by Theresa Tran and Imrin Goraya, Widener University

Studying science is not the same as applying science, and as biology majors at Widener University, we don’t often get the opportunity to apply our knowledge to the outside world. However, this semester, we have the opportunity of collaborating with Dr. Jean Woods and Dr. Elizabeth Shea, the curators behind the scientific collections at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. They gave us a behind the scenes look at what a museum has other than public displays. One look at DMNH’s collection on the second floor, and we were in awe of the multitude of specimens that were collected from all over the world. Drawer after drawer, cabinet after cabinet, a typical museum visitor doesn’t know about the hidden treasures upstairs.

Widener University biology student Theresa Tran studies the DMNH mollusk collection

Theresa Tran, Biology student at Widener University, observing the unique characteristics of a mollusk specimen, kept in the cabinet archives at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.

Who knew mollusks could be classified through so many different ways? Usually when you’re at the beach, you tend to think that they’re all the same species. The museum staff classifies each specimen and distinguishes them from other species or subspecies. Looking at each of the shells, the task seemed nearly impossible! We were able to examine some of the specimens, observing their tags, and georeferencing the exact locations in which they were collected. In addition, we were given a hands-on opportunity to work with song sparrow specimens of various subspecies. Through close examination of the specimen tags, we were able to gain insight into the history of each bird, including the date on which it was collected, the location in which it was collected, the collector’s name, the natural habitat, and any previous museums in which it was stored. We were then able to take this information then enter it into the museum’s database. Considering that the museum has over 113,000 bird specimens, including 36,000 egg clutches, about 6,000 mammals, and about 2 million mollusk shells, the amount of work to input each tag of information into databases is admirable.

Imrin Goraya and Theresa Tran, Biology students at Widener University, measuring beak characteristics of song sparrows that are part of the collection at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.

These experiences put the realm of bivalves, mollusks, and song sparrows into a whole new perspective. Similar to a person bringing a souvenir home from wherever they have traveled, the collection was extensive and featured specimens that were collected from all over the world. Not only did this experience shed light on the characteristics which distinguish between various subspecies, but it also allowed us to appreciate the vast collection of specimens
preserved at this museum and other museums. Each specimen has a unique history, and the meticulous effort it takes to record the history associated with each one is remarkable.

Theresa Tran, Biology student at Widener University, geolocating a mollusk specimen to determine where it was collected.

With the multitude of information available on song sparrows, we are excited to begin a semester-long project in which we will be investigating the effects of climate on the morphology of different song sparrow subspecies. Specifically, we will be looking at subspecies ranging geographically from California all the way to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Who knew song sparrows inhabited this remote region? We are eager to dive into our research and see what we find! Ultimately, we hope to give back to the museum for the amazing opportunities they have provided us.