The Collecting Life
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2012
Too often, people send me names of naturalists to be added to the Wall of the Dead. (Josh Nove is the latest, added this morning.) But this time, a son has written to ask that his father be removed from the list. Here’s the original entry:
Van Gelder, Richard G. (1928-1994), prominent mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, died, age 65, either from acute monocytic leukemia or, as friends recall, from falciparium malaria acquired in Kenya.
But Gordon Van Gelder writes: “I’m emailing you to thank you for listing him, but I think he—like his idol, Charles Darwin—doesn’t belong on the list.” The list memorializes naturalists who died in the course of their field research to discover and describe new species. But Richard Van Gelder “did in fact die at home from acute monocytic leukemia. It is true that he contracted malaria during one of his trips to Kenya and it recurred several times, [but] that was in the 1980s.”
Richard is, however, clearly worth remembering in a context other than the Wall of the Dead. Among his many achievements, he discovered a new species of vesper bat, commonly known as Van Gelder’s Bat.
Gordon kindly also sent along a description of the collecting life from his father’s unpublished memoir:
Mammal collecting is perhaps the most arduous of all the fields. The entomologist can set up his nets and lights and run through the fields like my old friend “Madam Butterfly.” When they catch something they pop it into a killing-jar and when it is dead they lay it out between soft cellulose sheets and take it home. The rest of the preparation, mounting on pins, labeling, or making microscope slides of the specimen is done by their technicians. The herpetologist goes around turning over logs and grabbing snakes and lizards or pops them with his .22 dust shot. When he has a bag full he plunks them into alcohol and throws in a label.
But mammalogists do most of their preparation in the field, and they also deal with some pretty big critters. Each one has to be measured and weighed, and we usually pick them over for fleas and ticks (for our entomologist colleagues), and then we have to skin them and stuff them. We don’t do taxidermy, but we make something called a study skin, that looks like some of the fluffy toys they sell in F.A.O. Schwarz. Then the guts have to be scraped out of the carcass (and maybe you’ll pickle a few goodies like the ovaries or testes), and then most of the flesh has to be cut from the skeleton so that it wil dry.
With experience, a good mammalogist can whip up a mouse study skin, from trap to drying board, in about 12 to 15 minutes. The best I have ever done was 65 mice in one day—and a day doesn’t mean just the skinning and stuffing part. It also includes running your traps in the morning to pick up the catch and going out in the afternoon to re-bait them and maybe set some new ones.
Then, when dusk comes, you set up your bat nets, which are fine nylon nets that are successful in trapping bats, and stand by with your shotgun to pot a few that might be too high for the nets. When it is good and dark, you find it pretty profitable to go out with your shotgun and a headlamp potting mice and small carnivores as they eye-shine from your light. Around midnight you might be feeling a bit bushed, so you head back to camp, and if it is warm and some specimens might not keep until morning, you spend another hour or two putting up your evening catch, write up your notes, and sack out for a hearty couple of hours until sunrise when you have to get to the traps before the sun bloats your specimens?
Sleep?—forget it, when the mice are running you get all you can.