BERKELEY, Calif.--It's hard to imagine a museum with a collection comparable to some of the larger natural history museums in the United States, going relatively unnoticed. But the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, a research collection at the University of California at Berkeley that's closed to public visitors, has more than 650,000 cataloged specimens going back more than a century.
The museum is a wonderful catalog of the natural world; the well-documented specimens, collected over a period of more than 100 years, give researchers an understanding of not only animals, but the places and conditions in which they lived.
Although it houses a thorough library of animals from California and the American West, the MVZ also contains species and observations from around the world.
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Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
In 1908, Annie Montague Alexander, an intrepid traveler and heir to the C&H Sugar company, founded the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, proclaiming its purpose as a scientific research lab. She immediately appointed zoologist Joseph Grinnell as museum director, a position he held until his death in 1939.
These birds were collected by Grinnell on August 26, 1911, near the Cottonwood Lakes, at 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tuyo County, Calif.
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Along with the specimens collected during student and biological research adventures, detailed records have been kept of the thousands of research trips embarked upon over the years.
Travel journals, with detailed notes, photographs, and, more recently, digital media including audio and video recordings are all filed alongside the specimens, and archived in the library.
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Original journal entries
Original handwritten journal entries are published as bound books, giving modern-day researchers first-hand information on the conditions and details of each past trip.
These research notes become the stories attached to each expedition, detailing not only characteristics of an animal, but also giving biological context to the study, including notes on the weather, other animals that might have been spotted during the trip, and even cultural context.
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A set of four falcon eggs collected during a research trip on May 12, 1935, is pulled from a drawer.
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James L. Patton
Jim Patton, the current curator and professor emeritus at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, has been involved with the museum for more than 42 years; he has personally collected thousands of specimens from the field during hundreds of research trips to examine animals and ecosystems.
Having spent extensive time around the world, Patton describes scientific expeditions as a careful kind of hunting, one with purpose and care.
Recently, Patton returned from a research trip to Indonesia, where he collected these fruit bats.
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Fruit bats collected from Indonesia during Patton's most recent travels.
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Inside the Bone Room
Downstairs, in the climate-controlled Bone Room, Senior Museum Scientist Monica Albe wanders through the aisles, home to hundreds of skeletons collected through the years.
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Brown bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, deer, whale vertebrae, and other surreal, fantastic-looking creatures are filed and cataloged.
The museum serves as a prominent research tool for biologists worldwide, a library of life available to curious scientists.
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During the early 1900s, there were so many bears that the State of California paid the public a bounty for killing them in an effort to thin the population. The grizzly is now extinct here, but the museum holds a few skulls from that era, when the state thinned the population.
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The museum gets its animals from many different sources; often they come from the state, via confiscations of endangered animals or those illegally obtained, but the museum never buys such animals.
In addition, students and researchers collect samples, organizations sometimes donate specimens, and on occasion the museum has even accepted roadkill.
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The skull of an ox sits on a shelf inside the Bone Room at UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
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For the faint of heart, it's a gruesome scene inside the museum prep lab, the first stop for any incoming museum inhabitant. It's here that animals are taken apart; in 2009, the lab cleaned more than 2,000 skeletons, going from corpse to clean bones and off to the museum collection in just a few weeks.
The shelf-lined walls hold buckets of animal parts, and skinned birds hang in the air to dry. Lab tables with scalpels, buckets of bloody innards, and what remain of animals in various states of decomposition lay about.
Here, three student lab technicians cut the muscle and skin away from the bone of a lion that had died from old age and was donated by a local organization.
Around the lab, there are more than 1,000 skeletal specimens in some stage of cleaning, Albe says, and more than 3,000 frozen carcasses in the freezer waiting for attention.
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Pieces of a lion
After removing the majority of flesh from the bones, what remains of the animal is left sitting out in the lab, and let to dry out to what Albe called "beef jerky." The scent of lab the wafts through the halls.
Under Albe's tenure at the museum, the lab has moved away from using any caustic chemicals in their preservation processes. Using simple cleaning methods is a bit slower than using the tougher, more toxic chemicals but worth the health and environmental savings, she said.
One museum preservation technique that was pioneered at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology is that of using a natural parasite to clean flesh from bones.
Instead of using chemicals to strip the bones, the Berkeley lab opted to use a flesh-eating beetle to do the job. Give the beetle a few weeks or even months, and you have a much cleaner bone ready for the museum.
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Inside a secure case that resembles a walk-in refrigerator, thousands of tiny flesh-eating beetles slowly strip the bones.
The scavenger dermestid beetles thrive on the meat, hair, skin, and feathers of the carcasses, removing every last bit of living matter.
Monica Albe points through the window to a huge tortoise shell inside, but won't open the door right now, she says it smells like death, and that the stench will stick to you like smoke.
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While not as notable to the public as the other great natural history collections, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology certainly is an incredible research museum, one that gives visiting scientists a broad and detailed look at animal life.
The collection, now more than a century old, with its detailed catalogs and specific expeditionary stories, will only become more valuable as scientists are able to look back over time while researching animal biology.