Old Animal Specimens May Hold The Key To New Discoveries A long-lost trove of preserved animal specimens recently turned up at a university in Georgia. Those old squirrels and muskrats could hold the answers to questions we haven't even thought to ask yet.
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Old Animal Specimens May Hold The Key To New Discoveries

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Old Animal Specimens May Hold The Key To New Discoveries

Old Animal Specimens May Hold The Key To New Discoveries

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Do you remember the last time you moved? Odds are that as you packed, you found things stuffed in drawers and closets you forgot you'd ever owned. That happens when scientists move from lab to lab too. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Grant Blankenship has more.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: Last year, biologist Craig Byron and the rest of the Mercer University Science Department in Macon were moving into their brand-new building - state-of-the-art labs, technology in the classrooms, the works. And so while packing up the old place across the street, Byron found a forgotten big, blue, metal cabinet. He showed me what was inside.

CRAIG BYRON: I mean, here's a possum skull. You can tell because it's got a tiny, little brain compared to a similarly sized - probably a raccoon or something. So this one's got a tag on it. So here's a red fox, March 22, 1956, SRPSCX. You can see some bats here. That's Aiken County, S.C. I don't know if a Lynx rufus - are there lynx out there anymore?

BLANKENSHIP: All these animals were trapped, killed and preserved flat to store in drawers for science.

BYRON: So here's a fox squirrel right there. So Sciurus niger from Bibb County. I've never seen a fox squirrel in Bibb County.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Macon. Collection date? November 20, 1958. At twice the size of grey squirrels, fox squirrels need special habitat - mature stands of longleaf pine forest. There's none of that in Bibb County today. But this squirrel tells us there was on November 20, 1958. The birds will go to Louisiana State University. The mammals?

BYRON: Somebody in D.C. wants them.

BLANKENSHIP: That somebody is Suzanne Peurach at the Biological Survey Unit, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. It's the largest animal-research collection in the world, 600,000 specimens total, housed at the Smithsonian. And yes, they have things preserved in jars - big jars. Peurach curates the 300,000-plus North American species. Researchers ask to see them for all kinds of reasons.

SUZANNE PEURACH: The whole point of these collections is we don't know what they're going to be used for. We save them for future research as well.

BLANKENSHIP: For example, take what happened when Peurach was a college student at the University of New Mexico in the 1990s. She and her mentor, Terry Yates, got a message to come back in from fieldwork as fast as possible.

PEURACH: People were dying from a mystery illness, and they thought it might be related to mammals.

BLANKENSHIP: A disease was killing people in the Four Corners area. Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control came to look for clues in Yates' collection of preserved deer mice, which they knew carried deadly hantavirus. When they looked at years and years-worth of mice, researchers saw hantavirus outbreaks occurring at regular intervals. Now they had a window to the next outbreak.

PEURACH: And then all of a sudden, it was like a lightning bolt hit me.

BLANKENSHIP: These mice in drawers? They could save lives. Federal budget talk heated up after I spoke to Peurach. Some science programs were cut in the new federal spending bill. But the six-person Biological Survey Unit isn't even named in the legislation, either as something cut or funded. For now, Peurach can't take new specimens.

BYRON: So we come in this room. Let's click on the light.

BLANKENSHIP: That's why Mercer University's Craig Byron still has them, in the basement of the brand-new science building. They're on a pallet of about five cardboard boxes, packed up and ready to ship.

BYRON: Yeah, but they're still just kind of in limbo.

BLANKENSHIP: We don't know yet what questions the Georgia bats, muskrats and fox squirrels can answer. For now, they still need a good home. For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga.

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