Museum mysteries will be revealed during ‘Crawl’
A small group of stone tools that originated in Canada, an extinct pigeon’s connection to modern-day ticks and a mammoth tooth presumably out of its element … these are a few of the mysteries housed at the Museum of Natural History at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP).
“There are so many cool things that people just never get to see,” Museum Director Ray Reser said. “There are really cool stories from right here in Wisconsin.”
Community members will be privy to the stories and mysteries behind the artifacts at the ninth annual Museum Collection Crawl from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at the University Library Center for Learning Resources, 900 Reserve St. There will be 10 designated areas to visit and receive a stamp for a museum passport (collect a prize at the reception table with fully-stamped passports), and a dozen activities and attractions to view and try, including the new-this-year augmented reality sandbox.
The event is free, and ornithology (the study of birds), which boasts a collection of about 2,000 specimens, is the featured collection this year.
“Our biggest goal is to bring awareness to the public that we’re here and available,” said Lisa Viegut, museum manager.
While the museum at any given time has about 700 different specimens on display, there are more than 400,000 specimens in the museum’s actual collection, Reser said. They include the largest preserved fish collection in the state both native and non-native and the second largest herbarium in the state, he said. There also are about 12,700 specimens of insects.
Each specimen has a story, Reser said, and the curators at each collection location will answer any questions visitors have about them, the research being done at the university and tell the stories behind the specimens if asked.
As for the stories behind the stone tools, pigeons and ticks, and the mammoth tooth? All have a connection to the local area and Portage County, Reser said.
The museum acquired the three stone tools about a year ago through a donation. The black stones are similar in shape to arrowheads or spearheads, but don’t quite meet the mark. There is weathering on them, and they are smooth to the touch.
“These are more general, unexciting tools until you realize the back story,” Reser said. “A local farmer about 50 years ago picked them up along the Plover River and put them in his arrowhead collection, not really knowing what they were.”
When he received them, Reser noted the windblown sand adhered to the stone, and recognized that the type of windblown sand that polished the stone was from more than 500 miles away.
“These tools were made from the Knife Lake silt stone from the Boundary Waters area in Ontario,” he said. “What’s really interesting to me as a scientist is that there was a huge glacier in place between here and Knife Lake when these tools were brought here.
“People look at these and think ‘Oh, they’re stone tools, they don’t mean anything,’ but someone in Ontario made these and brought them here over the glacier,” Reser said.
The now extinct passenger pigeon also has connections with the present. The last confirmed wild passenger pigeon is thought to have been shot in 1900; the last officially recorded passenger pigeon was Martha, who died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Reser says the rare male on display at the UWSP museum was killed in 1915.
The largest recorded nesting was in Wisconsin in 1871, covering about 850 acres with estimated pigeon numbers at about 136 million. Reser said the pigeons fed on the nuts of white oak trees, as did other animals like the white-footed mouse. While alive, nesting and migrating in Wisconsin, the pigeon helped keep the mouse’s numbers in check because it used the same food source. When the pigeon went extinct, Reser said, mouse populations escalated.
“They (the white-footed mouse) are the primary host for ticks, so the number of ticks in Wisconsin is directly related to the passenger pigeon going extinct,” Reser said.
Another extinct animal, the mammoth, has claimed its stake in Portage County as well. In a quarry just outside of Plover about eight years ago, a worker dug up a mammoth tooth that dates back 12,000 to 13,000 years, making the location the farthest north mammoths were known to exist and changing the way scientists viewed this area, Reser said.
Until the tooth was found, scientists believed the area would be more suited to mastodons, which were browsers and ate leaves, twigs and branches. Mammoths were grazers and relied on grass and other vegetation much like modern day elephants.
“It changes how we thought the environment looked,” Reser said. “Mammoths are grazers, so if they’re living here, there’d have to have been massive prairies. There’d be a lot less spruce, pine and swamp forest for the mastodon.”
The tooth found also was identified as coming from a teen or young adult, likely a male, Reser said. The telltale ridges on the tooth are not worn down, but rather distinct, which shows it’s a youth.
The UWSP Museum of Natural History Collection Crawl also will be child-friendly and includes activities like selfie contests, a museum scavenger hunt, dinosaur fossil rubbing, sweets and treats, an artifact touch table, activity sheets, face painting and live herpetology (reptile and amphibian) collections.
Areas in the crawl are:
* Archaeology/Anthropology: The study of human activity in the past.
* Botany: The study of plants.
* Entomology: The study of insects.
* Geology: The study of the earth’s structure.
* Herpetology: The student of reptiles and amphibians.
* Ichthyology: The study of fish.
* Mammalogy: The study of mammals.
* Ornithology: The study of birds.
* Paleontology: The study of prehistoric life.
* Parasitology: The study of parasites.
* And the museum exhibits: African savanna, Arctic tundra, desert grassland and wetland, Northern forest, Mesozoic (dinosaur) era, snow glade, Schoenbeck egg collection and origins of the Menominee people.
For more information, contact the museum at 715-346-2858, [email protected] or visit the web site uwsp.edu/museum.