Carnegie Museum's research kept going by donations, volunteers


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Donations toward a Carnegie Museum of Natural History "wish list" have enhanced the study of birds, beetles, crayfish, snails and even buffalo-nut trees.

After seeing notable success with humble funding, the Carnegie Discoverers' program is trying to raise additional cash to meet a new round of requests.

The group of volunteers, who contribute to the museum, meets quarterly to interact with researchers and get a behind-the-scenes look at the museum. Their goal is to raise money for equipment and resources that augments research.

On Thursday, researchers discussed noteworthy results from $10,875 in donations to meet the first round of six requests. In a second round, the committee still needs $5,000 to reach its $22,368 goal for 10 projects.

The first round of funding was used to buy computers, software, hard drives, photo scanners, a microscope and even deer fencing.

"These are real people doing fascinating things," Dr. Richard W. Moriarty, president of Carnegie Discoverers, told the group Thursday.

James W. Fetzner Jr. from the museum's Section of Invertebrate Zoology said computer software and a DNA sequencing scanner, which pinpoints genetic mutations in species, has helped identify different groups of wood wasps.

Contributions, he said, also are being used to update Web sites scheduled for launch later this year on longhorned beetles and freshwater crayfish of Pennsylvania.

Deborah Harding said the Department of Anthropology purchased an $800 photo scanner she's using to store tens of thousands of museum photographs and negatives dating back more than 100 years. Scanning, she said, is much cheaper than preserving or duplicating actual photographs.

"I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars this will save us," Ms. Harding said, noting the scanned photos also can go online.

"Imagine the impact of $800," Dr. Moriarty said. "This stuff would be gone if you didn't pitch in."

The Discoverers also purchased a computer system to compile a bird-banding database at the museum's Powdermill Nature Reserve in Westmoreland County.

Already 500,000 birds of 190 species have been banded. Computerized data will help track population trends, breeding and migration patterns, length of survival and the impact of global warming.

"We always recorded everything on paper," said Andrew Vitz, an avian ecologist at Powdermill. But accumulating and analyzing data from paper documents took two to three years. "Now we have direct entry that's efficient with fewer mistakes and no lag time."

The total cost for computer equipment: $2,000.

Timothy Pearce, museum assistant curator and head of the Section of Mollusks, said a new $1,745 microscope purchased for his department allows for easier identification of snails and other species being documented statewide. The department had been using a microscope borrowed from the University of Pittsburgh.

Andrew Mack, a conservation biologist at Powdermill, had the most unusual request. He used a Discoverers' donation to buy polyurethane 7-foot-tall fencing to protect plants, including buffalo-nut seedlings, from deer. His goal is to compare protected areas to woodlands ravaged by deer.

"Over-browsing has resulted in a very modified forest," Dr. Mack said. "Everything below a line has been eaten by deer -- wildflowers and tree seedlings.

"The forestry changes from deer are staggering."

Museum Director Samuel Taylor said most people have no idea how much research the museum does.

"That's our fault for not getting the back of the house aligned with the front of the house," Dr. Taylor said, differentiating the museum and research laboratories. "But the Carnegie Discoverers program is a real gem because it makes a direct connection with our scientific staff. This is an unfiltered view of the museum -- the museum unplugged."

And while studies of crayfish and snails might not interest everyone, Dr. Taylor said their importance must be explained.

"What's bad for crayfish is bad for us," he said. "Snails and crayfish are good early indicators of life-support systems of climate, and if they are declining it's bad for everyone."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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