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Behind The Scenes At The Nat

What We Don’t See Of The Museum’s Collection

One of the thousands of mammal specimens found in the collection at the San D...

Credit: Beth Accomando

Above: One of the thousands of mammal specimens found in the collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

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


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. Check out the video.

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

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

"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."

That's Philip Unitt, 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.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Hilary Andrews

Flesh-eating beetles, cleaning a skeleton for the museum.

"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."

One day a week Unitt devotes to prepping specimens like this bird.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

One of the birds that Philip Unitt skinned and stuffed for the collection at The Nat.

"So now we apply cornmeal generously to keep any blood or body juices from soiling the feathers."

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

"I started reading the literature on bird distribution and ecology and realized the critical role specimens played in understanding that so it was something that I wanted to learn to do myself and our former curator was teaching ornithology at SDSU that semester and he said come to the museum and learn how to skin birds."

The basic purpose of his department is to preserve birds and mammals for scientific study. They have about 48,000 bird specimens and 23,000 mammal specimens accumulated over a 140 years.

"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 Guadalcanal August 11th , 1944 so someone fighting in world war 2 took time to document the bio diversity of Guadalcanal."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

An armadillo that was found dead in a swimming pool is another one of the thousands of specimens in the museum's collection.

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. Take this gull that struck the new sunrise power link.

"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.

"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.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

Multiples specimens from a singles species are kept in the collection for research.

"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.

"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.

Currently the museum is showcasing an exhibit on Skulls.


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