Reading Period Trips: Baby Salamanders, Birds-of-Paradise, and George Washington’s Pheasants

By Eamon Corbett

Cassowary feet at the MCZ: it's not hard to see that birds evolved from dinosaurs when you look at those claws!

Cassowary feet at the MCZ: it’s not hard to see that birds evolved from dinosaurs when you look at those claws!

This is a bit of a belated post, but the club had two fantastic trips at the end of spring semester, so better late than never! The first was a tour of the bird collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, led by collections manager Jeremiah Trimble. Harvard has one of the best and most historic bird specimen collections in the world, so this was an incredible opportunity to look behind-the-scenes at some of the museum’s treasures.

We saw drawers full of a spectacular array of species, from albatrosses with 11 foot wingspans to the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, weighing in at just 2 grams and measuring under 2.5 inches long. The dazzling biodiversity of the tropics was on full display, with tray after tray of vividly colored tanagers, bizarre birds-of-paradise, and many others.

One of the most impressive specimens was a bird-of-paradise, the Wallace’s Standardwing, named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution and one of the greatest field biologists ever. That would have been cool enough, but this particular bird was not just named after Wallace: it was collected (shot) by Wallace himself!

This wasn’t the only item of historical significance: the collection also contains one of the few existing specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition, a Lewis’s Woodpecker that could very well have been collected by the man himself. And locked away in a special cabinet is a mounted display of two golden pheasants that once were the pets of George Washington!

The museum also has sobering reminders of the ongoing loss of our world’s biodiversity. While the collection is full of dead birds, for most of them the species lives on, whether in the parks of Cambridge or the remote forests of Halmahera (the standardwing’s native home). For others, lifeless skins is all we have left: Eskimo Curlews, a Great Auk, Carolina Parakeets, Passenger Pigeons, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Ou, Nukupuu, Bachman’s Warbler, Hawaii Mamo, and more. And that’s just the American species. Seeing the specimens firsthand drove home the need to protect what we have left, so that no more species join their ranks.

Later in the week, three of us ditched studying for an afternoon to head to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with Herpetologist Joe Martinez to check out the amphibians that were hatching and growing in the vernal pools of the cemetery.

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The Dell at Mt. Auburn

The ponds of Mt. Auburn are home to a diverse group of reptiles and amphibians, and Joe was able to find eggs and tadpoles of two of the key species, the spotted salamander and the American toad. Both of them are making a comeback in the park thanks to recovery projects, and we learned about the ongoing research on amphibians in the cemetery, which will hopefully result in the re-establish of a couple more species.

Joe Martinez explains spotted salamander life cycles

Joe Martinez explains spotted salamander life cycles

Spotted salamander egg mass

Spotted salamander egg mass

A very newly hatched salamander tadpole

A very newly hatched salamander tadpole

American toad tadpole

American toad tadpole

We also checked out two other Mt. Auburn “landmarks”: the resident Great Horned Owls in the pines above the dell, and the grave of Asa Gray, the pioneering Harvard botanist who became one of Darwin’s good friends and an early champion of evolution.

Another look at the local Great Horned Owl

Another look at the local Great Horned Owl

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Asa Gray’s grave

Exam period can be a stressful time, but we all were happy to take a few breaks from studying to explore nature and history right here in Cambridge. Many thanks to Jeremiah Trimble and Joe Martinez, and we hope to return soon!

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