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.

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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.

Migration Distraction

American Kestrel in silhouette

The month of September is almost behind us, a few hours only remain and it’s been a busy month. Checking my wordpress blog, I noticed it has been a few week since I’ve been blogging and you can fully blame that on the birds. Migration is in full swing in southern New England, when I’m not keeping my eyes to the skies for passing raptors, I’ve been looking in the tree tops and underbrush for warblers.

Black-capped Chickadee- winter 2010

While some may be complaining about the weather and how bad it has been for migration in general, the weather has been nice for getting outside. There has continued to be a trickle of migrants moving through the area over the past couple of weeks even if there hasn’t been a major push.

Ring-billed Gull

Out here at West Campus, this has meant that every day we get a new look at some warblers or hawks that are making their way south. This year has been a good one for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on campus as opposed to last year when we hardly saw any.

American Crow- New Haven, Longwharf


I’ve been keeping my eyes open for some other interesting non-birdy things and I will blog about a really nifty fungus I saw out the front door the other day. In the meanwhile, here is a mix of random photos I’ve taken in the past to keep things interesting.

Brown Creeper- 2010

Firey Fiery

Fiery Skipper


During a monarch tagging session at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven this morning a couple other species made an impressive showing. Common buckeye butterflies were in huge numbers at the park this morning. Almost anywhere you went there was a buckeye. Walking across the field I stirred up another one almost every 5 feet.

Common Buckeye

The other species that was unique was the fiery skipper, a vagrant southern species that has been consistently seen at Lighthouse the past week. I’m not quite certain of the total number of individuals but I did see up to 4 at one time. A beautiful bright orange skipper, this was the first time I had ever seen it since I started IDing butterflies 2 months ago. 🙂

Fiery Skipper

Testing the Sticky Post

I’m trying a new layout and I decided to rock the sticky post. This little mushroom was out front at work in August sometime. It’s Laccaria amethystina. What you want to know the common name??? I have no clue. Common mushrooms have multiple common names which confuses things and then most don’t have any. So, if you really get into learning fungi, your best bet is to learn Latin… or for fungi even some Greek. Many scientific names of fungi are derivatives of Greek words.

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

One little dragonfly

Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata)

I thought I would post a quick photo of a dragonfly that I took today while out on break. This species is widespread throughout much of North America, some portions of the population migrate south for the winter and head north again to breed in the spring.

Here’s a few extra pictures I took the next day with a few more details.

Black Saddlebag

Saddlebag- some photoshopping