Space & Innovation

See The Building That Holds Millions of Dead Animals

How do we know what extinct animals looked like? Species preservation is our inside look into the anatomy and habitats of past species.

Unless you're in a very particular line of work, dead birds aren't something you're likely to think about, day to day. But scientists have long relied on the physical preservation of animal species to study the fundamentals of life on Earth.

In today's DNews field report special, Lissette Padilla pays a visit to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where biologists and curators preserve and house thousands of species of birds, mammals and other animals.

Laura Wilkinson, curatorial assistant with Department of Ornithology & Mammalogy, demonstrates the process by which dead animals are preserved for future scientific study. Working with a tiny Rufous hummingbird, which migrates through the Bay Area in the spring, Wilkinson carefully separates the bird's skin and feathers, then marks the location and date that the bird was collected.

This particular hummingbird died from crashing into a window, a common way that birds die in urban areas, Wilkinson explains.

"It basically gives us a placeholder of a species that existed at a certain place in a certain time," Wilkinson says. "So this is physical proof that this Rufous hummingbird was in San Francisco at this time."

Future scientists can then use this specimen for research. DNA can be extracted from frozen tissue samples, for instance, or isotopes can be analyzed to determine the bird's diet and habitat.

"It might be useful in 100 years if, say, this species was no longer found in California," Wilkinson says.

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The California Academy of Sciences is one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Established in 1853, it's been in the research business for a long time. In fact, about 75 percent of the specimens were collected prior to 1925, says Jack Dumbacher, curator with Department of Ornithology & Mammalogy.

The museum lost a huge portion of its collection in the earthquake of 1906. It also houses many species that are now extinct, including North America's only native parakeet as well as the late, great passenger pigeon.

"The specimens, I like to think of them as the most complete and tangible and permanent information about life on Earth," Dumbacher says. "It's the best record that we have."

Check out Lissette's video report for more information, including details on how the Academy acquires its specimens. Hint: Museum curators like to look at what the cat dragged in. Seriously.

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More:

California Academy Of Sciences: Ornithology and Mammalogy

Livescience: How Taxidermy Keeps Extinct Animals Around

Genetic Science Learning Center: Conservation Genetics