The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ)

Benjamin at Wildwood Elementary School sent me on a trip to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, where over 100 researchers work studying the evolution and ecology of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. I really enjoyed looking at MVZ’s 640,000+ skeletons, skins, eggs, and nests.

First, I checked out the quetzal birds, which are found in the tropical parts of North America. Most of these birds are from Guatemala. I was amazed to see how different the male birds were from the female birds. The male birds (at the top) are brightly colored and have very long green tail feathers, and the females (on the bottom) are brown colored and have normal tail feathers. This is probably because female birds prefer males with longer tails.

I thought it was really cool that the museum has an animal from every continent! Here’s a penguin from Antarctica. I noticed that this bird had a small red band on its right wing. Scientists use this band as a way to track animals in the wild so they can see how each animal behaves (what does it eat? where does it go? what other penguins does it spend time with?). Maybe they should band me as I go on all my adventures!

It was cool to see so many animals that live in California too. The animal in the left jar is the rough-skinned newt. The animal in the right jar is a garter snake. The newt makes a poison called tetratodoxin (TTX) that can kill the garter snake if the garter snake tries to eat the newt. This helps the newt escape from the snake. But, some snakes are also resistant to the newt’s poison which lets them eat the newt with no problems. But, then some newts evolve to have even more poison to escape these snakes…and it goes on and on….this is called an ‘arms race’.

I also liked seeing examples of convergence–when two species look similar because they evolved to handle the same challenge (like a predator!). This was my favorite example–two mammals: armadillo (left) and the pangolin (right). The armadillo lives in North and South America and the pangolin lives in Africa and Asia. They aren’t that closely related to each other, but they both have a hard outside covering that helps protect them from any predators that might want to eat them.

Can you find me here? I almost got lost inside the museum’s biggest specimen–the top half of a whale skull.

The museum even has some extinct species! I really liked looking at this egg from an elephant bird that used to live in Madagascar. The elephant bird went extinct in the 1600s, probably because humans were killing the bird (and its eggs) for food. When it was alive, the elephant bird was more than 10 feet tall and weighed more than 800 pounds. It is no surprise that this is such a big egg then!

I then spent some time with one researcher who studies 3 different species of lizards that live in the tropical forest of Australia. I did not get to go to Australia with the researcher, but she did show me where her lizards live on the map. These lizards like to hang out under leaves under the forest floor.

Here I am with one of the lizards the researcher studies: the prickly skink. The skink is pretty bumpy all over, which explains how it got its name. To study the lizards, the researcher goes to Australia and collects the lizards. Then she comes back to the lab and gets DNA out of the lizards’ tails by using different chemicals. The researcher looks at certain genes (a specific part of the DNA) that the lizards carry to learn more about what the lizards have been doing for the past 2 million years and how the changing climate is affecting them.

I ended my trip by going to the museum’s genetic lab where the museum scientists use this sequencing machine to look at their animals’ DNA. I was pretty amazed by all the robotic parts in the machine. It lets the scientists get a lot of work done in a short amount of time!
Whew! I was tired after my trip. It was pretty exciting to learn so much about so many different animals and how scientists study them. I kind of wish I could have hung out with the penguin for a bit longer—he was a pretty cool guy. Maybe next time!