Turtle Tale


It all started (at least on my end) with reading a post on the CT birdlist about some Nelson’s Sparrows at the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center.  At the bottom of the post was a single line about a leatherback sea turtle that had washed up on the beach.  I forwarded that email on to our (Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History) collections manager of herpetology and ichthyology, Greg Watkins-Colwell.

Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are large turtles that can be found throughout the world.  Not only is it the largest turtle in the world, it’s one of the largest reptiles in the world, only three ‘croccodiles’ are bigger.  Leatherbacks are different from other turtles having a different type of shell, as their name implies.  The latin root for the name Dermo indicates skin and chelys means shell, so they have a ‘shell’ that is covered by skin.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than that…  look for a future blog post.


On October 1st in the waters off of Bridgeport reports of a floating leatherback turtle were recorded.  This is almost certainly the same body that washed ashore in Milford and spotted on October 8th (a week later).  In the few days that would follow the Yale Peabody Museum staff worked with the local, state, and federal departments to obtain permission to collect the turtle as a research and educational specimen.  The government shutdown, with Fish and Wildlife staff on furlough, hindered a rapid response.  Finally, everything was set to collect the turtle on Thursday morning.


Check out local news cast News 12’s video:  http://connecticut.news12.com/news/giant-sea-turtle-washes-up-on-milford-beach-peabody-museum-wants-to-study-carcass-1.6226535

New Haven Register article:  http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20131009/researchers-want-to-study-sea-turtle-that-washed-ashore-in-milford

Making a quick stop at the site on Wednesday evening, everything looked good to go.  The leatherback was below the high tide line but was being partially buried and there was no real threat of it being taken away by the tide.  What met us on Thursday morning was shocking.


At some point over night someone had poached the turtles head.  We arrived to find the head had been cut off the turtles body.  Leatherback sea turtles are an endangered species in the United States, making the poaching illegal with substantial penalties.

So, Why is the head such a big deal?  The most important reason is that it makes the specimen whole.  For educational purposes the head can illustrate the general form of this specialized jellyfish eater.  For more scientific purposes the head can be used to study brain size and vascilurization of turtles.  Comparing minute anatomical details from this specimen with others could help anser questions like: Do leatherbacks brains grow at different rates? Are the muscles involved in eating different or work differently on leatherback turtles?  How well do Leatherback turtles see?  and many more that have yet to even be asked.

Although, there is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the leatherback sea turtle, there are a few interesting facts.  Leatherbacks, although reptiles, are able to survive in colder water temperature by producing their own body heat, likely because they rarely stop moving and create muscle heat.  Leatherbacks are one of the deepest diving marine animals and can stay under water for up to 70 minutes (MOST dives are only 3-9 minutes).  Also, We know that their primary food source is jellyfish!  The major causes of non-natural deaths in Dermochelys is due to ingestion of plastic bags or balloons and boat propeller strikes.  Think about that before letting your plastic shopping bag blow away.


How did we get the turtle off the beach?  Once we arrived on scene we began to shovel sand away from the sides of the turtle to make it easier to access the body.  The city of Milford was anxious to get the animal off the beach and willing to help science by supplying a front loader tractor to scoop up the turtle.  By this point the turtle was very decomposed, the rear half of the leatherback was pretty much falling apart.  And Yes, it smelled… a lot.  Once the turtle was in the tractor it was carried to a pick-up truck and dropped into the bed.


A follow up from News 12 about the head:  http://connecticut.news12.com/news/head-of-giant-milford-sea-turtle-stolen-1.6233882

WTNH video with removal footage:  http://www.wtnh.com/news/new-haven-cty/dead-sea-turtle-washes-ashore-in-milford

From there the turtle was transported to a piece of Yale property that isn’t open to the public.  With very large animals, often the best way to prepare them for skeletal use is by using nature.  We wrapped the turtle in mesh to inhibit large mammals from upsetting the body and buried it underground.  The leatherback will now slowly decay, the bacteria on and in the body have already started to breakdown the soft tissues.  Insects, worms, and other small animals will aid in the process by cleaning/ eating the soft tissue away from the bone.  After a year or so, staff will return to the burial site to excavate the skeleton for research.  Maybe someone will want to use the bones to study flipper movement with the carpals or spine development of the vertebrae.


