Zion National Park Museum Specimens

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Penelope: My name is Penelope Yocum and I'm a museum technician here at Zion National Park. We're in the museum collection room where we store over 700,000 artifacts and archives, including about 32,000 biological specimens from Zion Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks National Monument. This is Janice Stroud-Settles, wildlife biologist. And she's going to talk about some of our specimens and explain the science behind what we're seeing here.

The museum collection includes many specimens collected between the 1930s to 1960s by early ranger naturalists in the park, including Angus Woodbury, Zion's first ranger naturalist. Their studies allowed them to create field guides and educational programs for the public. Although most biological science is conducted in the field, preserved specimens allow scientists to supplement their research with hands on information and the potential to compare changes in a species over time.

Janice: Zion National Park has many different habitat types that provide habitat for many different owl species. For example, our tall cliffs and narrow slot canyons provide environments that are cool, shaded, and wooded. This is great habitat for species such as the Mexican spotted owl, the northern pigmy owl, as well as the western screech owl. Other owls such as the flammulated owl prefer open pine and fur forests that could be at the higher elevations in our plateau regions of the park. So bird species have much different vision than mammals because they can see ultraviolet light also called UV light. This adaptation to see ultraviolet light allows them to find prey as well as mates.

For owls, this adaptation to have their feathers fluoresce helps biologists more easily age the birds since older feathers will fluoresce less than newer feathers. Studying museum specimens before going out in the field helps biologists understand what they're observing once they head out in the field. So let's see if any of our owls here in the museum fluoresce once we turn off the light and put on our black lights. So you can see here, we have a saw-whet owl that we're going to be looking at, and we're going to flip over this specimen. Let's see what kind of color he shows. So, yeah. Right there, you can see some of that red, glowing feathers. So this red is produced by a pigment called porphyrins and porphyrins make different colors for example, red, green, brown, and sometimes even pink in various bird species.

The color brown that is often associated with most owls is produced by a combination of pigments, the pigment melanin, as well as the pigment porphyrin. Sunlight will eventually degrade these pigments over time, making older feathers appear more dull. So as you can see, UV light can help biologists age owls in the field, as well as in the museum collections. UV light also helps other owls age each other. When a female is approached by a brightly glowing male, she actually might decide not to mate with him because his bright feathers that he's showing off to her basically indicates that he has less experienced nesting and raising a chick.

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3 minutes, 35 seconds

Museum Technician Penelope Yocum and Wildlife Biologist Janice Stroud-Settles discuss how biological specimens are used in Zion National Park.

Last updated: September 29, 2021