New species discovered using museum’s online collection data
Introducing Bourciera ovata
In the summer of 2020 — the first year of the pandemic — a team of European scientists began compiling a checklist of known terrestrial and fresh water mollusks of mainland Ecuador. The effort included occurrences recorded in past scientific reports or literature, museum datasets available online, and verified observations from citizen science projects like iNaturalist.
In reviewing our records, one of the scientists, Marijn Roosen of the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam, noticed some unusual records of a unique land snail in the Andes Mountains. Marijn requested more information about the snails and photographs to confirm their identifications. It turned out that some of the specimens from Puyo, Ecuador represented species previously unknown to researchers, including the newly-named Bourciera ovata.
With high resolution photographs of different aspects of the snail’s shell, Marijn was able to describe it as a new species, demonstrating a greater diversity of Ecuadorian land snails and the importance of having museum collection data accessible, as surely there are many more new species to be discovered. The research was published in September in the journal Folia Malacologica.
Roosen, M. and Dorado, C. Revision of the genus Bourciera Pfeiffer, 1852 (Gastropoda: Helicinidae), with the description of six new species from Ecuador and Peru. Folia Malacologica, 30(3), 155–167. https://doi.org/10.12657/folmal.030.018
Taxonomy changes reflected in new specimen organization
The introduction of Bourciera ovata is just one example of how what scientists know about species and their taxonomy continues to develop. While working from home during the pandemic in 2020, Collections Manager Alex Kittle began reorganizing the mollusk collection based on updated information and species names, and later moved the actual specimens to reflect these changes. Information about our entire mollusk collection is now publicly available on the Symbiota portal, InvertEBase. Our collection profile shows 233,603 records are available online, representing 500 families and 15,658 species; 32% are georeferenced to specific locations.
MOTUS detects Lesser Yellowlegs
A bird species that migrates through our area — a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) — was detected by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (MOTUS) tower on the museum’s roof, installed by University of Delaware scientists in early 2021 to track movement of Purple Martins (Progne subis).
MOTUS is an international collaborative research network dedicated to tracking the migration of small birds, made possible by radio telemetry towers, which read the transmitter tags carried by birds that fly within about 15 km of the tower. Since our tower was installed, it has logged more than 3,200 readings.
The vast majority of detections are of banded Purple Martins, with some individual birds detected many times. The tower has also detected a few American Kestrels (Falco sparverius).
The tower detected the Lesser Yellowlegs on July 13, 2022. According to Dr. Nicholas Bayly, it had been banded in late April near Cali, Colombia, by researchers associated with Audubon Colombia and Asociación Selva, a non-profit organization supporting research and conservation in the Neotropics (selva.org.co).
After it was banded, the bird flew north and was detected by three towers in Missouri, and one in Michigan, before heading to our area. Five other MOTUS towers in our region also detected the bird, including Longwood Gardens. Dr. Matthew Halley, the museum’s Interim Curator of Birds, says the detection highlights the value of projects like the MOTUS program, which enable scientists all over the world to collaborate on migratory research.
In September 2018, staff from the Delaware Museum of Natural History brought the skull of a juvenile humpback whale, as well as several other pieces of the skeleton, to the museum for exhibit and educational use. The bones were all that remained of a young humpback whale that died at sea and washed ashore in April 2017 at Port Mahon, DE. Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control moved the corpse to coastal state land near Pickering Beach, where it could decompose undisturbed.
When museum staff heard about the whale, they thought it would make an interesting addition to the reimagined museum. Bringing a piece of this size to the museum was a task with equally large challenges, which many of the staff never imagined they would undertake. Starting in mid-2017, museum staff kept an eye on the whale, secured permits, and starting in June 2018 began bringing a portion of the skeleton back to the Museum as new additions to the exhibit collection.
“We are holding the bones in trust for the public,” says Shea. “If we decide in the future not to interpret them or to not do whale programming, then we have to give them back. They go back to NOAA.”
The Logistics of Moving a Whale
Deciding to bring the whale to the museum raised a series of questions. How would the staff move a several hundred pound skull? How would they clean the bones? And how would the bones be exhibited?
Most of the whale’s vertebrae were easy for them to obtain because these bones hadn’t sunk very deep into the sand near Pickering Beach over the course of the year. However, in order to obtain the skull, the staff would need to leverage it out of the sand. How much flesh would still be attached to underside of the skull when they did so was something Shea says they couldn’t predict.
Over the course of many weeks and multiple site visits, the staff developed a plan to move the skull, including wedging pieces of wood under the skull to lift it out of the sand and onto its side. Then, they used a pressure washer powered by a generator to wash the skull’s underside before moving it to a clean location on the beach where it could finish decaying. Chris Hayden, the Museum’s Director of Maintenance and the key architect behind the plan to move the skull, set up a pump system to draw water from the Delaware Bay into a filtration system to supply the pressure washer. Once the skull was free of the sand and clean, it was carried across the beach to a wood palette where the skull sat while waiting to be finally moved to the museum.
