Trip Report: PhD student Alex Kumar goes behind the scenes at the Smithsonian's collection of coat-color changing animal specimens

NGS

Just six miles from the Smithsonian museums, in the heart of Washington D.C., lies a facility dedicated to housing some of the nation’s most valuable collections (over 54 million of them)! This facility spans 4.5 acres and can house an entire whale skeleton! It is also home to hundreds of specimens of many coat color changing species. It was those specimens that brought me to the Museum Support Center in Silver Hill, Maryland.    

With the help of Smithsonian scientists, Darrin Lunde and John Ososky, I was able to visit this facility to photograph the coat color changing species that were the focus of our recent study just published in Science.  Once there I entered the secure “pod” where all the weasel, hare and fox specimens were stored. I sorted through thousands of specimens looking for the most photogenic examples.

When you think of museum specimens, you may be imagining something along the lines of a taxidermy deer mount that would be prominently displayed in your uncle’s hunting cabin. However, museum specimens are not nearly as visually appealing. Specimens need to be prepared in a standardized way so that scientists (like us) can later study them. Therefore, they are generally stuffed with cotton or in some cases straw, with their limbs stretched out in front and behind them, roughly resembling a long sausage.

Despite the constraints with their preparation, I think some of them are pretty charismatic, dare I say cute? I even came across long-tailed weasels prepared by none other than the great Teddy Roosevelt, who had amassed a small museum’s worth of specimens before his 18th birthday!

So next time you visit a museum do not forget that some of their coolest treasures might be stored in their collections!

-Alex Kumar, PhD student

Feature Image: Brown and white long-tailed weasels 

IMG_1643.JPG

Museum specimen drawers 

IMG_7430.JPG

Taxidermy short-tailed weasel

IMG_7500.JPG

Brown and white snowshoe hares

IMG_7620.JPG

Brown and white arctic foxes 

IMG_7644.JPG

Long-tailed weasel prepared by Teddy Roosevelt