Philadelphia ornithologists at World Museum Liverpool

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The Zoology department at World Museum Liverpool is currently taking part in an important international collaboration with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia that will enhance the collections of both institutions.

The Academy of Natural Sciences has a huge ornithology collection of more than 200,000 specimens, which they add to every year. This usually involves a field trip to a pristine location such as remote parts of Australia or Africa, where they collect specimens as an important record to benchmark environmental conditions before the impact of human disturbance.

man sat at table behind several bird specimens

Nate Rice with some of the bird specimens that he has worked on so far in Liverpool

This year however Nate Rice, the Collections Manager of Ornithology at the Academy in Philadelphia and Robert Driver, a student and acting curatorial assistant, have travelled to the exotic location of Liverpool. They are here to improve their collection of European birds, which are currently under-represented in the Philadelphia collections. World Museum Liverpool on the other hand has a lot of salvage birds in frozen storage. These are local birds that were killed by pets or found dead after flying into windows or other accidents, which members of the public have donated to the museum. The birds have been stored in freezers until they were needed. However, over time a surplus of birds has built up and staff in Liverpool have not had time to treat and preserve the specimens.

Nate and Robert are spending 3 weeks at World Museum skinning and preserving our bird specimens. This involves taking tissue samples, then removing the internal organs and bones and replacing them with cotton, then drying the skins. They will take most back to Philadelphia but in return for these specimens 10% of the skins they prepare will stay here for World Museum Liverpool's collections, including any significant local items.

Researchers around the world use specimens such as these for the study of evolutionary biology and local ecologies. Important information about environmental conditions can be gained from the feathers and tissue samples of the birds. Nate was keen to point out that the Philadelphia collections, like those at World Museum Liverpool, are seen as belonging to the world of science and are readily available for research purposes internationally.

Nate and Robert have been joined at World Museum for a couple of days by Henry McGhie, the Head of Natural History at Manchester Museum, who is taking the opportunity to hone his skinning skills by working alongside them. Curators in American museums routinely take part in field skinning so have a lot of expertise in this area, whereas UK curators usually rely on taxidermists to preserve specimens. Nate has been happy to work with UK curators in this way, as he has often used our expertise in other areas. For example, Clem Fisher, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at World Museum Liverpool, is a Research Associate at the Academy in Philadelphia and has visited several times since 1993 to work on their historical collections, which complement our own.