At 8 by 11 feet, the skull was too large to fit in an ordinary pickup truck. To bring it the sixty miles to the museum, Hayden and his team moved the skull onto a flat trailer pulled by a truck. On the way north, the team stopped at the Cartanza Grain Elevator to weigh the skull: 280 lbs., not counting the jawbones.
The bones needed to be cleaned and prepared before being used for exhibits, educational programs, or storage within the collections. While museum staff had experience cleaning and treating smaller bones, none of them had worked with a whale skeleton before. “We have learned that whale bones can leak oils for many, many years,” said Elizabeth Shea, Ph.D., the museum’s Director of Collections and Curator of Mollusks. “So we need to do what we can to minimize that.”
To help make these challenges more manageable, the staff decided to only obtain a portion of the skeleton, including the skull, the right jawbone, vertebrae from three different sections of the spine, and several pieces from the flipper. Shea says they chose pieces that could be used for education and what would captivate visitors.
The jawbone and skull were too large to fit in either the freezers or the bug room and were temporarily stored in a shed built specifically to hold the bones. In March 2021, the museum brought in an expert, Dan DenDanto from Whales and Nails, who took both pieces back to his facility in Maine to clean and prepare them for exhibit. Whales and Nails articulates whale skeletons for museums and educational institutions.
Telling a Whale’s Story…and a Delaware Story
Bringing the whale to the museum involved more than just physically transporting it to its new home. Museum staff wanted to tell the whale’s story through exhibits and interpretation.
“My hope is that we can have a story to go with the whale,” says Helen Bilinski, the museum’s Director of Exhibits. The museum’s humpback whale was one of five that washed ashore in Delaware between 2016 and 2017. Understanding how it died is one place for the staff to start in uncovering the whale’s story. Shea says they’ve requested the whale’s autopsy from the Marine Education, Research, and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), who attended to the whale when it washed ashore.
When NOAA designates an “unusual mortality event,” they organize a group of outside scientists to help NOAA’s Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events research the cause for the event. The Atlantic humpback whale study is still ongoing. Our whale is one of eight in Delaware who died during this UME.
Beyond a closer look at these deaths, Bilinski says the whale can also tell a story of “life happening off the coast of Delaware that few people know about.”
Populations of humpback whales from Maine and Canada pass offshore the entire east coast as they migrate to the West Indies to breed and give birth and back north to feed. However, in a 2002 study published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, a group of scientists suggested that the Mid-Atlantic could also act as an additional feeding ground for humpback whales.
The museum staff hopes the whale will help them better tell the story of Delaware’s coastal waterways. “The estuary we live on—the Delaware Bay—is a really important estuary,” says Shea. “The land masses we all live on are a third of what the world has to offer. So there’s a lot out there in the oceans we need to be talking about.”
Take a look at the Oceans exhibits, featuring our juvenile humpback whale skull, in the Alison K. Bradford Global Journey Gallery. The whale exhibit is sponsored by M&T Bank.
This is an updated version of an article written by Lindsay Townsend, originally published on the Delaware Museum of Natural History website in October 2018.
How we know what we know:
In the Research Headquarters, sponsored by DuPont, explore stories about scientific research and related projects from our local area and beyond.
Scientists help us better understand the world around us. They conduct research in all kinds of environments: in the field, in the laboratory, and even in the museum’s natural history collections. They observe animals and plants in the air, on the land, and in the water. They conduct experiments and collect data to test their observations. Over time, they draw conclusions based on what they find, helping us make sense of what’s happening on the planet. What we know changes as scientists gather and share new information.
Tucked into the Regional Journey Gallery, the Research Headquarters currently includes stories about the Delaware Shorebird Project and the juvenile humpback whale collected by museum scientists in 2018. Other stories currently on view also include some of the research behind DuPont’s Kalrez® technology, citizen science project Coast Snap by Delaware Sea Grant, and exploring with carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection.
On the back end, the stories in the Research Headquarters are installed in a content management system created by digital design studio RLMG. It’s set up so new stories can be uploaded seasonally.
Stories involving museum scientists
A tale of a whale
A juvenile humpback whale died at sea and washed ashore near Port Mahon, Delaware. The whale, one of 34 humpback whales stranded on the East Coast in 2017, presented an opportunity to tell this important story at the Delaware Museum of Nature & Science. But first, museum staff had to determine how to retrieve the 280 lbs. skull from the beach.
Shorebirds on the bay
Each spring millions of horseshoe crabs migrate into Delaware Bay to lay their eggs on sandy beaches. At the same time, nearly half a million shorebirds arrive to rest and refuel on their way to breed on the Arctic Tundra. Their primary food is horseshoe crab eggs. The Delaware Shorebird Project studies the birds and the importance of the bay to their survival. Learn more about the Delaware Shorebird Project.
Stories from our partners
DuPont’s Kalrez® technology
From aerospace and chemical processing to chip manufacturing and oil and gas applications, DuPont™ Kalrez® elastomers are engineered to provide more stability, more resistance, and more effective sealing. Learn more about this technology from DuPont scientists. Learn more about Kalrez®.
