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Conquering My Fears in the Vertebrate Zoology Collection

My name is Andrea, and I’m a first grade teacher at Mililani Waena Elementary School. Science has always been a weaker area for me, and with the update of science standards and the new approach for teaching them, I knew I needed help. So when an opportunity arose to do an internship at Bishop Museum with their Natural Science collections, I applied for it and happily accepted. This summer, a total of four teachers and eight high school students completed a six-week internship with funding provided by the Native Hawaiian Education Program (NHEP).

These are the tiny Pueo bones that we numbered with the Bishop Museum catalog number. It’s important to write the catalog number on each bone, in case some bones get separated from the rest of the skeleton and the specimen label.

We started with behind-the-scenes tours to get a glimpse of the collections that were involved with this internship. I got excited when we viewed the marine invertebrate specimens; that was one area I wanted to learn more about. When we came to the Vertebrate Zoology Collection, I was scared to walk around knowing that behind each cabinet was a different vertebrate creature: some were huge taxidermied birds, others were giant bats preserved in alcohol. But of course, I tried my best to hide my trepidation because I was the teacher walking alongside high school students. So, after this tour I was a little apprehensive. I requested to be with the Invertebrate Collection and I got it! Little did I know that the Invertebrate Collection and Vertebrate Collection were partnering during the internship, so I’d have to be around the dead birds! But by the end of the program, I felt very differently. I learned a lot, and got to do some things that I never thought I’d experience.

Along with one other teacher and two high school students, I got to work with Molly, the Vertebrate Zoology Collection Manager. Her job is like being a librarian of animal specimens. She makes sure the specimens and their data are organized so that scientists from all over the world can use them for their research. I was dreading coming in the next day, knowing that I would be working with vertebrate animals and dissecting a REAL Pueo (Hawaiian owl)!

Here at Bishop Museum it’s vital that they work alongside various organizations. One of these organizations is the Pueo Project, which is a partnership between the University of Hawaiʻi and the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources. Their mission is to study Hawaiʻi’s only native owl species, the Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). They hope to improve population monitoring and define habitats important to population stability. During the internship, we focused on some of the ways Bishop Museum supports the efforts of the Pueo Project, like preserving specimens and their data, as well as dissecting owl pellets.

Sometimes it’s helpful for researchers studying Pueo to examine taxidermied skins. They can use these “study skins” to look at differences in plumage patterns, measure the length of wings and leg bones, etc. One of the things we got to do during the internship was learn how to create a study skin. This involved removing the skin, stuffing it with cotton, and pinning it to a board, so that it dried in the correct position. Although this was one thing I was really not looking forward to, I ended up intrigued. I didn’t realize how much you can learn about an animal by opening it up!

When creating the Pueo study skin, we needed to wash the feathers. In this picture, the feathers are soaking wet.

When we created the Pueo study skin, we also examined its organs. Here is something cool we found inside of the Pueo’s stomach. We tentatively identified this as the head of a katydid (an insect related to grasshoppers and crickets). Pueo eat insects, in addition to rodents and small birds.

Click image to enlarge.
After stuffing the Pueo skin with cotton, we dried the feathers with a hair dryer.

In addition to study skins, the Vertebrate Collection also contains skeletons. These are stored separately as loose bones in a box. Each individual bone must be labeled with the catalog number by hand with an archival pen. We got to practice writing on these very tiny bones.

To study the Pueo’s diet, it can be helpful to examine their regurgitated pellets. Owls swallow their prey whole and regurgitate what they cannot digest, including bones, feathers, and fur. By identifying the remains in the pellets, one can get a good idea of what the owls are eating. The Pueo Project collects owl pellets as part of their field work and archives them at the Museum. During the internship, we got to dissect some owl pellets that were collected on Oʻahu.

Although I entered this collection dreading it, I left it wanting to learn more! I wanted to walk around the collections looking at the fossils and admire the different organisms they had hidden there. I realized I may never see some of these animals in person and this may be my only opportunity to see them up close. I feel much more confident about teaching science after completing this internship. The things I did and the people I met helped me improve in that area and gain a better awareness and understanding of Hawaiʻi’s rich biodiversity.

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