Northeast Museum Mammal Collections Road Trip

Sample from Northeast Museum Mammal Collections

Posted on: 05-31-2016

Mills Lab member and Project Assistant Kairsten Fay recently completed a three city museum collections trip to gather data for our Global Coat Color Phenology project. She describes her adventures below.

The other day, my best friend described me as wanderlust. I couldn’t argue with her. Just last week, I drove over 1500 miles from Raleigh to New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Admittedly, the trip wasn’t just for fun. It was primarily to collect coat color data on several species of weasels, hares, and fox that molt from brown to white in the winter in some part of their range. Our goal in this study is to elucidate polymorphic zones where animals in their brown and white molts interact, and to devise a strategy for predicting polymorphic zones that went undetected in our study. While the road trip was a work trip, I firmly believe that any good scientist knows how to balance tedious tasks with fun.

The idea for this trip developed after the Mills lab took a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Our team of 5 people collected so much data for our Global Coat Color Phenology project, that I thought, “Hey, let’s do it again.” When I suggested to my coworkers that they come and collect data a second time around, I had no luck. Everyone was busy with their own projects, and they had probably spent enough time touching preserved mammals dating back to the mid-19th century for an entire lifetime. So, what does one do when in a predicament but call on her own family? I called my younger brother, Jake, asking him if he’d like to join me on a road trip. “All expenses covered,” I said, “but the catch is you have to work for us for free.” He instantly said yes, and two months later, on Sunday, May 15, we hit the road.

The drive to North Bergen, NJ wasn’t too slow or complicated. We checked into our Super 8 motel and jumped on a shuttle to midtown Manhattan. Times Square was shining brighter than the setting sun by the time we arrived. We were dazzled by flashing lights and HD video advertisements scaling multiple stories up the sides of midtown-Manhattan skyscrapers. Jake, being a naive and invincible 20-year-old, decided not to check the weather before we left Raleigh. “It was 80 degrees (F) in Charlotte… I packed four pairs of shorts.” Needless to say, he was freezing in the 45 degree, breezy nighttime streets of New York in mid-May.

“Hey, we’re in the garment district,” I pointed out to Jake after passing a directory on the sidewalk. We wandered into about 4 stores before we realized the slim odds of finding any jacket for less than $150 in Times Square. Luckily, the first night was the coldest of the trip.

The next day, we woke up early and hit the shuttle again. We navigated the NY Metro and came up from underground to the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in Central Park. We spent the day collecting coat color data on Leporids, Mustelids, and the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus or Alopex lagopus, depending on which source you consult). A few of our specimens were even collected by one “T. Roosevelt.” Any guesses on who that could have been?

After the museum closed its collection doors to visitors at 6pm, Jake and I explored Central Park. Did you know the park spans 843 acres, and is the largest urban park in the world? After enjoying this pocket of nature, we took the metro to Brooklyn and walked along the shore down the major piers. We headed to downtown NYC after that to eat overpriced, bland pub food and take a stroll past the Statue of Liberty, which was even more captivating and awe-inspiring than in any picture I have ever seen of it.

On Monday morning, we hit the road for New Haven, Connecticut. Destination: the Yale Peabody Museum. There, we met with Kristof Zyskowski, the director of the mammology and ornithology collections there. Their mammal collection was much smaller than their ornithology one, and although we even collected data on their Ptarmigans (Lagopus spp.), we were in and out of there in just three hours. Afterward, we walked the streets of New Haven and found out that bubble tea and Thai food are incredibly trendy at Yale. So, of course, we assimilated and indulged.

On Wednesday, we drove to Cambridge. It was a huge mistake. Friends: never, ever drive to Cambridge unless you have guaranteed cheap or free parking. We originally planned to park at the Harvard Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (mistake) and work through the evening, as our hotel check-in wasn’t until 3pm. However, parking in Cambridge cost $22 for 2+ hours. Jake and I instead took lunch and drove out to our motel in Walden, MA, a one-hour bus ride (with a connection) to Harvard. Unfortunately, we didn’t return early enough to Cambridge that day to work at the museum, so we explored downtown Boston instead. We walked through the multiple parks between downtown and midtown and stopped for pizza at a “choose your own toppings at the counter”-style restaurant. Perhaps not the authentic Boston-style pizza, but hey — even bad pizza is still good… right?

The next day, we woke up early and took the bus to Hahvahd. We met with the wonderful and eccentric Judy Chupasko who manages the mammal collections at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. She helped us find our target taxon despite having recently reorganized the entire collection. We gathered some good data suggesting polymorphic populations of weasels in New England, and she even sent us off with cookies!

That night, Jake and I spent the evening in a local movie theater. The next morning, we were on the road by 6:30 am. Unfortunately, due to horrific traffic, we didn’t make it back to Raleigh until 10:00 pm. While I love road trips, I learned from this trip that I abhor driving for nearly 16-hour stretches.

Overall, this experience was fantastic for me, my family, and for the Mills lab. I am excited to get to entering the data into our attribute table in GIS and visualizing it. We are strengthening our in-progress publication every day!