Large natural history museums typically display only a tiny fraction of the specimens that they house. Unlike art museums, natural history museums frequently place replicas in the public view while the real specimens are stored under the watchful eyes of curators and back-room researchers. Access to stores of research specimens is tightly controlled and can involve a written application that is vetted by other scientists.
Much of the research and education that could be done on preserved specimens requires large numbers of replicate individuals so that statistical analysis can be used to support the conclusions we may draw. Hands-on access to a large collection is beyond the reach of many small institution researchers and out of the question for most teachers.
To address this disconnect between education and museum collections in a small way, I decided to create a virtual museum. I first accumulated enough coyote skulls from diverse locations to provide a hands-on activity for my own students. Next I recruited two bright hard working students to very carefully photograph each skull with a scale bar in place. From an initial collection of about 10 found skulls, I have expanded by contacting taxidermists and ebay sellers from around the country. I now have more than 60 carefully numbered and curated coyote skulls.
The virtual museum is slowly coming together. We photograph each from left, right, top, and bottom and include a ruler in each photograph. Thus far we have uploaded 35 sets of photographs and made them available on Wikieducator. We have found that the skulls can be measured from the photographs within 1mm of accuracy. A small number of the skulls were treated using bleach and will deteriorate to dust over time. For these crumbling skulls our photographic record may be the only one that survives.
Using the online collection, it is possible to compare populations from east and west and also to look at latitudinal gradients. The site may also be applicable to statistical courses in that students can generate their own data rather than relying on fake data. We hope to also add a collection of domestic dog skulls to illustrate the difference between naturally selected species and an artificially selected domestic species. The chiwawa skull photographed next to a grey wolf above is an example from that collection.