Written by Ajay Yalamanchi, third year Integrative Biology major

After working with the Thaeler collection last semester, I had the opportunity to work with the Joseph Grinnell correspondence, letters and manuscripts written by or to Grinnell over the course of three decades. Unlike the correspondence from the Thaeler collection, the Grinnell correspondence did not reveal much about Grinnell personally since the vast majority of his correspondence was rooted in his work with the occasional letters of holiday greetings. However, it was interesting to witness what Grinnell and other accomplished academics talked about and the manner in which they addressed each other.

Roosevelt   Aside from the impeccable grammar employed, a product of the time period
they lived in, all correspondence exuded an air of utmost respect and geniality highlighted by terms of endearment such as, “My Dear….” or “Very Truly Yours.” On a side note, it was also interesting that 99% of the time the correspondents only referred to each other by last name. After reading many letters, I was also mentally referring to the various correspondents only by last name. Along with cataloging the correspondents, my task also included cataloging correspondents’ institutions and origin of their correspondence, the various species mentioned, other related people mentioned, and localities mentioned.

While reading through a letter written to Grinnell by Harry Swarth on October 15, 1912, I came across a mention of President Theodore Roosevelt! Swarth informed Grinnell that “Roosevelt was shot and wounded last night at a political meeting, so Taylor just tells me, but went on with his speech anyway!” I was excited when I read this because sometimes I forget that Grinnell and his correspondents existed in the same time period and world as Roosevelt. Reading through the correspondence, it is easy to get lost in the world of academia and not consider what else was happening during that same time period. Although I know what happened when Roosevelt was shot from prior American history classes, I did not consciously make the connection that the MVZ/Grinnell sphere of existence was occurring simultaneously with other contemporary important events until I read Swarth’s letter to Grinnell. In a way, Swarth’s mention of this historical event took the metaphorical blinders off of my eyes, which made me consider what else was happening during that time period, what life was like, and what the world was like. I enjoyed finding this connection between two unrelated topics, and hope that there are more of these interesting “easter eggs” hidden in the collection!

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More from the Reprints

My quiet Friday afternoon involved working on the Reprint collection. It is a challenge not read  every title. I made it as far as #0165. This small publication was written 100 years ago by Walter P. Taylor and it is titled, Two Kinds of Conservationists. It is as pertinent today as it was a century ago:

Only a little study of the conservation situation in America is sufficient to show we have allowed certain parties at interest to take more than their rightful share of the resources of wild nature which as a matter of simple justice belong, not only to all the people now living, but also to the generations of the future indefinitely. Only a little study suffices to emphasize certain obvious necessities which must be complied with if we are to bring to bear any effective remedy.

It is at the point that there is an unconscious separation of the people into two groups; the apathetic and the active…

There are two kinds of conservationists; the conservationist of the folded hands and the conservationist of the clenched fist.

It is always a little eerie when a voice from the past speaks to us across time and space. You can read the rest of this article online. The finding aid to the Walter P. Taylor papers at the MVZ is also available online.



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Merriam papers reveal ode to an everyday mammal

Written by Greg Borman, Museum Archival Assistant

While searching for the date ranges of materials in numerous folders that make up the MVZ Archives’ Clinton Hart Merriam papers, I found myself going through correspondence, manuscripts, and notes relating to a wide variety of species. Basically, things that commonly make up a collection here at the MVZ Archives. What I didn’t count on finding, however, was an ode to a creature that we all might see on any given day.

squirrel poemIt’s not immediately clear who the author is, but the date written on the small piece of paper indicates that it’s from 1876. Our best sleuthing efforts won’t likely reveal whether this was a poem that Merriam liked or that he wrote himself. In any case, I was pleased to find this writing sample among an assortment of scientific inquiry. Merriam (1855-1942) lived a long life devoted to natural history, and studied at Yale and Columbia. He served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, Anthropological Society, Biological Society of Washington, Linnaean Society of New York, and the American Society of Mammalogists. Merriam also was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society and acted as Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey for 25 years, doing extensive field work in every U.S. state as well as abroad. In addition, he counted Theodore Roosevelt among his circle of friends.

It’s refreshing to think that, during a busy and important life, Merriam paused to consider the poetic aspects of such an everyday animal. This is just one example of the curiosities that you can find in the MVZ Archives collections.


