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Behind the Scenes at The Nat

July 26, 2012 2:15 p.m.

Find out what happens behind closed doors at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Related Story: Behind The Scenes At The Nat


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: Most people have been to a museum to marvel at fossils and diorama. But not many people get a backstage tour to see the work that goes on behind the scenes. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando talks with one of the curators at the San Diego Natural History Museum about the work we don't see.

THENAT (ba).wav 3:49

TAG: That was KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Their exhibit on skulls runs through September.


We think of museums as places to go to look at things and learn. But The San Diego Natural History Museum is also a place where you can bring things, dead things.

PHILIP UNITT: Here we have a skull of the short tailed albatross picked up by A.W. Anthony on Pacific Beach 6th of May 1893. Number 69 in our collection.

Philip Unitt curates the birds and mammals department at The Nat, and it's his job to catalog all the specimens that are brought in or gathered for scientific research. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes us on a backstage tour of the museum coming up next on Morning Edition.

It sounds like something out of a horror film -- flesh eating beetles that can clean a carcass down to the bone. But the beetles I'm talking about work for the San Diego Natural History Museum.

PHILIP UNITT: They are beetles of the family Dermestidos, which are specialized for feeding on dried decaying flesh on the skeleton and get it down to be completely clean except possibly for some tough connective tissue.

Philip Unitt is curator of the department of birds and mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum. He says the beetles are not a threat to humans because they are very slow and only eat dead, dried muscle. But they could be a danger to the museum if they ever got out of their display case.

PHILIP UNITT: Yes because the same beetles that we rely on to clean the skeletons can destroy the collection of bird and mammal skins if they were to get into it.

Unitt became interested in birds and their identification as a teenager.

PHILIP UNITT: I started reading the literature on bird distribution and ecology and realized the critical role specimens played in understanding that.

His job at The Nat is to preserve birds and mammals for scientific study. They have collected about 48,000 bird and 23,000 mammal specimens over the past 140 years.

PHILIP UNITT: Here we have a skull of the short tailed albatross picked up by A.W. Anthony on Pacific Beach 6th of May 1893. Number 69 in our collection. Here we have a bat, a flying fox collected on the island of Guadal Canal August 11th , 1944 so someone fighting in world war 2 took time to document the bio diversity of Guadal Cnal.

People bring the Museum dead birds and animals that they find. Then Unitt has to decide if the specimen is worth keeping, if it tells us a new story.Unitt shows me a gull that struck the new sunrise power link.

PHILIP UNITT: Birds strike power lines and kill themselves but we discovered a migration that no one knew of Sabine's Gull that they would come up through the gulf of California and then cross over.

Unitt points out the importance of museum collections by citing how pelican eggs helped to reveal the detrimental impact of DDT. Scientists were able to note a calcium deficiency in eggs shells that made them too fragile to incubate.

PHILIP UNITT: How would we know what the proper thickness of a pelican egg shell is if we didn't have one collected from before DDT was ever invented. So the moral of the story is that no matter what we collect and prepare the specimens for now future generations are going to come up with uses that we can't even imagine.

That's because each generation of biologists has a responsibility to help us understand the factors that can impact our environment.

PHILIP UNITT: Research collections in museums are like the ground floor of biology, all your guides to identification of plants and animals were written by scientists working with collections like ours.

Unitt often gets asked why the museum keeps so many examples of a single species.

PHILIP UNITT: One answer to that is, which one of us can represent the human species that all species of animals really encompass diversity so to understand both diversity within a species as well as diversity among species the collection is critical.

So remember that there's a lot more going on at the San Diego Natural History Museum than what you see on display.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.