Monday, August 22, 2016

What's a Wet Lab?

The last four months or so I've spent Wednesday afternoons quietly tucked away in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' research lab (aka the "wet lab") near West Raleigh's Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  I've been a volunteer helping with cataloging and verifying digital data bound for the museum's ever growing database of myriad specimens.

Recently the work has centered on Red Salamanders (Psuedotriton ruber) from a huge collection of about 27,000 reptiles and amphibians specimens that were donated to the museum by Appalachian State University. Most of these specimens were collected by a university professor, his colleagues, and Herpetology classes from ASU and North Carolina State University during the years between 1960 and the early 2000s. After each specimen has been inspected to assure its species has been identified correctly, it is cross-checked in multiple ways. This includes gathering the information from the field tag that is tied to the salamander and from the hand-written specimen entry found in large rectangular books called catalogs. All of this data is entered into a spreadsheet for each individual species and re-verified at least twice before being ready to upload to the database. Additionally, a percentage of the specimens are identified for return to Appalachian State for their biology curriculum's teaching collection.

Below are four adult Red Salamanders of various sizes with their Appalachian State University specimen number tags attached.

A few more adult salamanders laid out on this old college cafeteria tray show some of the color variations within the Red Salamander species.

This is a "community jar" of Red Salamanders with specimens collected from various locations or on different dates.  When four or more specimens were collected on the same date and at the same location and with sequential accession numbers, this "series" is often placed in its own separate jar.  The larger tags that you see here are field tags that carry additional information about the individual specimen such as the date collected, the location found, and the collector's name.

This is a jar of larger Red Salamanders that are being sent back to Appalachian State University. Most of the adult specimens are stored in ethyl alcohol, while most larval specimens are stored in formalin.  These salamanders become a reference source for scientists who may be doing research perhaps ten, fifteen or even fifty years from today.

Some days as a museum staffer sorts through each jar of salamanders, I confirm for her the specimen accession number of salamanders that are to be kept by the museum, those that are to be returned to Appalachian State, and a smaller number that need to be viewed again by the collection manager.  The salamanders are then added to their new homes of fresh preservative fluid according to whether they are to be "Kept", "Sent", or "Rechecked".  There are over two thousand of these Red Salamanders that were collected over a 40+ year period to sort through.  Below is an example of printed spreadsheets that we use to sort the salamanders into their intended groups.

Then there are days when I stumble onto fascinatingly unique specimens that happen to be "passing" through the lab.  This is a species of treefrog from Cameroon that has an unusual scientific name.  For me, this is the definition of serendipitous. 

These treefrogs were on loan to one of the herpetologist scientists here at the wet lab.  This species of frog, the Kala Forest Treefrog (Leptopelis aubryoides), was named after a similar looking frog species, the Gaboon Forest Treefrog (Leptopelis aubryi) which was named earlier for the "French civil servant and colonial administrator", Charles Eugene Aubry-Lecomte.  In addition, he was an avid amateur naturalist and a collector of plant specimens in the locations where he was assigned to serve the French government.  He also collected specimens of many reptile and amphibian species that were at the time unknown to science.  Of course, much of this I found on the Google machine!

Another serendipitous experience was getting to see field tags handwritten by C. S. Brimley in 1923!  C. S. Brimley and his brother H. H. Brimley founded the North Carolina Science Museum beginning around 1879.  It is now the largest of its kind in the southeastern United States.  Amazing stuff goes on here!

Also discovered on this day was a field tag that C. S. Brimley had typed on bed sheet material a few years later.  I'm thinking his technique may have been a precursor to the "photo fabric for inkjet printers" products of today!