Wild About Conservation: Local Opportunities to Learn and Help - MetroFamily Magazine
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Wild About Conservation: Local Opportunities to Learn and Help

by Erin Page. Photos provided.

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

“I want my son to live in a world where he can find horned lizards and encounter swamp rabbits because animals make our lives richer. You may think some animals don’t have much of a purpose — like opossums — but they can eat thousands of ticks every night. Practically, having a diversity of species keeps us healthier as humans.

Dr. Hayley Lanier, assistant curator of mammals at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History 

One in eight species are currently susceptible to extinction specifically due to human impact on the environment. Habitat loss, pollution and climate change threaten these endangered species. This data, released in a 2019 report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, has spurred efforts to preserve biodiversity because when species face extinction, humanity suffers.

The teams at three local attractions are pioneering unique conservation efforts by working together. The Oklahoma City Zoo, SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology and Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are on a mission to protect our biodiversity — and they provide many opportunities for local families to help.

“We don’t even know the full effects as to what the loss of biodiversity would do, but there are cascading effects,” said Ashley Mason-Burns-Meerschaert, director of museum operations & education at Museum of Osteology. “The hope is that we will inspire people to preserve and conserve species now.”

Partnerships protecting biodiversity

Members of the OKC Zoo’s leadership team coauthored a 2022 research paper in BioScience that outlines how collaboration between Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) members and natural history museums can enhance humans’ understanding of wildlife.

The Zoo’s partnerships with local museums began with the need to dispose of animals after they die in a way that could also extend the purpose of their lives. The Museum of Osteology has been cleaning specimens for the Zoo for several decades, then adding those specimens to their collection.

When a specimen from the Zoo is donated to the Sam Noble Museum, it may be displayed for educational purposes (like great silverback gorilla Bom Bom on display in the lobby) or preserved as a bio fact so it can be handled by visitors during educational programs. The majority of the specimens are prepared for research, and they are available to the scientific community globally as part of the museum’s extensive collection.

“They can go on to have another purpose,” said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo’s director of veterinary services. “They can still be used for conservation, research and educational purposes so their story continues forever.”

Local and global effects

The information these two local museums help glean makes a positive impact on animals’ care at our Zoo and in their natural habitats.

For example, when an Asian elephant died, the Zoo’s team could not determine a cause of death. In preparing the specimen’s skeleton for display and research, the Museum of Osteology made an important discovery.

“We found out a severely impacted molar had been infected,” said D’Agostino. “It’s impossible to x-ray an elephant and when an elephant opens their mouth, you can’t see much. We use a plumber camera to look at their teeth, and because of what we saw, we increased the frequency of how often we do that.”

When an Indian rhino had an infected tooth and needed surgery, the Zoo’s veterinary team was able to examine a similar skull in the Museum of Osteology’s collection to prepare for what was a successful surgery.

Conservation efforts between the Zoo and Sam Noble Museum include studying and supporting diminishing species, like the Texas horned lizard. As the lizard’s habitat has decreased around the metro, the Zoo and Sam Noble Museum established a “head start” program to revitalize the population. Eggs are collected from a wild habitat at Tinker Air Force Base, incubated at the Zoo and the resulting hatchlings are raised through their most vulnerable stage of life. Then, they are released back to the wild habitat to augment the population.

“It’s a species beloved by Oklahomans and an important part of our ecosystem,” said Dr. Rebecca Snyder, OKC Zoo’s director of conservation and science, “so we want to make sure the animals have healthy populations in the wild. We need biodiversity to help people and wildlife thrive.”

Beyond the metro, these partnerships inform scientific research at large.

Conservation and research groups often compare specimens at the OKC Zoo with those available for study at the Museum of Osteology. The Sam Noble Museum receives requests from researchers around the world, for whom specimens donated by the Zoo are invaluable.