If you know anything about the poached turtle head, please let us or the authorities know.  (comment anonymously even)  I hope that it is someone who didn’t realize what the legal aspect was and didn’t mean to commit a crime.  I also hope that it is someone who can realize how scientifically and educationally valuable the skull is to science.  This is my personal plea that the person who took the skull will return it to us.  Not only have they taken it from the museum but they have also taken it away from you and anyone who has visited the museum.  This is one amazing animal with an amazing story that will now likely never end up on exhibit.

sad turtle

If you want to read a horrible article by the Connecticut Post (note this is even a revision of an even worse first rendition):  http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Turtle-remains-removed-from-Milford-beach-4887938.php


Information was obtained by Wikipedia as viewed 14 October 2013 and by some of the scholarly articles on the wiki page references.  Additional information is taken from personal communications with Yale Peabody Museum collections manager, Greg Watkins-Colwell.


Upgrading the Collections

Working in a natural history museum (or any museum), there are a number of truths that you learn early on.  Not all collections spaces are made equal and the collections will ALWAYS grow.  As stewards of these scientific objects and specimens, our goal is to improve the way in which we house our collections.  Not only are we always looking for new materials for archival containers but we also look at the big picture, the rooms in which they are kept.


Carriage System for Upgraded Shelving

Currently, the Yale Peabody Museum is in the middle of an upgrade for our fluid collections that are in the Yale West Campus Collections Storage Center.  In this case we are moving in to a newly refurbished section of the building that has allowed us to put in rolled compact storage.  Instead of having stationary shelving units, the new fluid room has shelving on wheels, making it possible to get more collections in to a smaller space.


Compactors with some shelving set-up

Here are a few in-process pictures of the installation of the new rolled storage system.  As awesome as this installation is, the amount of change before this, thanks to hard work of the contractors on the space is even more amazing.  Once the room is completed, I’ll post more pictures including the new work room and with some collections in place.  It’s exciting times!


Contractors and Peabody staff testing the new system

(that’s our Director of Collections and Operations, Tim White on the floor)

The Blooms of February

I took a quick walk around campus on a warm day this week.  On an old gravel path that’s starting to succumb to nature, a very small plant caught my eye.  In between the clouds drifting by and Red-tailed Hawks distracting my attention, I managed a few shots in the sun.

Notice the small white bi-lobed petals and yellow centers to the flowers.  The name is Draba verna, or Whitlow Grass, a native of Europe and West Asia and in the mustard family.   The listed flowering time is March to May, so it seems to be a couple weeks ahead with this mild winter.

I also stumbled across this yellow Composite on one of the islands in the middle of a parking lot.  Composites, is a familiar name used to describe plant that have flowers that actually have two types of flowers in a single inflorescence.  If you think of a sunflower, the dark center is actually composed of small disk flowers and the yellow ‘petals’ are separate ray flowers.

Unknown Composite

I’m still working on identifying this one.  It looks like it’s blooming although the flowers don’t look completely open.  I would guess that it’s not native.  A lot of these scrubby flowers that grow in disturbed areas don’t originate in Connecticut or even in North America.  It just illustrates how important undisturbed mature habitat is to protect native species.

HSI no Microsoft not HIS

Short range air rifle

Todays blog comes to you from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. I have officially started to blog about some of the things that I do at work. Historic Scientific Instruments (HSI) is one of the 11 division in the museum and where I currently spend some of my time. We are in the middle of emptying out the space where the HSI collection was being housed and moving it to a temporary space. Why you ask? Let’s back up.

The HSI collection has been housed in boxes, mostly cardboard boxes for a number of years and the museum hasn’t had the staff or resources to unpack it and make it accessible. In steps IMLS and gives us some money (thanks to a grant) and now we can afford beautiful sparkly new cabinets for all the funky wonderful things in the collection. Now all we have to do is move everything out, unpack it, and then when the cabinets come in, move it back in to its new home. Believe me it’s much harder than it sounds although it’s more FUN than it sounds too.

I am not a historian, nor do I know much about scientific instruments (apart from those I use). So, it’s a whole new experience to see what we pull out of every box. Will it be a craniometer, a galvanometer, or a scale? Could it be a microscope, an engine, or a lightbulb? Most of the time the ‘scientific instruments’ look more like pieces of artwork than an object used to demonstrate pullies and gear for a college engineering class.