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The Bone Dagger Discovery

Written by Anna Hiller, Curatorial Assistant

MVZ 149262, the original Cassowary specimen, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

MVZ 149262, the original Cassowary specimen, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

A few weeks ago Carla Cicero (Staff Curator of Birds) and I pulled a Cassowary skeleton (Casuarius bennetti hecki) to send a humerus to a researcher for sectioning. Since the Cassowary is an example of a primitive flightless bird (ratite), their bones contain important clues to bird evolution and potential ancestral characteristics. We soon discovered that the specimen (MVZ Bird 149262) was only a partial skeleton, with a sternum and pelvis that were bleached and worn (see photo at right). In addition, the skeleton box contained two humeri that were yellow, carved out, and clearly not from the same bird (see photos below). The carved out bones looked almost like some kind of man-made implement.

Examples of un-altered Cassowary Humeri, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

Examples of un-altered Cassowary humeri, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

The two carved humeri found in the skeleton box, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

The two carved humeri found in the skeleton box (Cassowary bone daggers), 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

We proceeded to show the carved bones to people around the MVZ. To me they looked like salad tongs, but Michelle Koo (GIS and Bioinformatics Specialist) suggested that maybe they were used for medicinal purposes. Chris Conroy (Staff Curator of Mammals) was closest when he said that they looked like ‘tools.’ We went to the MVZ Bird Collection catalog card and indeed the skeleton contained a note of 2 ‘tools’ (see photo below). Because the sternum and pelvis were picked up by Alden Miller (MVZ Director and Curator of Birds, 1939 – 1965) on 21 October 1962, we also looked at Miller’s original field catalog and journal to see if we could get more information. His catalog didn’t mention the tools, and unfortunately the journal page is missing for that day. So we may never know where these tools actually came from.

Note found on the MVZ Catalog Card for the Cassowary, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

Note found on the MVZ Catalog Card for the Cassowary, 24 September 2014, by Anna Hiller

However, out of curiosity, Carla went to our trusty friend Google and typed in ‘Cassowary Bone Tools’… and found tons of photos that looked just like the specimen! The two tools are actually Cassowary bone daggers. They were used in Papua New Guinea for hunting and ceremonial purposes.  Yet another exciting day in curatorial! You never quite know what treasures are hidden in the depths of MVZ…

Carla Cicero (left) and Anna Hiller (right) with the now-identified Cassowary Bone Daggers, 1 October 2014.

Carla Cicero (left) and Anna Hiller (right) with the now-identified Cassowary bone daggers, 1 October 2014.

Related Links:



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Photo retakes – landscapes and time

Strawberry Canyon, Berkeley, California, 1890s, probably taken by Andrew C. Lawson

Strawberry Canyon, Berkeley, California, 1890s, probably taken by Andrew C. Lawson

I recently came across a print that led me down an interesting visual history of the MVZ’s own backyard. The photo is of Strawberry Creek Canyon in Berkeley, California and it was taken by Oliver P. Pearson in 1996. The photo notes mention that the photo is a retake of MVZ Img 7083. When I pulled up MVZ Img 7083, I was delighted to see that the notes describe the photo as being a retake of MVZ Img 7051. So in essence, these three photos document Strawberry Hill over 100 years.

Photo retake of MVZ Img 7051, Strawberry Canyon, Berkeley, CA , 1935 July 26, Stuart Wood Grinnell, MVZ Img 7083.

Photo retake of MVZ Img 7051, Strawberry Canyon, Berkeley, CA , 1935 July 26, Stuart Wood Grinnell, MVZ Img 7083.

This only demonstrates the power of metadata. This level of cataloging ensures that we can make these types of connections and discoveries possible.

Photo retake information does not fit nicely in most metadata schemas but it is an important visual tool in capturing changes. We sometimes receive rich metadata with images but fitting those data in existing schemas can be like fitting a square peg in a round hole. Is it feasible to make rich metadata structured? I think it warrants discussion, if nothing else, to make these kinds of connections more dynamic.

Retake of #7083, Strawberry Creek Canyon, Berkeley California, 1996 March, by Oliver P. Pearson.

Retake of #7083, Strawberry Creek Canyon, Berkeley California, 1996 March, by Oliver P. Pearson.

You can view more MVZ photo retakes on the MVZ’s Grinnell Resurvey Project. Both the Yosemite and Lassen sites have galleries of photo retakes.

Additionally, if you are interested in citizen science approaches to photo retakes, I highly recommend the Alpine of the Americas Project. This project aims to provide climate scientists with photo retakes that document changes in our watersheds.