“People may contact us wanting to study genetic diversity in elephants or gorillas or giraffes,” said Alexander Mann, marketing and PR officer at Sam Noble Museum. “We are able to give samples they can use for research into how genetic diversity is distributed and how we can direct conservation efforts to conserve those populations.”

Perhaps most valuable to local families, the opportunity to connect with animals in concrete ways enhances the value of conservation for kids.

“For kids, being able to touch things is important,” said Dr. Hayley Lanier, assistant curator of mammals at Sam Noble. “When they come here and can touch an elephant tooth, they become interested in what elephants eat and what they are doing in the world.”

Did You Know?

If you see a plant, animal or insect you don’t recognize, snap a photo and email the Sam Noble Museum. Their specialists will identify and provide information about the species. Submit your findings or questions at samnoblemuseum.ou.edu/curator-contact-form.


Learn more about conservation

At OKC Zoo:

•FREE daily Caretaker Chats give visitors the opportunity to learn animals’ names, what they eat, how much they weigh and what their personalities are like.

•See the veterinary team at work at the OKC Zoo’s Joan Kirkpatrick Veterinary Hospital. Observe procedures ranging from preventative health exams to surgeries.

•Visit the OKC Zoo on an animal awareness day. Visitors can interact with animals’ caregivers and learn about conservation projects for that species.

At SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology:

•Explore the museum’s recent remodel and expansion, including an additional 100 skeletons on display and a refresh of the popular Explorers Corner for kids. Don’t miss the Oklahoma exhibit to learn about our state’s biodiversity, from road runners to American bison. Grab a scavenger hunt at the front desk to take on your self-guided tour!

•Be an anthropologist for a day through the Junior Forensics program. Learn to analyze and “read” a skeleton.

•Find curriculum meeting Oklahoma academic standards for grades PreK through college at skeletonmuseum.com. Plus, find information on Scout badges, homeschool resources and school break camps.

At Sam Noble Museum:

•Explore the Hall of Natural Wonders to learn about biodiversity. Don’t miss visiting the bat cave and learning why prairie dogs are so important to our environment and ground water.

•Visit the second Saturday of each month for Curiousiday. Activities, story times and programming are free with admission and offered in both English and Spanish.

•Summer camps provide animal- and science-loving kids with unique hands-on experiences that could inspire their career paths!

Did You Know?

The team at the Museum of Osteology cleans and prepares 2,000 to 5,000 skeletal specimens every month for institutions around the globe!

The process:

1. Technicians begin by removing the specimen’s mass of tissue.

2. Flesh-eating beetles naturally clean the rest of the specimen.

3. The bones are chemically whitened, sanitized and oxygenated.

4. Now, the skeleton, which has come apart in 200 to 400 bones, is ready to be articulated, or put back together, with hand drills and wires. The team also sculpts cartilage to add between the vertebrae or bones.

The articulation process takes about 15 to 20 hours for a small specimen, 40 to 45 hours for an anatomical human and up to 700 hours for a whale!

Inspire kid conservationists

How can your family make a big difference from your own backyard? The experts from the OKC Zoo, Sam Noble Museum and Museum of Osteology provide their top tips:

• Spend time in nature as a family. Enjoy health benefits, like reducing stress, and the sense of stewardship that will inspire children to care about the natural world.

• Plant a pollinator garden or start small by planting a few milkweed plants, the monarch butterfly’s host plant.

• Recycle and reduce your plastic usage.

• Make a bird or bat house.

• Don’t use pesticides.

• Plant native species or choose a section of your yard to leave un-mowed. This provides a place for bees and native plants to thrive, animals to hide out and your family to study the biodiversity occurring in your own yard.

• Become a citizen scientist! Families can help make observations and submit data to inform scientists’ work. Watch for opportunities from our local attractions.

• Empower your kids to come up with ideas that utilize their talents to make a difference. Embrace their natural curiosity and questions.

“All these little things may seem really tiny and like they wouldn’t make a big difference — but it makes a huge impact if everyone does it,” said D’Agostino. 

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