What Happens Behind the Scenes at theNAT (and Why It Matters to You)

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Behind exhibit walls at the San Diego Natural History Museum (also known as theNAT), scientists and volunteers work diligently throughout various departments to keep an eye on what is happening in our region. And, recently, I had a chance to tour a small part of the Museum’s massive specimen collections with Dr. Michael Wall, Vice President of Research and Public Programs. It was a cool experience, to say the least.

My takeaway is that they’re using the collections and other data—even some provided by citizen scientists (my new favorite term) like you and me—to monitoring change. This certainly includes climate change but also a variety of other important issues such as protecting our environment as San Diego expands.

A lot happens behind the scenes at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

And, sometimes, Museum scientists find really amazing things around San Diego—like Mastodons. (Go see the Cerutti Mastodon exhibit at theNAT to learn the details of this amazing discovery.)

This brings me to why the San Diego Natural History Museum is one of my favorite things to do with kids in San Diego. The Museum’s findings, celebrations of science and fun facts about our local natural history are shared through thoughtful exhibits, educational programs, 3-D films and more that motivate people to care more deeply about the environment as a whole.

Until I took this tour, I honestly didn’t realize how much they actually do. Here’s a snippet of what I saw and learned.

theNAT’s Collections

theNAT’s 8 million carefully-cataloged and stored specimens—many gathered right here in San Diego County—tell us about conditions that existed in our local natural history. The Museum continues to add to the collections so that future generations will have specimens from present day in order to continue to track change. The specimens are tremendously important as, for example, it’s simply not possible to extract DNA from a photo or book. And, they are available to other organizations who may benefit from the data.

It’s quite something to peek inside drawers and walk in between the storage walls (that open and shut like the garbage compactor scene in Star Wars… very cool) where specimens are kept.

First Stop: Bugs and Insects

This was especially timely as one of the insects in the case below landed in my driveway that morning. I learned from Dr. Wall (pictured below) that it was called a Figeater beetle.

A small part of the San Diego Natural History Museum's Entomology collection.

theNAT’s Entomology collection has over 1 million bugs and insects, most of which are pinned and labeled. Some of the insects are now extinct, rare or no longer in our region. As it’s the only collection like this in the county, US Fish and Wildlife Service, county departments and privately-based consultants use it for environmental surveys and various other projects. The bugs are in such perfect condition that they almost don’t look real (rest assured that they are).

If you happen to adore butterflies as I do, have a look at theNAT’s checklist of butterflies in San Diego County. I had no idea that we have so many different types.

Paleontology: Mammoths and More Found in San Diego

“Al” the Allosaurus dinosaur signals (as does the current, awesome Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit) that paleontology is a museum focus. But did you know that it’s very much still-needed resource in San Diego?

Scientifically-important fossils are still being unearthed as new construction occurs. This mammoth fossil was found just over a year ago (June 9, 2016) on 16th and Island in downtown.

A mammoth fossil found in downtown San Diego.

But it’s not the first mammoth to be found in San Diego. We took a close-up look at mammoth hip bones dug up in Oceanside as well as various other documented fossil fragments found throughout the county.

Some of these specimens are found via work that the consulting arm of the San Diego Natural History Museum is hired to do. They can be called onsite to see if any fossil remains are exposed during grading and excavation, for example.

This brings us to the Cerutti Mastodon. During the expansion of the 54 freeway, field paleontologist Richard Cerutti spotted what appeared to be the tusks and bones of a mastodon. Further investigation revealed its bones were displaced with some used as tools. Years of studies ensued and a myriad of experts weighed in.

Very long story short, this became the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in the Americas and suggests that hominin activity occurred 115,000 years earlier than previously thought. For the full story, head to The Cerutti Mastadon Discovery on the second floor of theNAT. It’s a really big deal.

Botany in a Gorgeous Building

Next, we walked to the Department of Botany which is located in the east wing of the Museum’s historic 1930s building. Here, plant specimens are pressed and documented on these papers, in many cases by volunteers.

A volunteer catalogs plants at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

They’re careful to ensure that succulents common to the area are stripped of water so they don’t keep growing inside the cabinets when stored like this. Dr. Wall showed me several recent plant specimens from Baja California where they are currently collecting.