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One Last Project at the MVZ: The Jim Patton Slides

Written by Jesse Dutton-Kenny, former Volunteer and Intern at MVZ Archives and now Graduate Student Assistant at University of Colorado Museum of Natural History

Recently we posted a blog about the charming inscriptions we find in publication reprints, one of which,  from Bob Stebbins, read: “To MVZ – the institution that made my life whole.” When I saw that inscription while working with our reprint collection, I felt a slight twinge of sadness knowing I would soon be leaving the MVZ and that it was the institution that set me on my current path academically and professionally. I began volunteering at the MVZ in my sophomore year at Berkeley (2010) before we had our full fledged and bustling Archives and before I knew what I wanted to do with my degree. I was working on a project to enter the data from thousands of scanned MVZ Images into Arctos and then to georeference the localities of those photos. This project lasted well over a year, and through this somewhat tedious data entry I really began to learn what museum work is all about. I got to hunt down field notes, look at specimens, and browse old maps all in the interest of improving photographic data. I got to examine lantern slides, glass negatives and yellowing old prints – something I had never been exposed to, and it struck a chord in me. It’s safe to say that this experience at the MVZ set me on the path that has now led me to pursue a master’s degree in Museum and Field Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Still far from being a zoologist, even after years at the MVZ, I’ll be studying anthropology collections management.

Jim Patton collecting traps filled with Oligoryzomys macrotis near Miranda, left bank Rio Juruá, Amazonas, Brazil, August 17, 1991. MVZ Image Number 14743

Jim Patton collecting traps filled with Oligoryzomys macrotis, near Miranda, left bank Rio Juruá, Amazonas, Brazil, August 17, 1991. MVZ Image Number 14743.

When I graduated from Berkeley last year I began volunteering in the Archives and working on all kinds of projects, from rehousing those same photographs I worked with years ago to creating supplies budgets. This experience helped expose me to the kind of museum work we all do in archives and museums – wearing the “many hats.” The final project I’ve been working on before I leave for Boulder has been to process the 35mm slide collection of Jim Patton, our emeritus curator of mammals extraordinaire. Jim is an incredible individual. He has tens of thousands of specimens deposited at the MVZ and has been working here for 45 years as both a faculty member and curator. One could go on about his numerous accomplishments to mammalogy and his importance to the MVZ in particular, but you can also read about Jim’s career at length here.

His slides arrived at the Archives beautifully housed and already scanned (thanks Jim!) so what I’ve been focusing on is “massaging” all the data associated with the images and then entering and organizing all that data in Archivists’ Toolkit and our collections database, Arctos. Through this data processing I’ve been able to link photos of specimens to specimen records, create Arctos “projects” for Jim’s work (such as his work on pocket mice and pocket gophers), and upload over 2000 new images into our database. Incidentally, as a part of linking Jim’s specimen accession data to the media, I was also able to update and improve the data on nearly a hundred specimen accession records (a very positive and unintended consequence of the archival work). However, the real value of this project for me as a student in this field has been to see what data collection and archival work can be like when the person whose collection you’re working on is sitting only a few offices away. I’ve been able to turn to Jim with questions about dates and look through his field notes with his guidance.

Jim Patton as “teacher and researcher.” Here, Dr. Patton describes differences between similar Sagebrushes under one of few Pines. 3 km NE of Chilcoot, California, 15 September 1985, by Jacek Purat. MVZ Image Number 11610.

Jim Patton as “teacher and researcher.” Here, Dr. Patton describes differences between similar Sagebrushes under one of few Pines. 3 km NE of Chilcoot, California, 15 September 1985, by Jacek Purat. MVZ Image Number 11610.

This is pretty rare and such a different experience than anyone else’s collections that I’ve worked with. So much of what we do is historical and gathering data through heavy research, but this has been an education in more contemporary archival work and data collection as opposed to recovery. I’ve been so pleased to get to work with the photographs of someone of Jim’s caliber and to end my time at the MVZ (for now at least) on such a productive and fulfilling project.

Thanks to the whole Archives team and the MVZ staff for helping to make my life whole and getting my museum career started these past 4 years. I’m sure I’ll be benefitting from everything I learned here for years to come.

