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.