Riding his bike early in the morning, Grant Terrell keeps his eyes low to the ground, looking for dark silhouettes lying still on the pavement.
Overnight, birds blinded by light crash into buildings across campus and lie dead, ready for Terrell to collect them.
“They’re often these really pretty, exotic-looking, new tropical warblers,” Terrell said.
Terrell, a fifth-year in evolutionary ecology and history, is a curatorial assistant at Ohio State’s Tetrapod Collection, a museum for four-limbed vertebrates within the university’s Museum of Biological Diversity located at 1315 Kinnear Road.
The Tetrapod Collection holds tens of thousands of specimens, Terrell said. Preserved in an alcohol solution, amphibians and reptiles line rows of shelves. The skins, skulls and bones of mammals hang on the walls or are kept in metal cabinets. Small birds, such as thrushes and warblers, lie wing to wing, while storks, vultures and cassowaries fill entire shelves.
Some specimens — not kept in closed cabinets — must be covered in plastic because the roof and sprinkler system leak. Funding for a collection like this is tight, Tamaki Yuri, curator at the museum, said.
“We put in a lot of money to collect all these things and then preserve these things,” she said.
Most specimens are from Ohio and the Midwest, Yuri said. However, the collection has other species from North America and the world, such as the Carolina parakeet and the king penguin.
Bird skins were collected from Europe and Russia and bought by former University President Edward Orton during the 19th century, and several more specimens were collected on an expedition to Alaska, according to the collection’s website.
Some were collected during the Civil War, Terrell said.
“I’ve found eggs that were collected while the Titanic was sailing,” he said. “It’s really cool to have a tangible link to the past.”
The oldest specimens in the collection are eggs from the mid-19th century, Yuri said. They were donated to the collection soon after the university was founded in 1870.
New specimens arrive almost weekly and tend to be roadkill or birds from building strikes, Yuri said.
In a preparation lab, Yuri and Terrell dissect specimens and replace internal organs and eyeballs with cotton. Then, they pin the specimens to styrofoam blocks to dry. It takes a few hours to prepare most specimens for the collection, Terrell said.
“But the beaver, that’s the other end of the spectrum,” Terrell said. “That’s the first all-nighter that I’ve ever pulled at the museum. I started at noon and finished at eight the next morning.”
The beaver drowned when it was caught in a fishing net, he said.
“Which is really unfortunate because she was lactating,” Terrell said. “So that probably means there was a whole little beaver massacre.”
Details recorded at the time of dissection, like the beaver’s enlarged nipples and cause of death, along with location and date of collection, create a snapshot in time for researchers. They can use this data to determine the geographical range of a species or the stress a species faced, Yuri said.
Terrell said he began to keep plastic found in the throats and stomachs of the animals he processes to record how human activity affects the natural world.
“I want that to be part of the data we’re recording,” he said.
A natural science archive like this is never complete, Yuri said. It is important to continue collecting specimens and taking care of them for future research methods. Terrell said that when scientists collected specimens 100 years ago, they could not have imagined CT scans or DNA sequencing.
He added that the Tetrapod Collection is a library, and every specimen is a book offering a piece of knowledge.
“By comparing the different books that you have in the archive together is when you get a lot of the value,” he said.
The collection documents habitat and population loss, Bryan Carstens, a professor in the evolution, ecology and organismal biology department, said.
“That’s the single most important reason to have collections like this,” he said.
Green-black spots of mold grow on the ventilation ducts above the collection. Yuri and Terrell have to wipe down the prep labs to prevent the fungi from spreading to the specimens.
“This isn’t a designated museum space; it’s an OSU warehouse,” Terrell said. “You can see the gigantic cracks in the wall.”
The collection turned to the public to raise money for their Roll It Out campaign in 2016. It raised $6,025 to buy cabinets that can be rolled out of the museum in the event of a fire or flood, according to their fundraising webpage.
But Yuri said it can be difficult to get funding from both university and national grants for historical projects.
“They’re looking for current research, not the potential for research,” she said. “The potential [for this collection] is a future accumulation of data.”