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; https://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 (https://brtc.tamu.edu/2015/06/10/small-mammal-preparation-at-the-brtc/) and Stefan Hill (https://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.
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 (https://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.