Behind the Scenes of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 was – for most people just another day. But I had been looking forward to it for months. It was the day when the Headwaters Chapter Trainees-in-Waiting (TiW) were taking a special field trip to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. One of the TiW, Byron Hukee, had made arrangements with an old friend of his to get us behind the scenes in the Divisions of Mammals and Birds.


Crested or maned rat (Lophiomys imhausi) of Kenya

We (Brian, RoxAnna, Stephen, Lacey, Judy, Kathy, Peggy and me) left Bridgewater at 8:15am and stopped at Mauzy to pick up Byron, Anna Maria, Sandi, Selah and Bill). We met Byron’s friend Christina Gebhard at the entrance of the museum and she took us up to the areas not open to the public. There she introduced us to Darrin Lunde, who is the Collection Manager in the Division of Mammals. After giving us a little background, he took us into one of the storage areas where he showed us rodent specimens. A fascinating example was the crested or maned rat (Lophiomys imhausi) of Kenya. It is the only poisonous rodent in the world. He explained how these large rats chew up a poisonous root and then spread the paste on specials hairs along their backs. These hairs are hollow and absorbent and any unsuspecting predator, or pet dog, that tries to attack one of these rats will get a rude, and potentially deadly surprise.

In addition to taking us into a room with floor to ceiling rows of specimens preserved in liquid, Darrin showed us some of Dian Fossey’s mountain gorilla specimens.


Dian Fossey mountain gorilla specimen


Scarlet tanager color variations

After lunch in the cafeteria we rejoined Christina, who took us into the Division of Birds. There she had carefully laid out a display of interesting, historic, colorful and some not-so colorful specimens for us to examine. We saw color variations of flickers from west to east as well as color variations of scarlet tanagers due to age and sex.


Some of John J. Audubon’s collection

Christina also showed us specimens of the extinct Carolina Parakeet and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. It was very exciting to see these specimens, as well as several that were collected by John J. Audubon himself.  We also saw specimens of Andean Condor.

She showed us various eggs, from tiny to huge, nests, taxidermy specimens, and examples of the research that is done using their specimens.

It was a marvelous day, filled with lots of delights. I enjoyed the trip not only for the sights, but also for the companions I was with: Headwater’s Class of 2015!


-Elaine Smith, Cohort IV, April 2015

All photos by Elaine Smith. See the rest of Elaine’s photos of this day behind the scenes of the National Museum of Natural History through Flickr here.