By Pat Foster-Turley Ph.D.
July 15, 2021
I finally acknowledged to myself that my professional life as a zoologist has come to a close since, for twenty years or so, I have not referred to my technical mammal book collection that occupied two bookcase shelves. It’s not easy these days to find new homes for used books but these books have value, at least in one place. The Mammal Range of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville wanted them. Great!
And so, with mixed feelings, I loaded up five boxes of my once-treasured books and headed to the “old museum” in Gainesville. The museum mammal collections manager Verity Mathis met me at the loading dock and together we loaded the boxes onto a cart and I watched, filled with sadness for a closing chapter of my life, and joy that my books will still be used.
This museum used to be my stomping grounds. For my Ph.D. on the conservation of Asian otters, I collected fish and otter scat from Southeast Asia to determine their diet, develop survey techniques, and to see if we could identify individuals and the sex of otters from their droppings. The fish in formaldehyde were stored in the Ichthyology (fish) Range and the macerated ones, bones only, were stored in the Zooarchaeology Range with many other boxes of bones used for reference. The Herbarium staff helped me with gas chromatography of the scent of otter scat (yes, really!), a technique that did work to identify the sex of individuals, but now DNA studies are much more specific. Now I’m happy to see that my books have joined the museum too.
Verity was happy to show me around the museum. It’s been years since I’ve been in the collections there. Now the exhibits for the public have been relocated to the “new museum” out on Hull Road and the original museum on campus has been converted entirely to a research facility with the collections spread out over three floors. And, sadly, my former colleagues and faculty members have mostly all moved on. But Verity made me feel right at home. She was eager to look at the books, so we opened a couple of the boxes. “I hope you find books that will be useful,” I said to her. “I already see some great ones! Thanks!”
We toured the Mammal Range, where I saw another recent donation to the museum lying on Verity’s desk. Someone had purchased some unlabeled boxes at an auction and it turned out they housed bones with a UF identification on some of them. Although it was clear these were manatee ribs and vertebrae her job now is to try to find where they came from in the first place. And, of course, I wanted to look at their collection of otters. Verity opened up one of the many collection drawers and there they were, North American river otter skins and skulls and bones, all ready for someone to study them.
Afterwards we went over to the Herbarium to see Marc Frank, my last friend there, and then we went to the Zooarchaelogy Range where the current collection manager was happy to see me, someone known to her in name only from my fish bone contributions. It turns out that any “soft-tissue” collections (things in formaldehyde, like my fish) have been moved to yet another location where a new building will eventually house them. It was great to see that the research component of the museum is a vibrant enterprise and growing larger.
Anyone who is interested in nature here in North Florida should become familiar with the research capacities of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Most Google searches about wildlife in Florida will end up finding links to the ongoing research at the museum and contact information for those involved in this work. They have pages of information on identifying fish, birds, mammals, insects and almost everything else in Florida, and the people working there are more than happy to spread their knowledge if you contact them directly.
Although you are unlikely to get a personal tour of the “old museum” like I did, I encourage you to visit the Florida Museum of Natural History in the “new museum” (built in 1995). See my next column for more information on this wonderful, free resource for us all.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D. is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]