of practice before anyone becomes good at it.  Specimen preparation is somewhat of an art and working on this task gave me an appreciation for all the specimens currently in the museum that are so neatly stuffed and sewn together that they almost appear life-like.   From the start of my career as a Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences student, I was always told to give a lot of respect to the animals that gave their lives to science.  After viewing the work that goes into each specimen preparation, I gained a greater insight as to why that is.

Preparing mammal specimens for the BRTC collection.

Preparing mammal specimens for the BRTC collection.

Specimens are generally either collected from field research or are donated by private sources. The BRTC has several of these specimens that still need to be prepared and entered into the collections.  To start the process, a mammal is taken out of the storage freezer and left in the fridge or table to thaw out.  A solid frozen mouse would obviously be very hard to work with, so it needs to thaw and soften up before the skin can be removed.  Once the specimen is ready, we record the genus and species into a log book along with lengths of body, hind foot, tail, and ear, and approximate weight.  The next step is to determine the gender of the species by observing the genital region followed by collecting any potential ectoparasites in a vial by brushing the fur.   After these steps, the skinning process can begin and a small incision is made in the abdomen.   It is ideal not to cut too deep so you avoid cutting into the gut.   I made this mistake my first time when I accidently nicked the large intestine and had to deal with goop leaking out for the remainder of my prep.  Most of the work after this is done with your fingers and a probe to separate the skin from the body cavity wall.  Working outwards from the incision towards the hindlimbs, the skin is peeled back over the legs towards the foot until another small incision is placed at the foot to slip the limb out of the skin like a sock on the left side of the body. This results in the bones from the left limbs staying with the skeleton so future researchers can examine the bones from the specimen.  On the right side of the body, the bones of the hind and forelimbs are cut and kept with the skin allowing for research of the skin (toe pads, etc.).  Once the hindlimbs are removed, the tail sheath is pulled off the tail to release the tail vertebrate, and the skin is pulled back up over the forelimbs leaving the head for last.  The skin is pulled up over the neck and the tissue connecting the ear canal, eye socket, and nose pads are snipped to release the skin in what should hopefully result in an intact empty “skin suit”.   The skin is then carefully stuffed with cotton to create a full body effect, sewn up, and pinned to a rack to dry.  The skeleton is given a tag and saved in the freezer until there is room in the dermestid colony to process the skin.  The entire process can take several hours, and for a novice can be incredibly frustrating at times.   Once a mistake is made, it is very difficult or impossible to undo.  Regardless of the challenges behind it, I still immensely enjoyed learning the skinning process and was glad to contribute even just a handful of specimens.

Stefan Hill, sorter of tissues

Sorting and documenting tissue samples.

Sorting and documenting tissue samples.

One of my main projects during my internship at Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC) was sorting through and organizing a collection of tissue samples from past research by Dr. Ira Greenbaum. These tissue samples were primarily harvested from a variety of Peromyscus species over decades of research. Totaling over 7,000 combined liver, heart, kidney, and testicle samples, the collection had been stored inside freezers in Dr. Greenbaum’s lab for some time, until those freezers started to fail.  Luckily the BRTC was able to take in these tissue samples and continue to preserve them by placing them within the Genetic Resources collection.   Notably, the skins and skulls from which these tissue samples were taken are already included within the Mammal Collection. Therefore, obtaining these tissue samples greatly benefits the collections overall as now we have all samples associated with each specimen. As one can imagine, sorting through all these frozen tissues is a huge and somewhat numbing (literally) task. Fortunately for the staff at the BRTC, there is an army of undergraduate interns such as myself that will work on such projects.  The task may have been simplistic in itself, but it gave me some insight to the efforts that are required at times during real scientific research.

Organizing the Greenbaum tissue collection involved taking the tissue samples out of the original cardboard storage boxes, placing them into new plastic vial storage containers, and recording their information into an excel tissue spreadsheet where they could be easily located. These new containers were organized into a 9 x 9 grid system capable of holding up to 81 individual vials; columns were labeled A through I and rows labeled 1 through 9. Each new container was numbered and entered into the tissue excel file on an individual spreadsheet that had the empty cell slots organized A1-I9 ready for vial placement.   Written on the side of every vial contained the initials of the researcher, followed by that collector’s collector number and a letter designating its tissue type.  This information would be recorded into the spreadsheet alongside the cell number giving each tissues’ specific location.    After organizing all the tissues from the storage into new containers, the next step was to cross reference the organized vials’ collection ID with another excel spreadsheet from the Mammal Database that contained the specific information about each individual specimen from which the tissue came from.  The purpose of this cross-listing was to record that a specimen cataloged in the Mammal Collection did indeed have a tissue and note the tissue location (box and cell slot). Although time consuming, the overall process was fairly straightforward and once I got into the rhythm of creating new excel sheets for each tissue box, reading the tissue information, and entering it into the excel file, I was able to fly through the process. My knowledge of the Excel program definitely increased as I discovered faster keyboard shortcuts to enter the data at a much more efficient rate. It wasn’t exciting work but by listening to music, TED Talks lectures, and audiobooks, I was able to stay focused and relaxed enough that time went by much faster. The biggest challenges and frustrations involved with this project was merely trying to decipher some of the written information on the vials. A combination of illegible hand writing and non-permanent ink made reading a fair number of tubes almost impossible.  I would either have to look for patterns in the numbering system of how they were originally sorted to deduce what was written or simply record UNREADABLE in the Excel file.

After accumulating several dozen hours doing this project, I often wondered what the overall purpose of this project was. Then about halfway through the semester, I happened to stumble upon a magazine article highlighting the importance of biodiversity collection museums. The author pointed out that they play an important role by tying together a number of scientific fields including genetics, population studies, migration patterns, evolutionary history, and taxonomy that can be used to further benefit the goal of conservation. These tissue samples that I had been sorting were a contribution to that direct effort.  They can be used by future researchers for generations to come for a variety of studies to further advance the field of biodiversity.