Coast Snap by Delaware Sea Grant
To manage coastlines, we need to understand how they behave. Delaware Sea Grant’s CoastSnap is a citizen science program harnessing smartphones and orthophotogrammetry to help scientists learn more about the shoreline. By using CoastSnap, the community becomes an integral part of the science team. Learn more about CoastSnap.
From the IF/THEN® Collection
Carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection
Rae Wynn-Grant, Ph.D. might just have the coolest job on the planet. As a carnivore ecologist working for National Geographic, she researches how endangered species are impacted by human interaction. Her work currently focuses on grizzly bears in Montana, but has previously taken her around the world — including to Tanzania and Kenya to study lions. The If/Then Collection is a digital asset library of women STEM innovators. Learn more about the If/Then® Collection.
The Research Headquarters is sponsored by DuPont
Thank you PNC Grow Up Great
For the last decade, museum educators have partnered with PNC Grow Up Great to develop, pilot and present professional development programs for early-childhood educators. Over the last two years, through another generous grant from PNC, we redesigned the Seeing Science Everywhere: Animals and Their Habitats training program and developed and tested a new two-part teacher professional development workshop, Science Up: Earth and Sky.
In fall 2021, Continuing Education Coordinator Lois Lamond presented Science Up: Earth and Sky workshops to 241 early childhood teachers from Wilmington Head Start and Children and Families First, representing all three counties in Delaware. The training incorporated new technology in the PNC Resource Center within the Nature Nook including a short-throw projector, wall-mounted webcam, microphone, and a new surround sound speaker system. The new equipment is also used for virtual programming and meetings, as well as in-person presentations in the Nature Nook.
Part of the grant included developing Earth and Sky activity kits for the schools and Head Start centers to use in their classrooms. Twenty-six kits were created for the Wilmington Head Start and Children and Families First classrooms, with additional kits available for loan to teachers who take the training workshops in the future. Both kits include books and hands-on tools, science experiments, and activities. A highlight of the Earth kit is a collection of Delaware rocks and minerals donated by the Delaware Mineralogical Society. DMS donated 19 sets of rocks for the kits.
In recognition of PNC’s support of the Museum’s education programs and metamorphosis into the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science, the Nature Nook will be renamed the PNC Grow Up Great Nature Nook.
Up on the roof: How flying a kite is part of bird research
Though researchers have studied of bird migration in general, the ability to track the journey of small-bodied birds has remained a mystery for years. Motus Wildlife Tracking System is an international collaborative research network dedicated to tracking the migration of small birds. The tracking of the birds is made possible by radio telemetry towers which read tags from animals passing nearby. Motus is dedicated to involving numerous locations in tracking a wide variety of small animals locally, regionally, and even internationally, describing their research as “the ultimate hands-on community science project.”
The museum is participating in this community project with a radio telemetry tower installed in January 2021 on our roof with the help of graduate student Katie Bird, University of Delaware professor Jeff Buler, Ph.D., community scientist Steve Cotrell, and Ian Stewart of the Delaware Nature Society. The project is funded by the Delaware Audubon Society and Delaware Ornithological Society.
Katie is conducting research in Dr. Buler’s lab at the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology focusing on Purple Martins (Progne subis), and she worked tirelessly to get her equipment ready before the Purple Martins return in April.
Dr. Jean Woods, former curator of birds, helped Katie prepare for their return through regular visits to our roof to perform system updates on our tower. The tower consists of an antenna, a receiver which records the data, and a solar panel which powers the entire thing. The tower can record the compatible tags of any birds that pass by within a range of 10 miles. The radio tags used are solar powered and tiny (0.5 grams), so they can remain on the bird for its entire life and acquire the data without having to recapture the bird. Once the data is recorded, it is automatically made available to researchers. This data is what Katie will use to study the movements of Purple Martins in the early spring as they return to their colonies.
While she awaits the return of the Purple Martins, Katie has collected data in various ways to train the receiver’s algorithm. She previously used a drone to replicate the flight of small birds, but the drone is out of commission. Katie then came up with the idea of using a kite to simulate the flight of a tagged martin. By flying a kite on our roof, Katie collected both GPS and radio data similar to the data the LifeTags will provide to the receiver.
Kite flying, algorithms, and — most importantly — patience are the main ingredients in Katie’s recipe for successful Purple Martin migration research. We will be watching closely for the return of the Purple Martins, and the data our tower collects as they fly through Delaware.
Mobilizing millions of marine mollusks
The museum has teamed up with scientists at several major museums and universities for a $2.3 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to digitize data for more than 4.5 million marine mollusk specimens such as mussels, oysters, clams, and snails collected along the Eastern seaboard from the U.S.-Canada border to U.S.-Mexico border.
The project, Mobilizing Millions of Marine Mollusks of the Eastern Seaboard, will have a world-wide impact on biodiversity documentation and study by making data from these ecologically and commercially important species available through online portals. Previous digitization projects have focused on freshwater and land mollusks; this is the first major project of this type for marine mollusks.
The Field Museum of Natural History is the lead (principal investigator) for the project. Other collaborating institutions include the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, University of Florida, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and North Carolina State Museum.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 2001510, 2001290, 2001507, 2001515, 2001523, 2001528, 2001536, 2001546, 2001570, 2001600. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.