Over 250,000 plant specimens, mostly from San Diego and the Baja California peninsula are stored and used for research at the San Diego Natural History Museum.The San Diego Plant Atlas is one of the Atlases (basically a very detailed catalog of local plants) developed by theNAT. It’s helpful for land use and local climate change studies in addition to other projects. Specimens are collected with the help of many volunteers. In the process of creating the Atlas, they actually found plants that hadn’t been recorded in San Diego before. Anyone can head to the Atlas website to look up plants names, photos and other data.

And, near the plant specimens is where the Museum keeps a library of 56,000 old and rare books, maps an obscure references to use as resources. Vintage collectors would certainly gawk over these.

Vintage botany books at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Birds and Mammals

Part of what I enjoyed about this behind-the-scenes tour is learning about the people who made the collections and the Museum possible.

One of the sparrows pictured below is from 1883. It’s part of the collection of over 2000 bird and mammal specimens the museum received from mammalogist and ornithologist Frank Stephens. He and his wife, Kate, were early members of the San Diego Society of Natural History, the organization that spearheaded the creation of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The sparrow collection at San Diego Natural History Museum dates back to 1883.

The collection is a major resource on bird and mammal species of western North America and Baja California. Did you know that the ban on DDT was partially the result of studies on done on the thickness of egg shells in museum collections?

An egg used by the Birds and Mammal department at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Local Geology

And, yes, the San Diego Natural History Museum has a collection of 26,000 rocks and minerals that have been used to study local geology and earthquakes. So pretty. It made me think of the All that Glitters exhibit that theNAT had several years back. It featured gorgeous gemstones from California that were part of private collections.

San Diego Natural History Museum has an extensive collection of local minerals.

So Many Ssssssssnakes

A citizen scientist by the name of Laurence M. Klauber helped the San Diego Natural History Museum amass the largest and most comprehensive collection of rattlesnakes in the world with a generous donation of his personal specimens. He was CEO of San Diego Gas and Electric by day but a herpetology expert by night. Literally, he’d look out for snakes and lizards by driving desert roads after dark.

The San Diego Natural History Museum has one of the largest rattlesnake collections in the world.

In addition to working on many other projects, the Department of Herpetology maintains a Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California with the help of people like you and me.

You Can Be a Citizen Scientist

The wall pictured below was one of the highlights of my tour. These photos were taken by citizen scientists and uploaded online to the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California for theNAT’s staff to see.

It’s a reminder that anyone with a camera can capture unique actions in the wild. Maybe a coyote carrying a red diamondback rattlesnake in the wild seems normal, but rest assured it’s not.

You can submit photos to the San Diego Natural History Museum.

What a great way to keep kids engaged in nature in the age of technology!

Or, would you just like to know what type of lizard just ran across your patio? Snap a photo, upload it and experts will suggest an identification. How cool is that? Just sign up for an iNaturalist.org account and start sharing your discoveries.

The Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People exhibit, on view now at theNAT, is a tribute to citizen scientists who made an impact on science as we know it today.

5 Thoughts from My Visit

If I were to tell you how I felt after my tour, this would be a good summary:

  • It is easy to forget that the cycle of life has many moving parts and that we often put it at risk through urbanization, pollution and lack of care for the environment.
  • A specimen collection might live in storage but it doesn’t mean that it’s not used.
  • I need to take advantage of special programming outside of the Museum such as the nature hikes or whale watching.
  • I feel grateful that the Museum is actually working on projects to make San Diego a better place for future generations.
  • When my daughter has school projects that involve natural history or local flora and fauna, I should turn to theNAT as an educational resource.

And, one more thing…

See Ultimate Dinosaurs Through September 4

Don’t forget that you have until September 4 to see Ultimate Dinosaurs at theNAT! These dinos on display are not the ones you’re probably familiar with. We’re talking about Gigantosaurus and others that evolved in isolation in the Southern hemisphere.

"Ultimate Dinosaurs" is on display at theNAT through September 4.

Spend some time on the San Diego Natural History Museum’s website to learn more about what they do. You just might learn something interesting about San Diego’s natural history in the process.

*This post was written in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum which we have been visiting on our own for many years.

This is what happens behind the exhibit walls at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
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