Yale alumna blogging her way through Peabody’s strangest specimens

Some might call much of Jordan Colosi’s work tedious, transferring varieties of vertebrate specimens from old jars into new ones at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. But in combing through an estimated 50,000 jars, she’s getting a close up view of some of the world’s most bizarre animals and blogging about them as she goes.

The blog, “The Life You (And I) Never Knew,” has been posted about once a week since April at www.thelifeyouandineverknew.blogspot.com.

“As I re-curate my way through the collection, each day I discover incredible species with fascinating stories, many of which I never knew existed,” says Colosi ‘09, a native of Tampa, Florida, who earned her B.S. degree with a double major in biology and religious studies.

On why she started the blog, Colosi says: “Essentially at my job I’m getting a tour of the vertebrate tree of life, as our collection has representatives from a good number of the tree’s branches. I feel lucky to have this daily glimpse of our planet’s vertebrate diversity, and I feel selfish keeping these little-known creatures to myself.”

The project to re-curate the Vertebrate Zoology Division’s entire fluid collection is funded with the help of a Collections Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation.

Colosi goes through about 40 to 50 jars a day in a process that entails re-jarring the specimens, replacing old fluids with new, cataloguing specimen data into the museum’s database, and re-labeling the specimens. She has also identified many previously unidentified specimens along the way. She deals with vertebrate organisms from every continent: fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.

In each blog post, she highlights a different specimen, presenting photos and facts about its species. Here are some of the strange specimens she’s found and written about so far:

  • An Arowana Fish (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum), collected in 1953 from the Amazon River in British Guiana. This species grows up to four feet and is able to jump out of the water and grab birds and monkeys from low-hanging tree branches.
  • A Hero Shrew (Scutisorex somereni), collected in 1970 from Cameroon. About six inches long, this specimen can support the weight of an adult human on its back without being crushed.
  • A Pug-nosed Eel (Simenchelys parasitica), collected in 1995 from Hudson Canyon of the Atlantic Ocean. About 10 inches long, this species swims into shark gills and latches onto their hearts to suck blood.
  • A Tube-Nosed Fruit Bat (Nyctimene aello), collected in 1969 from New Guinea. This species has small tubes sticking out of its nose that serve as snorkels while biting deep into fruit.

The Peabody’s collection, which has been amassed by Yale-affiliated researchers since the 1850s, has never been re-curated before, and it is not open to the public. The specimens are kept in all forms of glass containers (mostly mason jars) and in all forms of preservative liquids (including isopropyl alcohol, formaldehyde, whiskey, rum and anisette). Some labels are barely legible inside the jars while others hanging outside the jars are in danger of dropping off.

Colosi puts all the specimens into new screw-top jars in a standard concentration of 70% ethanol and 30% water. She enters all of the data for each specimen into the computer database, and creates new archival thermal-printed labels for them.

“Sometimes I get a specimen with two different labels with conflicting dates and locality information,” Colosi says. “So I have to look up old field journals or in our card catalogue to determine which information is correct.”

“So far we’ve finished re-curating all of the mammals, all of the birds, about 40% of the fish, and we haven’t started on the reptiles and amphibians yet,” Colosi says of the process that is expected to last three years. It’s a collaborative effort that involves Yale undergraduates as well; Colosi oversees a team of five students working with her on the project.

Thomas Near, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale and assistant curator in the Peabody’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology, was Colosi’s adviser while she was an undergraduate and recommended she be hired when the grant came through to re-curate the collection.

“We’re after uniform curation across the specimens,” Near says, “but Jordan has the intellect and curiosity to dig deeper. She’s sharing about our specimens with the public through her blog, and beyond this, some of the specimens she’s identified in her work represent range extensions for their species. She’s doing a lot of scholarship to share these discoveries with the scientific community.”

Gregory Watkins-Colwell, senior museum assistant in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology and Colosi’s supervisor, says: “Jordan’s work within the Division of Vertebrate Zoology is important because our job is to maintain specimens (and their associated data) in perpetuity. By re-curating the specimens, and updating the database with the collection data on each specimen, we are better able to ensure that the specimen has a lasting value to science. Jordan is keen of eye and able to recognize a good mystery when she sees one. She’s very good at figuring out the details about each specimen.”

Colosi is well aware of the importance of the work she is doing — noting that each specimen she deals with is irreplaceable. “Losing one of our specimens through poor preservation or otherwise would be akin to losing an important historical document, but worse,” she says. “Documents can be easily copied, re-printed, backed up, etc., but these specimens cannot. If our specimens were to be lost, we could not recover them in any sense — they would be lost to science.”

— By Bill McDonald, Yale Peabody Museum

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