When Angelika Nelson took over as curator of Ohio State University's vast collection of bird specimens in 2009, the first thing she had to do was clear out the furniture and boxes stored with the collection. Once she had cleared the back room in the Museum of Biological Diversity on Kinnear Road, she found more than 17,000 birds - some well over 100 years old - meticulously cataloged and organized but largely unused, unseen and unwanted.
When Angelika Nelson took over as curator of Ohio State University's vast collection of bird specimens in 2009, the first thing she had to do was clear out the furniture and boxes stored with the collection.
Once she had cleared the back room in the Museum of Biological Diversity on Kinnear Road, she found more than 17,000 birds - some well over 100 years old - meticulously cataloged and organized but largely unused, unseen and unwanted.
The university hadn't added to its collection for at least 40 years.
"I think it's been here as long as OSU has existed, but it hadn't really been touched," Nelson said.
Now, the collection is coming back to life.
Once used mostly in courses that taught students how to identify various species, the preserved bodies, skeletons and bird eggs from around the globe have new value for researchers.
DNA samples, for example, yield information about the relationships among species, Nelson said. Feathers, used to analyze isotopes and trace elements, offer clues about the birds' feeding habits.
Tags attached to each bird - who gathered it, where it was found and when - help map their historic ranges and locations for breeding and migrating.
Kimberly Bostwick, the curator of birds and mammals for the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, said science shifted its focus in the 1950s from collecting and identifying species to looking at animals' behavior and how the environment affects them.University and museum collections help in those fields, too, though. By studying 1,800 peregrine falcon eggs collected for more than 100 years by 39 museums, researchers were able to conclude that shells began growing thinner after the pesticide DDT was introduced in the 1940s. DDT was banned in the 1970s.
More recently, Bostwick said, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, studied museum collections of marbled murrelets, an endangered bird of the Pacific Northwest, to determine how dietary changes had contributed to their decline. Isotopes in feathers indicated that the birds used to feed on no-longer-plentiful anchovies, squid and sardines. They now eat less-nutritious krill and other invertebrates.
"That's a great example of how these collections are so valuable," Bostwick said.
The OSU museum also includes more than 1.5 million specimens of fish, 1 million mites and ticks, 500,000 plants and nearly 100,000 mollusks housed in different divisions. Nelson also serves as curator of a university laboratory that maintains recordings of 34,000 animal sounds.The museum isn't open regularly to the public, but an open house every February allows people to look at the collections housed on shelves, lining drawers, tucked inside hundreds of cabinets and preserved in jars.
Among the birds in Ohio State's collection are specimens of several species that are now extinct - or thought to be. Passenger pigeons, for example, once were plentiful across Ohio and were considered the most-ubiquitous bird on the planet. According to the Smithsonian Institution, there were as many as 5 billion in North America when European settlers arrived.
"They were described as huge clouds," Nelson said. "It took an hour or two for them to pass."
The bird's decline began when Americans started clearing the nation's vast forests. Then the pigeons became a source of food and were trapped and slaughtered en masse.
The last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. (Her name was Martha.) Fifteen preserved specimens are on a pull-out shelf in cabinet No. 60/61 at the OSU museum. Tags on the birds' legs identify where they flew for the last time: Columbus, 1875; Ypsilanti, Mich., 1880; and other spots throughout Ohio and the Midwest.
The museum collection also includes four ivory-billed woodpeckers, common in the South during the 19th century and now widely considered extinct. Cornell University teams deployed to Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina and Texas ended a five-year search in 2010.
Ohio State's ivory-billed woodpeckers were killed in Florida in 1896. Cornell researchers list collectors among the reasons for their decline.
Nelson has begun updating and adding to the collection. But gone are the old tactics of killing birds to preserve them.
"We get our specimens from window kills," she said.What's a window kill? Birds that smack into windows lining skyscrapers Downtown.Volunteers from the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative check the streets, alleys and sidewalks around the buildings and take the fatalities to the OSU collection.
There, students are reorganizing the collection. The database soon will go online.
The 19th century professors and students who started the collection didn't envision the DNA testing and other methods used to study their work today. Nelson said that's a reason for ensuring that the collection survives for future generations of research.
"We don't know how they'll be used in the years to come," she said.