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Dickinson State University's Department of Natural Sciences collects specimen No. 1,000

by The Dickinson Press

Posted on 3/19/2013

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are a thousand specimens - essentially a snapshot of an animal - worth?

To Dickinson State University professor Michael Shaughnessy and his students, the school's Natural History Collection might as well be considered priceless.

After applying some TLC to a wayward collection of bird, insect (which are not counted among the others) and mammal specimens that had been all but discarded, Shaughnessy and a number of DSU students brought the collection back to life and recently cataloged its 1,000th find.

"This work has been completed by DSU undergraduates majoring in the natural sciences," said Shaughnessy, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences. "Thirteen students have or are currently working on the research projects in the NHC. Many of them have presented at national research meetings."

Shaughnessy said that when he came to DSU in 2007, he found a dormant collection of specimens - mostly mammals and insects - that had not been maintained after the retirement of the previous curator. After combing through the collection, he found about 300 specimens that were suitable to keep. A few short years and 700-plus captured specimens later, the DSU students and staff who have worked on the collection have something to truly be proud of, Shaughnessy said.

"The collection has offered undergraduates the opportunity to participate in publishable and presentable scientific research," Shaughnessy said. "The students that I have in here now are starting to develop research questions of their own like, ‘How do the skulls of deer mice in western North Dakota differ from the skulls of deer mice in eastern North Dakota?' That could be important because habitats are different and it could give an indication to how habitats shape morphology and anatomy."

In the collection are different types of preserved small mammals, such as mice and shrews, to bobcat and mountain lion skins. Many of the students working on the collection spend time in the field trapping their own creatures.

"We're always in the process of adding more skins to the collection," said DSU junior Brandi Herauf, a pre-vet major. "It's really enjoyable. I think it's something that's really cool for such a small university to have. We've been working toward 1,000 for a while and now our next goal is 2,000."

Calling DSU's Department of Natural Sciences "very unique," Shaughnessy said small schools are rarely able to offer students the types of primary research opportunities in such a wide array of fields as DSU can.

"My favorite part is when you get it all together and then you see what you've already done," said Kayla Miller, a senior majoring in biology. "You know that you were the one to catch that mouse and go step-by-step taking the skin off, stuffing it and putting wires in its feet. It's kind of like a hobby - it's fun."

In June, a handful of DSU students will travel to Philadelphia to present at the American Society of Mammalogists annual meeting. Along with the unique experiences and educational opportunities afforded students in the DNS, Miller said it's no small feat to get to the 1,000 specimen milestone.

"It's kind of a big deal," Miller said. "When Dr. Shaughnessy came, we only had 200 or 300 specimens. To go from that number to where we are today is a significant increase. It really broadens our knowledge of what type of animals we have out here. There is no little research that gets done (in western North Dakota) - it's really cool that we get to have this kind of experience."

A senior biology major from Williston, Levi Zahn heads up the collection's insect population. Zahn hopes that one day his work could be part of a comprehensive collection of insects from southwest North Dakota.

"What I enjoy most is solving the puzzles that arise when working with insects," Zahn said. "It can be as simple as just identification or as complex as analyzing ecological interactions. The insect collection currently holds approximately 15,000-to-20,000 specimens, which is considered quite small among entomologists."

Zahn said most of the insects are beetles, bees and wasps, true bugs, flies and butterflies.

As for the lucky - or unlucky, depending on how you look at it - specimen No. 1,000, the winner was a peromyscus maniculatus, also known as a deer mouse.

"It was actually found in Stark County and it's kind of neat because peromyscus maniculatus is the most common specimen we have in the collection, so it was fitting," Miller said. "We're lucky to be able to do research that so many people won't ever have a chance to do."

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