There have been many, many objects that I’ve lamented about not blogging about so far in our unpacking phase but what has triggered the blog…. a gun.

Annette unpacking: some packages dont hold mysteries

This is a short-ranged air rifle probably from the early 1800’s produced by G. Wallis as etched on the gun. This gun was donated from the Physics department and was used for demonstrations in classrooms (doing what, I don’t know). The little bit of info I’ve been able to glean from the web indicates that George Wallis was a gunsmith from Hull England and died around 1803 although his gunsmith shop seems to have been sold after his death. Being a bit of a gadgety person I needed to find out how exactly these guns operated.

A small canister is pumped full of compressed air by a manual pump. This particular gun has a ball reservoir that attached to the bottom of the gun (it’s in the collection but we haven’t unpacked it yet.)  This air rifle is a muzzle loaded air rifle meaning that only a single bullet could be loaded into the barrel of the gun. You can see the rod attached under the barrel that is used to push the bullet in. Pull the trigger, compressed air releases and the bullet comes flying back out, with close to the same amount of force as a modern 9mm pistol.

Me demonstrating how not to hold a gun.

I can’t wait to see what’s packed away in the next box. Oh right the title, in case you haven’t figured out why I have titled the blog as I have, try typing HSI into word or excel and see what it does.

Phallus, That’s right I said Phallus.

Go ahead and giggle, laugh, chuckle, behave like a 7th grader again! Scientists get a stuffy wrap, those that work on anything as icky as taxonomy (naming of organisms) are the worst of all. No sense of humor, caught up in their own little world of something as strange as mycology or whatever it is. Finally, an example that yes… yes we do know how to laugh.

Say Hello to Phallus impudicus, a stinkhorn, a strange group of fungi that go out of their way to be gross and excel at it. I’m not sure anyone has a clue as to why they look the way they do but they certainly do look different. Stinkhorns start out as eggs that develop at the soil level, most often visible and then the egg ‘hatches’ and in a matter of hours the stinkhorn grows to its full triumph.

And they stink, they are called stink horns for a reason. The dark portion of this stinkhorn is covered in gelatinous sticky, stinky, concoction that resembles the odor of dead animal with a mix of poop, different stinkhorns have different smells. Some smell incredibly strong and others are a bit less potent but either way the flies love the smell.

The flies fly to the stinkhorn and quickly devour the deliciously spore filled goe that they then fly to some new area and leave behind. The spores go and continue on their way to become new stinkhorns and the cycle continues.

If you are in the mood for an additional laugh or two go ahead and pick your favorite search engine and search for other stinkhorns. Try Mutinus caninus (think canine… aka. dog) and my favorite is Clathrus columnatus because it was the first stinkhorn I ever found.

No it’s not a golf ball!

They are puffballs! As a kid I think we all have done this at one point. You see a small white ball in the yard and run up to it, the leg pulls back and then swings forward, expecting to see a golf ball roll across the yard at amazing speeds and instead a huge dark cloud erupts causing you to run away and leaving your shoes distinctively dirty. You have just liberated thousands of fungal spores into the atmosphere.

Purple-spored puffball

The culprit is a puffball, a type of fungi in the same group (Basidiomycetes) as the normal mushrooms we are used to. This family of that group (Lycoperdaceae) instead forms a ball-shaped fruiting body that’s filled with spores at maturity. There are a few different species of puffballs in the Northeastern U.S. and even a few of those are edible. The trick is to gather them when the time is right and as with most fungi, that’s early.

Purple-spored puffball- bottle for size comparison

There are pictures online of the giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) which grows as big as a Thanksgiving Turkey. The species I found growing at work the other day however is Calvatia cyathiformis, the purple-spored puffball. When fresh the flesh of the mushroom is a nice clean white color and as they age, the flesh matures into spores that are purple-ish in color.

puffball showing young edible flesh- Yum!

So, I mentioned eating puffballs and I guess I should comment specifically on this species. It is in fact edible and if you want to try eating some wild fungi this is a group that is fairly easy to identify. (insert my usual legal disclaimer about eating fungi- aka. dont if you dont know what you are doing). So here are the steps, 1. identify the mushroom, 2. make sure it’s still young and fresh, 3. cut open each one to verify it isn’t an ‘egg’ of the deadly Amanita genus, and 4. cook thoroughly.

old puffball- notice the purple spores