The Edward H. Burtt Jr. Curatorial Director
Zoology Laboratory Coordinator
Brady Porter ’90 found his childhood love of science nurtured at Ohio Wesleyan. Now a faculty member at Duquesne University, Porter still returns to the OWU campus and to its Natural History Museum to help train future scientists in specimen preparation.
As a young boy growing up in the suburban Cleveland area, my favorite pastimes were insect collecting and fishing.
By the time I was 6, I was accumulating a substantial collection of the local moths and butterflies and learned to pin them out and display them with the vigor of a serious stamp enthusiast. I loved fishing on Lake Erie and the challenge of identifying the various species using my growing set of “Golden Guides.”
In junior high, I took a course from a professional taxidermist and developed a small business mounting fish and small game animals for friends like my junior high principal, who kept me busy through his successful fishing trips.
Mounted fish lose all of their color as they dry and need to be painted to regain a lifelike appearance. I guess you could say that I first became fascinated by animal coloration through this unusual marriage of art and specimen preservation.
So I entered college with an unusual skill, but working under the guidance of Dr. Jed Burtt in the OWU Natural History Museum this was transformed into something scientifically useful; museum preparation.
Jed introduced a number of zoology students to our first scientific meeting by taking us to the University of Pittsburgh for the 1987 American Ornithologists’ Union Conference. There we met many of the legendary scientists whose research we were reading about in ornithology class.
Through Jed’s professional connections, he facilitated a short workshop with Stephen Rogers, the Scientific Preparator of Ornithology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Scientific Preparators take frozen specimens and preserve them as dried study skin in efforts to build a museum collection that will support a variety of comparative morphological studies. Stephen showed me how to scientifically prepare museum study skins. …
Throughout the summers of 1988 and 1989, following my sophomore and junior years, I was supported by the William Stull Fund to prepare literally hundreds of new bird study skins for the OWU Museum of Zoology.
Each specimen documented the species occurrence at a specific place and time, often revealing fascinating cases of anatomical specializations or plumage pattern. …
One summer I was trusted with the delicate task of rehousing the egg collection. The inside of the eggs were skillfully blown out through a single hole and individually wrapped in newspaper from the early 1900s.
I had the honor to be the first to reveal these hidden jewels and transfer them with their valuable information to acrylic boxes cushioned with cotton.
I was continually dissatisfied with the appearance of scientific fish and amphibian collections stored in alcohol, since over time their brilliant colorations always fade to uniform brown.
I conducted an independent study project to investigate potential methods that might retain color of fluid-preserved fish. I combined my organic chemistry training with museum knowledge in attempts to solubilize Ionol-butylated hydroxyl toluene, a food antioxidant, so it can be used in aqueous solutions to halt redox reactions that would otherwise destroy the red, orange and yellow carotenoid pigments.
This modified technique was successful in preserving much of the fish coloration during formalin fixation.
After fixation, fluid-preserved specimens are typically stored in ethanol which keeps the bone from decalcifying, but also tends to extract carotenoid pigments into solution. I researched various methods of dehydration to see if there were any alternatives to ethanol storage, but was unable to find anything that retained coloration.
These extensive experiences in the OWU Museum served me well through my professional career as a biologist.
While working on my Ph.D. in Zoology at The Ohio State University, I was funded for several semesters to prepare study skins for their museum.
The seeds of my intrigue with animal coloration, first sewed from painting fish mounts and then nurtured by my museum research and Dr. Burtt’s enthusiasm for bird coloration all helped shaped the direction of my dissertation project.
Using DNA sequence data I revised the systematics of several subgenera of darters, whose species differed from one another primarily by differences in male nuptial coloration that are only exhibited over a short breeding season.
Using my molecular phylogenetic tree as a framework, I extracted and compared the carotenoid pigments used by these little fishes in their mating displays and explored the impact of a standardized diet on their coloration.
As an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, I continue to benefit from the training and connections that were made decades ago through my work at the OWU Museum. ...
Throughout the years I have made modest donations to the William Stull fund. As an alumnus, I am pleased to return to OWU to see a thriving museum collection and courses still focused on organismal biology like ornithology and vertebrate anatomy.
The Great Horned Owl that I mounted in a state of perpetual attack now majestically hangs from the ceiling as part of an enhanced public display area.
In the hope that the museum will continue inspire others as it has me, I have committed to running a series of workshops to train future OWU students in specimen preparation.
– Brady Porter, Ph.D. ’90