Message in a bottle

Preserved specimens, mounts part of NMU Museum of Zoology

From left, Northern Michigan University students Madeline Arszulowicz, April Payne and Ellen Michels look over specimens kept at NMU’s Museum of Zoology. The museum is located in the Department of Biology. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Tucked away at Northern Michigan University’s Department of Biology is a mount of a brown pelican from the late 1800s and a porcupine preserved in a bottle of formalin.

They’re just a few of the items whose home is the NMU Museum of Zoology.

Working at the museum are senior zoology majors April Payne and Ellen Michels, and junior general biology major Madeline Arszulowicz.

They are under the tutelage of evolutionary biologist Kurt Galbreath, NMU associate professor of biology.

The museum didn’t always look the way it does now.

“It was just a space that was set aside for all these specimens that sort of accumulated over time,” Payne said.

That’s not the most organized way of doings things.

“People had their tags that they would attach, saying, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I collected it at this location at this date,’ and sort of put it in a cabinet somewhere,” Payne said.

Galbreath said the collections were officially established as the NMU Museum of Zoology in the early 1970s, but afterward, faculty members had shown an interest for only a while. They then moved on.

“It’s only really been in the last few years that we’ve gotten enough, kind of, energy behind turning it into something that’s more than just a place- we-store-the-specimens-that-we’re-going-to-pull-out-to-show-kids-in-class kind of thing to a resource for research and teaching,” Galbreath said.

Another purpose, he noted, is to build linkages to the broader scientific community by making the museum’s material available to scientists elsewhere.

That’s where the students come in — making things “findable.”

“We need that organization to be in place in order to be a functional resource,” Galbreath he said. “And we’re there, which is really cool.”

Arszulowicz recently came on board.

“I’ve been learning the ropes from April for the past month, kind of how we organize things and all the different technicalities,” Arszulowicz said.

Payne is actively involved with and enthused about the museum.

“I really took a liking to it,” Payne said. “I didn’t know that I had such an interest in it until I started doing it. Always liked dead things, museum sort of settings and, you know, the sort of the “face” — public — side of museums that you usually see.”

But getting involved in the background with such tasks as collecting and data also is appealing, she said.

The museum uses Arctos, a data management system for museum collections that also serves as a community of curators and researchers involved in responsible curation and education.

“I got to really immerse myself and really put in as much work as possible into understanding the database and then figuring out how our collection can fit into it,” Payne said.

It was a challenge.

For example, she noted many items didn’t have any identification, and species weren’t always diverse, especially from decades ago.

“They did mammal classes where they would do trapping, and that would be, like, their final project, so we have a lot of red squirrels from, like, the ’60s and ’70s because they were everywhere,” Payne said.

Galbreath pointed out that live trapping is needed.

“The goal there is to document biodiversity at this moment in time, right? And in a particular place and particular time so that for all time, there will be a permanent physical record of that diversity so that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, people can look back and say, you know, ‘These are the species that were found in that place,'” Galbreath said. “These are the parasites that were found associated with those species at that time and the environment looked like ‘such and such.'”

Presumably between now and that time, things might change, so the museum can provide a way to confirm that’s the way things were.

“We don’t have a time machine,” Galbreath said. “We can’t go back in time. This is the closest we can get to that.”

Michels is in charge of organizing the bird collection, which includes mounts of a great horned owl, sandhill crane and trumpeter swan.

She said the museum receives many specimens courtesy of window strikes.

“Even on campus, if they hit Jamrich (Hall), they’ll get donated, and we’ll prepare them,” Michels said.

If a specimen can’t be used as a study skin, the museum can use its skeleton, or perform a wing or foot spread, she said.

The facility also has bird voice boxes, eggs and nests.

“It’s very diverse in here,” Michels said.

Payne said efforts are underway to make the museum open to the public.

“It has been just a hidden gem for a long time,” Payne said.

Now that the collection is more organized and on Arctos, the museum is at the point where it can be opened up, with more people involved, she said.

“Students can use this as a resource for personal research projects,” Payne said.

Since Arctos is a global database, other universities can search the museum and discover if it has a particular specimen, which can be loaned to another institution, she said.

Payne said there are talks of having an open house and setting up open hours for anyone to enter, including faculty, visiting families and random people walking past the museum.

The large wolf mount outside the door just might lure interested people into the museum.

What’s also being considered is setting out individual displays highlighting a certain animal or family, educating passersby so they don’t have to pull out every tray, she said.

“We don’t want people fidgeting with everything in there,” Payne said.

After all, the museum has a higher purpose than just satisfying people’s curiosity.

“If you want to be able to have a hope of being able to detect how environmental changes impact real ecological communities, you have to have a record of that diversity,” Galbreath said.

The museum can play a part in future science as well.

“We can’t even imagine what kinds of questions future scientists are going to ask, and we can’t even imagine what kind of technology they’re going to have at their fingertips to be able to apply to answering those questions,” Galbreath said.

The museum is attempting, he said, to build a resource base so those future scientists can apply their “presumably much more powerful technology” to answer new and more exciting questions.

Environmental changes in the Upper Peninsula are occurring with ever increasing speed, according to Galbreath. So what are the consequences?

“We want to know on the ground, the nitty gritty, what organisms are being influenced by that change,” Galbreath said.

Working on zoological data might sound dry to some people, but keep in mind many business offices don’t have an osprey mount on the wall, nor do they work at a place that preserves history.

“I love what I do, and I’m just looking at the work over here,” Michels said. “It’s just great.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is