Related Links:

Link to Archives blog about inscriptions: https://mvzarchives.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/519/

PDF of “Pattonfest” (394 pages): http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/faculty/hoekstra/PDFs/Pattonfest.pdf

Link to Jim’s Project in Arctos: http://arctos.database.museum/project/chromosomal-and-molecular-evolution-of-pocket-mice-genus-chaetodipus-and-pocket-gophers-of-the-thomomys-bottaeumbrinustownsendii-complex


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The Red Fox Population of the Sacramento Valley: Artifact of Manifest Destiny or Endemic Anomaly? Part III

Written by Alessandra J. Moyer, fourth year, Integrative Biology

Part III: Patwin

In the 1920s and 30s, when Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale in the MVZ were puzzling over the Sacramento Valley red foxes, there was no way to adequately determine the true origin of the unusual population.  But the unanswered question was not forgotten…

Recently, with molecular techniques unimaginable in Grinnell’s time, Dr. Benjamin Sacks and coworkers at UC Davis reexamined the story of the red fox.  They looked at museum specimens, including the MVZ holotype, as well as modern specimens for each of the native West Coast groups (Southern Cascades, Northern Cascades, Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada), as well as the Sacramento Valley group, the San Joaquin Valley group, and a selection of Eurasian red foxes.  The San Joaquin Valley group was known to be nonnative, derived from Alaskan and Canadian stock brought to California for fur farming.  The scientists looked at sequences of DNA isolated from the specimens to determine which groups were most related to each other and to estimate the effective size of the populations.  What they discovered was that the Sacramento Valley population was most closely related to the native Sierra Nevada population (Vulpes vulpes necator), even though it is most geographically close to the exotic San Joaquin population.  They found no evidence to support the hypothesis that the Sacramento Valley population was derived from European stock that was transferred to California from the Midwest in the 19th century (“North American Montane” 1536).

The authors of the study felt that the Sacramento Valley population, though genetically closely related to the Sierra Nevada population, shows such substantial differences from the montane population in terms of ecology that it should be considered its own subspecies.  They proposed that the red fox of the Sacramento Valley be called Vulpes vulpes patwin.  “Patwin” is the term used to refer to several Native American tribes that formerly inhabited the Sacramento Valley.

The findings of this study are significant for conservation because V. v. patwin is now considered a separate, native subspecies with a population size small enough and fragile enough to warrant a designation of “California State Species of Special Concern.”  Its rural grassland habitat is also in jeopardy, as it continues to be converted to irrigated agricultural land (“Native Sac. Val. red fox” 2).  The native foxes’ preference for arid grasslands shows an important difference between the patwin subspecies and non-native red foxes in California.  Exotic foxes, which frequently do make their dens in wetlands, can be a threat to endangered ground-nesting birds.

Skull of Vulpes vulpes patwin (MVZ Mammal #33550) collected by Sam Lamme on November 7, 1923, from Colusa County, California.

Skull of Vulpes vulpes patwin (MVZ Mammal #33550) collected by Sam Lamme on November 7, 1923, from Colusa County, California.

Now that the Sacramento Valley population has been designated its own subspecies, the the skin and skull of the young male fox at the MVZ is officially a holotype.  His arrival at the museum back in 1923 prompted an investigation into his kind that has only just been concluded.  And, in fact, questions still remain.  In their report to the California Department of Fish and Game, Sacks, Wittmer, and Statham bring up the uneasy relationship between coyotes and red foxes.  Generally, the presence of coyotes discourages the presence of red foxes.  In recent times, the Sacramento Valley red foxes seem to have found some protection from coyotes by living in the vicinity of human-built structures and domestic dogs (“Native Sac. Val. red fox” 17).  The authors open the question of how, historically, this red fox population dealt with coyotes.  They suggest that while dogs associated with Native American groups may have provided some protection, this ecological dynamic may be a reason why the Sacramento Valley subspecies is larger on average than the Sierra Nevada subspecies.  As always, more studies are needed.


Sacks, Benjamin N., et al. “North American montane red foxes: expansion, fragmentation, and the origin of the Sacramento Valley red fox.” Conservation Genetics 11.4 (2010): 1523-1539. Springer Netherlands. Web. 6 July 2014.

Sacks, Benjamin N., Heiko U. Wittmer, Mark J. Statham. The Native Sacramento Valley red fox. Report to the California Department of Fish and Game. 2010. Web. 6 July 2014. <http://foxsurvey.ucdavis.edu/documents/30May2010_FinalReport_ForDistribution.pdf&gt;

“Sacramento Valley Fox Survey.” UC Davis. U of CA, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 July 2014.

Related Links:

You can see UC Davis’s Sacramento Valley Fox Survey page here, including details about Phase II of the survey, which is currently in progress: http://foxsurvey.ucdavis.edu/



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