Where else will you see the director of the U-M Museum of Zoology pick up a large shell, hold it against his ear and say, “Hello? What’s your name? I have a phone call and it’s for you.” Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil then hands the shell to an unsuspecting but pleased child.

Ó Foighil engages children with further questions, such as “What do you hear?” If the child’s answer is the ocean, he asks which one and explains that it’s probably the Atlantic Ocean since that’s where the shell, a Busycon whelk, was found.

Each year, Behind the Scenes Day provides an unusual glimpse and one-of-a kind learning opportunities at the four U-M museums of the Ruthven Museums Building. This year’s event was held Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014.

Liz Wason, an EEB alumnus (Ph.D. 2012) who attended the event, recounted the shell story about Ó Foighil, and also heard him lead a group to a station along the mollusk tour, where they would learn about “killer snails.” And that’s no joke. There were many surprises along the journey: tree snails of assorted colors to fool birds, gigantic mammoth teeth and skulls, and huge armadillo armor pieces, including a tail with the diameter of a watermelon, and legless amphibians. Wason is a science writer for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Development, Marketing and Communications.

The Museum of Anthropology, Museum of Natural History, Museum of Paleontology, and Museum of Zoology welcomed visitors into collections areas, research laboratories, exhibit preparation areas, and other spaces not usually open to the public. Some 560 members of the community met with scientist-curators, collection managers, exhibit preparators, and student researchers and learned about their work.

Every half hour from noon to 4 p.m., groups of 15 toured the following areas in the Museum of Zoology: birds and mammals, fish and herpetology, insects and mollusks, and the Museum of Paleontology. Nearly all of the tours were full. Museum donors had the opportunity to make advance reservations. The Museum of Anthropology held an open house and didn't require advance reservations.

A couple who recently discovered a mammoth specimen that they are planning to donate to the museum attended to check out their find’s new home. Attendants ranged in age from the curious preschool set to science aficionados in their 70s. On display were just a few of the millions of preserved biological specimens of the UMMZ. Visitors learned how research on museum specimens contributes to the study of global biodiversity, climate change and evolution.

Tours of the Museum of Paleontology led by curators and research staff took visitors into laboratories where research is conducted on Ice Age mammoths and mastodons, and the evolution of whales. They learned how paleontologists capture 3-D information on the shape and structure of fossils to enhance the understanding of the lives of ancient organisms. They saw actual specimens of species that inhabited our planet many thousands to millions of years ago.

"One of the most fulfilling aspects of an outreach event, such as Behind the Scenes Day, is the opportunity to engage children,” said Cody Thompson, mammal division collection manager and assistant research scientist .  “It truly is amazing the amount of knowledge they have about the organisms that we show them.  It is exciting to think what the future may hold for biodiversity science!"

UMMZ EEB volunteers included:

Mollusks: curators: Diarmaid O' Foighil, Tom Duda; collection manager: Taehwan Lee; postdoctoral fellow: David Weese; Ph.D. students: Cindy Bick, Jingchun Li, Paula Teichholtz, Andrew Wood

Insects: curator: Barry OConnor; collection manager: Mark O'Brien; Ph.D. student: Tristan McKnight;

Birds: collection manager: Janet Hinshaw; master’s student: Omar Bonilla

Mammals: collection manager: Cody Thompson; curators: Priscilla Tucker, Phil Myers; Ph.D. student: Lucy Tran

Reptiles and amphibians: collection manager: Greg Schneider; curator: Dan Rabosky; Ph.D. students: Marcelo Sturaro, Pascal Title, Joanna Larson

Fish: collection manager: Doug Nelson; Ph.D. student: Andrea Thomaz.

And for the Museum of Paleontology, curator: Dan Fisher.

Watch short videos and view more images on the UMMZ website