Jennifer Phillips, a doctoral student from the University of California, Davis has been working long hours in our bird collection for six weeks now. She was able to come to the museum with support from the Museum’s visiting scholarship program. This means that her application beat out stiff competition for support, because our scholarship committee, ably headed by Associate Curator of Insects, Petra Sierwald, never has enough money to provide support for all the great applications we get to work in the collections.
Jennifer is studying a set of predictions associated with Gloger’s rule. If you have never had a class in biogeography, you may never have heard on it, but Gloger’s Rule denotes a pattern often seen in birds and mammals where populations in more humid regions are darker than populations from drier areas (see the thumbnail photo of Song Sparrow specimens from wetter and drier parts of California). Jennifer is taking museum collections and Gloger’s rule in a novel way to study responses of North American birds to climate change. This is the kind of project that requires access to old and modern series of species. We have extensive collections of North American birds from the early and mid 1900’s as well as modern series of many Midwestern breeders and migrants. Such series, including the modern Great Horned Owls she is working on in the picture, are exactly what Jennifer needed. As good as our collections are, we do not have everything, so she’s gathering data in other museum collections like those of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. In the past, scientists would have used a reference series or a color guide (like paint chips from a paint store) to grade the comparative darkness of specimens. Jennifer is taking the modern approach and using a spectrophotometer that can quantify the coloration of different parts of a specimen. Providing access to our collections for projects like these by students using new approaches are an essential part of our mission as a scientific and academic institution.