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Trading species

Posted on 10-07-2017 by Becky Desjardins

Coverphoto:common scoter

Naturalis had a giant freezer. Probably 20m2, and when I started working here in 2010 it was already filled with biological specimens.  Whale parts, fish, mammals, and many many many birds.  All of these animals were donated to Naturalis by either an animal shelter, people who found them dead on the street, or government organizations such as Ravon, Sovon, and the Dutch Mammal Society (Zoogdier vereniging). All of these animals were waiting to be prepared. Some animals were scheduled to be prepared during a live science session, or via distance learning in front of a classroom far away.  Some were animals so large and tricky to work with that they had just sat in the freezer for ages, because no one wanted to work on them.  But mostly, they were in the freezer because  there was just more material to prepare for the collection than the preparation staff could ever get too.

 In the process of closing down Darwinweg as we knew it, this freezer had to be emptied.  2015 and 2016 saw busy years for preparation as staff tried to get the priorities done: the rare specimens and the animals that were strange looking or contained strange data (for example, a white mole, or a chiffchaff from the winter). Despite this there were a few hundred birds left over with the clock ticking down quickly.  Mostly common Dutch species: the great tit, blackbird, robin, finch etc. The Staff didn’t want to throw them away, because the birds all contained data (location and date of finding) which makes them valuable to science.


Photo: emptying the freezer. Becky Desjardins

Fortunately, there was a solution: other museums would love to receive these specimens, so happily we were able to give many of them away.  This is because bird populations vary from place to place, so a bird that is very common here may not be as common in another place.  For example, the common scoter is an often spotted bird in the Netherlands during winter, but not found at all  in countries inland from the coasts of Europe. Within the Netherlands, birds such as the rook are quite regular in the eastern part of the country, but less so in the west.

A museum in Turin, Italy,  was happy to take birds from the North Sea off our hands (they don’t have too many sea birds in the mountains of Italy).  The Natuurmuseum Fryslan received about 20 birds to use in their new exhibits.  Last month a handful of birds went to Nijmegen for their collection and exhibits.  It is nice to know that our extra birds are going to be used somewhere else!

Photo: Birds from the freezer. Becky Desjardins

In addition to these local gifts, we also worked with a pair of museums in North America; one in Canada and one in the US. The museum in America, Louisiana State University, happened to have a Dutch PhD student who was coming home for the summer. He spent a few weeks in the Naturalis prep lab and was able to send 80 study skins back to Louisiana.  For the birds that went to Canada, it took about 6 months of emails with the customs agents on both sides of the Atlantic, but finally in May 2017 we were able to ship over 75 frozen birds .

It is exciting to think that students and researchers in North America will now have the opportunity to work with European birds in their collections whereas before, they would have had to come to the Netherlands. Also it remains to be seen what kind of research will  come out of it.  And, last but not least:, once the new building and new freezer are ready Naturalis will receive some North American birds in exchange!

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