Science museum features a world of animal specimens

Turtles and rabbits and moles, oh my!

Northern Kentucky University has its own natural history museum on the first floor of the Dorothy Westerman Herrmann Natural Science Center,.It features 10,000 specimens of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, not to mention fish tanks full of local fish and amphibians and painted dioramas with taxidermy animals displayed in the hall in front of the museum for students, faculty and staff to enjoy at their leisure.

Biology professor Richard Durtsche, curator of the museum since 2000, said it has existed since the mid ’70s in Founders Hall when it was a room devoted to taxidermy displays. But when the museum moved to the new science building in 2002, Durtsche had the chance to realize his dream for the museum:

“I had some ideas about the space we had to work with,” he said. “A vision of how we might set this up so we engaged the students, the university and the public community.”

Part of his plan was the implementation of the fish tanks and dioramas outside of the museum, entitled “Wild Kentucky” and “Tropical Expedition.”

The fish and amphibians displayed in the tanks were gathered by NKU students and faculty, Durtsche said, as part of a class. When the turtles were first brought here, he said, they were the size of a 50-cent piece, but now are 8 inches in size.

Durtsche collaborated with Kevin Muente, an art professor at NKU, on the design of the dioramas, with Durtsche envisioning the end result and Meunte and class bringing the paintings to life.

“‘Wild Kentucky’ depicts the kinds of things you might see in Northern Kentucky woodland,” Durtsche said, while the other diorama features tropical specimens collected by NKU faculty.

Eventually, Durtsche wants to display photos of faculty and students researching in the field with the tanks and diorama, as well as a touch-screen kiosk station where people can look at and research parts of the museum. There would also be a 30-inch TV screen above the kiosk so that groups wouldn’t have to crowd around it to see the info.

Inside the museum proper, which is used as a classroom and research facility, are rows and rows of electrically-powered stacks that contain the museum’s specimens, some of which are in jars and some stored in drawers that pull out filled with animals such as rabbits, snakes and insects.

These specimens are used by outside researchers and attractions such as The Newport Aquarium, which borrowed two of the museum’s live soft-shell turtles for its turtle exhibit in 2003, Durtsche said.

The museum’s specimens were preserved in such a way that when stored in alcohol, they’ll last “as long as the collection is maintained,” Durtsche said. A turtle Durtsche showed as an example of this was in a jar dated March 7, 1969, and the turtle itself looked as if it had been collected yesterday.

Specimens are organized in respect to their classification and their spot in the evolutionary timeline, Durtsche said. These animals preserved by the university come from all around the world, Durtsche said. “They’re a valuable teaching tool.”

This allows researchers to compare a specimen from one environment at one time to today’s environment and study what changed and what did not, which is “why it’s important to maintain that kind of a museum,” Durtsche said. “It’s a historical record.”

Other than simply examining and comparing the specimens, NKU faculty actually teach biology students how to preserve the specimens themselves, which is a process in which one skins the body of the animal, takes out its skull, drys the body in cornmeal to get rid of the fat, puts wires inside the body to position it and fills the rest of the body with cotton. Students also work with the alcohol used in preserving specimens in jars, Durtsche said.

The museum is a “growing collection,” Durtsche said, and he and student workers are in the process of putting information about the museum’s specimens in a database, so that a student, professor or researcher can scan a barcode label on a specimen and immediately get details on the animal or subject.

The museum is valuable not only for students interested in mammology, but also for the university community at large, Durtsche said.

“It gives them a perspective of the great biological diversity that exists,” he said. “It (the museum) allows them to understand what we still have.”

According to Durtsche, we are losing more species at a faster rate now than the extinction rate during the time of the dinosaurs. That is why studying, cataloging and preserving species is so important, he said.

“Understanding species and the biology around them can lead to new advances in technology and human health and the importance of understanding the natural history of the environment we live in,” he said.

Although non-biology students can’t just walk in the museum, Durtsche said they can still visit; they just have to schedule a time with him.

“I would be more than happy to meet with students to take them behind the scenes, especially if they are interested in something like that,” he said, noting students can also experience the museum in biology courses that actually incorporate the specimens in class.