EEB graduate student Mike Grundler answers young scientists questions about his research on snakes. The Division of Reptiles and Amphibians is worldwide in scope and contains over 430,000 specimens. Image credit: Greg Schneider

On one day out of 365, the doors to the wondrous collections of the Ruthven Museums are opened wide to the public.

Behind the Scenes Day is a rare opportunity to see collections at the four museums of the Ruthven Museums Building: the Museums of Anthropological Archaeology, Natural History, Paleontology, and Zoology. Visitors were welcomed into collections areas, research laboratories, exhibit preparation areas, and other spaces not usually open to the public.

Nearly 600 members of the community became engrossed in the wonder of science during Behind the Scenes Day Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. Because the collections will be moved over to a state-of-the-art storage facility beginning later in 2015, this was the last event of its kind to be held at Ruthven. If you missed out, or wish to return, watch for Behind the Scenes Day in a couple of years at the new location, once the dust settles.

Professor Tom Duda, curator of mollusks at the U-M Museum of Zoology, asked visiting children which ocean they heard within the large shells he held to their ears. One little girl enjoyed stacking the shells on top of each other.

“I love their creativity,” Duda said, recalling how young children made associations using their own knowledge to come up with possible answers to various questions. The Mollusk Division presented, among other items, a box of shells that included land snails of all different colors from the Caribbean. “Why do you think they’re all different colors?” Duda asked. One child said maybe it’s so that birds that prey on them can recognize individuals in a population. Whether or not their answers were correct, he said it was great to see them thinking and being creative.

“I always like showing specimens with stories,” said Cody Thompson, assistant research scientist and Mammal Division collection manager. “One of the more interesting specimens in our collection is a pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus), a gift to U-M from His Excellency, D. F. Sarmiento, the former President of Argentina, in 1868. The specimen was donated by Sarmiento after he was granted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from U-M while serving as the Argentine ambassador to the U.S. The backstory is obviously interesting, but what is great is that the information preserved with this specimen makes it very useable for modern research.”

Andréa Thomaz, an EEB graduate student, who volunteered in the Fish Division, shared the following story. She asked her group how to sort the fish into different species after fieldwork. “A little girl, about seven years old, gave me a wonderful explanation,” Thomaz remembered. “She said that we could look at the size, shape of the body, the color, and that I should also use information from my fieldwork to help me to sort the species in the lab, such as where I got the fish in the river, the time of the day and the net that I used. I was very impressed by her explanation and the level of detail, and I think she has potential to be an amazing ichthyologist!”

“I think the thing that stuck out for me the most was how excited a lot of kids were to see a specific snake in the collections,” said Iris Holmes, an EEB graduate student who volunteered in the Reptile and Amphibian Division. “Some very small kids asked ‘Do you have a taipan?’ or ‘Do you have a king cobra?’ Both are very venomous species of snakes! They obviously knew a LOT about snakes to be so specific at such a young age, but their excitement to see the real (preserved) thing reminded me of how important museum collections actually are for relating to the public.”

EEB graduate student Paul Glaum was especially impressed with a young boy who had an impressive array of knowledge about birds. The boy asked questions about the scientific names, feeding habitats, specific morphology, and more. “It was great to see so much passion for the collections and science in someone so young,” Glaum said. The Bird Division displayed a great gray owl, harpy eagle, monal pheasant, Atlantic puffin, and a mounted ostrich skeleton, among many others.

“I've been prepping bird specimens for the collections for four years now, and the more time I've spent in the UMMZ, the more I've come to appreciate the value of museums and what they can do both for science and for education,” said Aspen Ellis an EEB sophomore. “Before I started working behind the scenes in the UMMZ, I had no idea that there was more to museums than the public displays. That, I think, is what makes Behind the Scenes Day such an important and fun event. I really enjoy sharing what we do and why we do it with the public, and love seeing enthusiastic kids identifying the specimens and asking questions. Some kids could practically have given my presentation for me! Seeing that kind of passion and curiosity in the people who came on the tours was very uplifting.”

“Besides the spectacular and colorful specimens of insects from different parts of the world, we showed the visitors two different live colonies of mites,” said Pamela Murillo, an EEB graduate student, who volunteered with the Insect Division. “I must admit I had a lot of fun with the comments and questions from our visitors, but especially the children. One of the things that caught my attention was that whenever an adult approached to see the colonies, they immediately began to scratch their arms and wrinkle their faces. The children’s expressions were of astonishment and fascination at seeing a very different world under the microscope.”

Murillo conversed with many Spanish-speakers, including a boy visiting from Argentina with his mom who asked if he could stay in the laboratory with Murillo while his mom was trying to convince him to move on and see other things in the museum. Murillo said that the children asked many interesting questions, such as: “Where are their eyes? Why do they have hair? What are they eating? How long do they live?”

Tristan McKnight, an EEB graduate student, observed, “The microscope stations with dishes of live mites crawling around were big hits, especially with the kids. One little girl was unnerved when she learned that we all have mites living in our skin, but we helped her appreciate that it is just a natural part of life and nothing to be scared of. 

“I also appreciated showing people specimens of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle and then hearing them talk about the trees they've lost from their back yards. ‘So that's what it looks like. Smaller than I thought, but pretty. My neighbor had a pair of elms,’ they said. Although destructive invasive species are a sad story, they are a way for many people to connect the work that goes on in the museum with their day-to-day lives.”

With special recognition and appreciation to the Behind the Scenes Day volunteers from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the following divisions of the Museum of Zoology.

Bird Division: Aspen Ellis, undergraduate; Paul Glaum, graduate student; Janet Hinshaw, collection manager.

Fish Division: Doug Nelson, collection manager, and Andréa Thomaz, graduate student.

Reptile and Amphibian Division: graduate students: Mike Grundler, Iris Holmes, Joanna Larson, Pascal Title; faculty: Alison Davis Rabosky, Dan Rabosky; and Greg Schneider, collection manager.

Insect Division: Mark F. O'Brien, collection manager; Professor Barry M. OConnor; graduate students: Tristan McKnight, Carlos Muñoz Ramirez, Pamela Murillo.

Mammal Division: Cody Thompson, collection manager; Professor Priscilla Tucker, Lucy Tran, graduate student; and  Galen Burrell, undergraduate student and museum technician.

Mollusk Division: graduate students: Cindy Bick, Andrew Wood; undergraduate students: Alexandra Friedman, Alyssa Lawler; Professors Tom Duda and Diarmaid Ó Foighil (EEB chair); Amanda Haponski, research fellow, EEB; Taehwan Lee, collection coordinator and assistant research scientist; and a high school student who volunteered through the EMU Early College Alliance.

And for the Museum of Paleontology: Professor Dan Fisher, Joe El Adli, graduate student, and Adam Rountrey, collection manager.

Watch several great videos of Behind the Scenes Day on EEB’s YouTube channel.

Image credits (except where indicated): Dale Austin. 
Pink fairy armadillo image credit: Cody Thompson. 

Professor Priscilla Tucker presents information about the UMMZ mammal collection of over 150,000 specimens. Image credit: Cody Thompson