Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2007  



Learning Mammals


by Martin Murie





(Swans - September 10, 2007)   I gave up refusal to sign California's loyalty oath, quit more than two years at a biological supply company, signed the oath, returned to graduate studies, University of California, Berkeley. A few terms later, Seth Benson, Curator of Mammals at the University's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, asked me to be his assistant. Each week I laid out skulls and skins of various orders and sub-orders of the world's mammals, everything from a huge hippo skull to tiny North American shrews, the smallest mammals. I trapped mice for the students to practice skinning and "putting up" skins for taxonomic/anatomic purposes, and I served as a gofer on field trips.

Our best field trip. Bright and early on Saturday morning I collected a car from the university's fleet, picked up the students, and drove onto a ferry bound across the bay to Marin County. One of the students took a photo of three happy rooky mammalogists.

Pic: Martin and friends - Size: 8k

That's me on the left. We met the professor at his one-room hideout. I'd been there once before, noticed a bow and arrows tucked away on stringers below exposed rafters.

A mammalogist in those days went into the field equipped with binoculars, traps, pistol, rifle, or shotgun and various sizes of auxiliary inserts for the shotgun, to match pellet size to the size of the animal being "collected." The taxonomy/anatomy community had finally cured itself of the habit of killing endangered species, but binoculars, guns, traps, and notebooks were still de rigueur.

Notebooks. The formats had been standardized, three separate sections. One, the journal, stating pertinent details of the day's travel, locations noted, environmental details, all in India ink. Two, the species accounts, separate pages for each species: e.g., Peromyscus maniculatus (White-footed mouse), date, locality, observations. Three, the specimen ledger: If the Peromyscus was skinned and "prepared" according to rigid standards, a numbered label attached to a hind leg was necessary, and measurements (total body length; tail length, hind foot length, ear length, in millimeters), were entered on both label and the specimen account. The account could be embellished with optional notations, such as condition of ovaries and testes, signs of lactation, blood smears, parasites, et cetera.

We had already learned the journal part of this, in the Vertebrate Zoology course where we had been required to write an entry for each Saturday's outing, rain or shine. The most interesting outing was a careful examination of the design of a woodrat's "castle," in Strawberry canyon. I managed to grab a young woodrat and took it to our apartment for "further observation." We were all, of course, bucking for an A. We confessed to each other a degree of cheating, rewriting some of those pesky India ink entries a few days later or dropping the journal into a puddle or dragging it across wet earth as a stamp of authenticity. Seth Benson's course was more demanding, the whole field thing: trapping, measuring, labeling, preparing "specimens."

On this particular Saturday I had forgotten to fill up the fleet vehicle with gas and the tank was perilously low. So, after a mild rebuke from Benson, we all piled into the prof's car and away we went to a wilderness, the tip of an ocean peninsula owned in its entirety by a wealthy Californian who had given Benson a key to his hideout and permission to tramp around. We made ourselves at home, set out our mouse traps, ate supper, and went out into a mild, dark night. Benson carried a flashlight and a rifle. Right away he spotted a fox, lifted the rifle, caught the fox in a blinding light and killed it. This man was a mammalogist. Part of that trade was, and is, material evidence, the animal in the hand. He had trapped a mole with a mole trap and showed us how to do it. He had located a red tree mouse nest, climbed to it, showed us the infant mice. He led us to burrows of Aplodontia, a large rodent, aka Mountain Beaver. He was showing us the territory, California's roster of species, how to find them, how to get them.

The flashlight beam also showed us a raccoon up a tree. I was impressed, no, enchanted, by the silence, the remote wild feel of the place. Private property, totally lacking in rangers, museum, diorama, entertainment for the kids, videos, voices, books, counters, the clamorous distractions of our Disneyfied culture. Later, in my first teaching job, University of California, Santa Barbara (barbarous year in a barbarous place), I struggled with a field course and was lucky to get permission to take the class to a big ranch on the coast, a huge stretch of wild land. We roamed: beach life, stream sides, stream bottoms, chaparral hillsides, animals and their tracks and sign. I suppose it's "developed" by now. That's the trouble with private holdings: insecure, subject to market forces. On the other hand, the trouble with "public land" is this crazy idea, backed by unrelenting corporate lobby outfits, that entertainment for the masses is the goal. That goal, so embedded now it will be hard to dislodge, but the task awaits us, sooner rather than later, a vital part of the upheaval ahead.

Next morning we collected our mouse catch and processed it, each careful step: measurement, labeling, species account, skinning, etc. The fox skin was saved too, and given to one of the students. Then back to the ferry and home. I hasten to add that the entire field of mammalogy is much, much wider than killing and collecting. Live-trapping now looms large in the behavior/ecology area, and simply being out there observing is getting renewed attention.

For the record, here is the summer killed-by-vehicle list, May through August, on our stretch of highway, about three blocks long.

Garter snake
Frog, mangled, unidentified
Field mouse
Frog, probably a spring peeper
Garter snake
Red squirrel

As we drive our nation's fantastic web of roads we are all killers.


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About the Author

Martin Murie on Swans (with bio).



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Published September 10, 2007