A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator – the intern’s view!

I’m Mathilde Meheut, a French biology student travelling in New Zealand who had the chance to do some voluntary work at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. In this blog, I’ll tell you about some of the work I got involved in at Te Papa during a few weeks in June and July 2013.

Te Papa Intern Mathilde Meheut labels GPS loggers ready for deployment on seabirds foraging offshore New Zealand. Photo: Susan Waugh © Te Papa

Te Papa Intern Mathilde Meheut labels GPS loggers ready for deployment on seabirds foraging offshore New Zealand. Photo: Susan Waugh © Te Papa

Entomology department My first work at the museum was to transfer some samples of Onychophora also known as velvetworms (these are species from the genuses Peripatoides, Euperipatoides and Ooperipatellus) which have been sent by post in plastic tubes and need to be put in glass tubes, because it’s a better way to conserve the specimens. I spent two days working on these specimens.

Specimen tubes are used to store fragile and soft-bodied animals in the Museum's zoology collections. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut © Te Papa

Specimen tubes are used to store fragile and soft-bodied animals in the Museum’s zoology collections. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut © Te Papa

First I took the specimen(s) out of the plastic tube, I choose a glass tube of the more optimal size. I transferred the labels in the new tube, then the velvetworm(s) and I filled the tube with alcohol. After re-tubing all the velvetworms, I put the glass tubes in bigger glass jars, wrote and added labels and then filled them with alcohol again to be sure there will be as little as possible alcohol evaporating. After this work all the jars are ready to be stored in the museum collections.

Onychophora specimens in tubes are stored in larger jars, with detailed labels to help store them in the right section of the wet collections. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Onychophora specimens in tubes are stored in larger jars, with detailed labels to help store them in the right section of the wet collections. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Paleontology department I worked with vertebrate skeletons by writing numbers on bones to order them. Each specimen of the collection has a reference number.

Bones are stored in Solander boxes, labelled and packaged to keep parts of the same specimen together. These are blue penguin bones which I labelled. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Bones are stored in Solander boxes, labelled and packaged to keep parts of the same specimen together. These are blue penguin bones which I labelled. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

My work was to write the number of reference in all bones of each specimen, so after you check the reference, you can know the name of the species, the sex, the location and the date it had been found, for example. I worked on different kinds of animals, such as sealions, bats and even penguin skeletons.

This box contained the bones of a sea lion found at the Chatham Islands. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

This box contained the bones of a sea lion found at the Chatham Islands. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Labels from the original collectors give the museum data about where and when the specimen was collected and are kept with the specimens. Mathilde added reference numbers to each bone of the sea lion specimen to ensure a good match between the museum database and the specimen. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Labels from the original collectors give the museum data about where and when the specimen was collected and are kept with the specimens. Mathilde added reference numbers to each bone of the sea lion specimen to ensure a good match between the museum database and the specimen. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Museum exhibition development During a few days I work on a very interesting project to research creating an area to encourage Blue Penguins to come and breed in front of Te Papa. First I read a feasibility study about a penguin colony project. I did some research about other penguin colonies created in other places in NZ, and learnt about optimum nesting box size. I also contacted people working in community groups or scientists working in colonies that had already been established.

Mathilde spent a day at Matiu Somes Island in Wellington harbour visiting a site of penguin conservation work where nest boxes were used to help study penguin nesting behaviour. This nest box is one used regularly by blue penguins for breeding. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Mathilde spent a day at Matiu Somes Island in Wellington harbour visiting a site of penguin conservation work where nest boxes were used to help study penguin nesting behaviour. This nest box is one used regularly by blue penguins for breeding. Photographer: Mathilde Meheut. © Te Papa

Field work I worked on the West Coast of the South Island near Punakaiki on a Westland Petrel colony during several days.

Westland Petrel at the breeding colony near Punakaiki, Westland. Photographer: Lara Shepherd. © Te Papa

Westland Petrel at the breeding colony near Punakaiki, Westland. Photographer: Lara Shepherd. © Te Papa

I worked with a curator of the museum, Dr Susan Waugh, to help her to collect data for a population study of the petrels. First we checked every burrow with a burrowscope to determine if there was a bird (or two) breeding in the nest. We also needed to check which bird was in each nest so we took them it out of their burrows to read their band numbers. If it was a unbanded bird we put a new band on its leg. For the population study some loggers need to be deployed to track the birds movements at sea. In 2 days we put about a dozen loggers. When we put the logger (numbered beforehand) on the back of the bird we also needed to take some biological data and I assisted the curator by writing anatomical information like the weight, the beak size, the leg length.

A miniature GPS logger used by scientists to follow the movements of Westland Petrels at sea. Mathilde helped with note-taking and field work. Another specialist writing job for Te Papa! Photographer: Susan Waugh. © Te Papa

A miniature GPS logger used by scientists to follow the movements of Westland Petrels at sea. Mathilde helped with note-taking and field work. Another specialist writing job for Te Papa! Photographer: Susan Waugh. © Te Papa

I also assisted her when she took anatomical data like blood samples or feathers samples. During the time we checked the bird presence in each burrow I also noted if there was some need to repair the burrow entrance or even if it needed a new lid.

Mathilde helped to handle petrels during the deployment of GPS loggers. The logger is visible taped on to the birds back feathers with brown sticky tape. Photographer: Susan Waugh © Te Papa

Mathilde helped to handle petrels during the deployment of GPS loggers. The logger is visible taped on to the birds back feathers with brown sticky tape. Photographer: Susan Waugh © Te Papa

How was the experience of working as an intern at Te Papa? I’m a biology student and to have the opportunity to work with curators of the Te Papa was really great for me. At the Entomology department I’ve done careful work with species that I didn’t even know existed before, that’s why it was very interesting for me. Then I had the chance to manipulate entire skeletons of animals and rediscover these species by practical experience and anatomical knowledge. Working on the penguin colony project made me do some research and discover how to conduct a project from the idea to the feasibility study, it was enriching to think about a project already in train and to add new ideas. Finally the field work on the petrel colony was amazing for me because the curator was very encouraging with me. I discovered how to do anatomical measurement, blood samples, but I also had the opportunity to manipulate birds and I’m really pleased to have participated to do this data collection on a wild bird colony on an open (wild and muddy) place. I want to thank staff and curators of the Te Papa museum for their nice welcome in their team. I met very nice and interesting curators during my internship and I hope I will be able to see them again. I want to thank Susan Waugh to give me the occasion to do this voluntary work, to host me to work with her at Wellington but also at the Petrel colony which I will always remember as my first field work experience, a very good experience.

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