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Nature’s Ambassadors: Saluting “The Critter Guy,” Science On a Sphere, and a Newborn Black Rhino

Jim Harding holding a turtle

Jim Harding

What “gifts” do we receive from the natural world, and how do we reciprocate this daily bounty? In his January 2020 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on the retirement of James Harding, one of the longest-serving staff members in the Museum’s history. For decades, Jim has been an invaluable “front line” representative of the Museum’s natural sciences division, fielding all manner of questions about animal life and ecosystems from the public, from mysterious animal sightings to coping with critters in the basement. The New Year also sees the official public opening of “Science On a Sphere,” from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the early steps of a newborn black rhino at the nearby Potter Park Zoo. These exciting developments continue the mission Jim has been dedicated to across the years, deepening our shared sense of wonder about the natural world and reminding us of our collective responsibilities to the global biosphere.

The New Year marks the retirement of one of the long-serving, and most deeply beloved, members of the MSU Museum staff. James (“Jim”) Harding, an outreach specialist and instructor in the Department of Integrative Biology, has been involved in the Museum one way or another for over four decades. To many of the Museum’s friends and supporters, Jim is affectionately known as “The Critter Guy,” responding to public queries from all over the state about goings on in the natural world, helping with species identification, explaining puzzling animal behavior, and even sharing tips on coping with unexpected creatures in the backyard or basement.

Protecting “Herps”

Jim is a herpetologist by training, specializing in reptiles and amphibians (“herps”). He co-authored a series of three important reference books for MSU Extension, i.e. Michigan Snakes (2006); Michigan Turtles and Lizards (2014); and Michigan Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders (2014); as well as one comprehensive guide, Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region (2017, University of Michigan Press). Jim has also served as an advisor and consultant to the MI DNR, the Nature Conservancy, the US Forest Service and a variety of non-government organizations interested in habitat protection for “herps” of all kinds.

Jim has particular interest in and affection for turtles and tortoises of all kinds. He often rescues recently hatched turtles crossing a busy road or highway, at risk of succumbing to speeding traffic and becoming raccoon bait. The pond by the house where Jim and his wife Shirley live, just down the street from where my wife Ellen and I live, is an informal sanctuary for turtles in need of temporary refuge. As our mammalogy curator Barb Lundrigan notes, visitors to the pond in warmer months are greeted by the sight of dozens of turtle heads peeking out above the waterline, heading towards Jim’s feet, in optimistic hopes of a treat. As part of an ongoing research project, Jim and several colleagues collect eggs of various turtle species, hatch them out and feed and care for tiny turtles until they are large enough to be adopted or safely released back into the wild. Jim’s annual “Baby Turtle” day at his Herpetology Lab has exposed generations of students to the marvelous qualities of turtles and led to many turtle placements in welcoming adoptive homes.

Turtles sharing a log. Photography by Jim Harding

Turtles sharing a log. Photography by Jim Harding

Every day Jim generously, and enthusiastically shares his encyclopedic knowledge of the life sciences with curious members of the public. He’s offered countless nature walks and public demonstrations of the museum’s education collections. A given day might bring a phone call or a visit from someone asking for help identifying a fossil, a bit of skeleton, a specimen, or an animal photographed in the wild. Why, he is sometimes asked, do snakes occasionally show up in local basements? Jim theorizes that seeking warmth and places of security, snakes sometimes crawl into crevices, and then drop down unexpectedly into a basement, with no way of getting themselves back outside. Jim notes that in recent years, as exotic pets have become increasingly available for purchase online, wildlife identification has become more challenging: you never know what rare reptile, including potentially venomous snakes, might have escaped or been released by an owner who could no longer be troubled to care for their charges.

Megafauna in a Field

One memorable mission came back in 1977, when a rancher near Fowlerville, excavating a stock-watering pond, reported unearthing a puzzling skeleton, perhaps a “large deer.” Jim accompanied our late Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Alan Holman, as they responded to the call and drove out to Livingston County, not quite sure what they might find. They walked out across a field and along a path until they came to a dazzling sight, a beautifully preserved partial mastodon skull, dating to the late Pleistocene, to the period when glacier retreat rendered this land once again habitable, roughly 13,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The skull, now treasured in the Museum collections, had been broken by machinery, but the upper palate and molars were still intact, along with hundreds of tiny skull fragments. Fossils of small fish recovered in the surrounding sand clay indicate that the site was once a body of water with enough oxygen to support fish life, and so was probably not one of the bogs that we know entrapped other mastodons and mammoths in Michigan. We still don’t know how this magnificent creature died, but we remain grateful to the rancher who called in the find, enabling this significant discovery, which deeply enriches our research and teaching collections.

Gifts and the Ties that Bind

Pondering Jim’s career, I find myself thinking, as an anthropologist, about the meanings of gifts and all that gifts accomplish. One hundred years ago, the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously argued that gifts are the foundation of human social existence, especially in diverse small scale or indigenous societies around the world. To give a gift (of a material object, or labor, or communication, or even the “gift” of a family member in marriage) is to project out a part of oneself into another person, or to extend an aspect of one community into another community. Each gift obligates the receiver both to acknowledge the gift and to reciprocate it in some fashion.

Each gift can be thought of as a miniature ambassador, an envoy of the self-outwards to another self, which calls back another micro-ambassador, another gift, to the originating self. The resulting flows of gifts and return gifts over time produces a dynamic, living matrix of reciprocity that helps bind together even the most fractious of social fields. Gifting is the glue that holds society together, in the face of all that would drive us apart.

Mauss concentrated on social relations among human beings, but Jim’s work helps remind us that the power of the gift relationship extends to nurturing of solidarity between humans and the natural world. Jim’s countless acts of animal rescue are gifts, to nature’s beings and to fellow people, who will be able to enjoy the local biodiversity in the years ahead. Every time Jim gives a young turtle to a student, we see not only an emerging bond between instructor and pupil, but a growing link between human and non-human domains. Each little herp, in effect, functions as one of nature’s ambassadors, envoys that link us to other forms of life on this planet. Jim, in turn, is the recipient of countless “gifts,” of information, from thousands of citizen-scientists around the state, who report on their wildlife sightings as citizen scientists; he reciprocates by sharing his voluminous knowledge of wildlife and in so doing further deepens our bonds with our distant human and non-human friends.

A museum like ours depends on these complex gift relationships, which produce important forms of solidarity across time, space, and orders of existence. Each donated natural science specimen, like the mastodon skull generously given by the rancher over forty years ago, not only links the donor to the Museum, but ties us all by extension to the glorious megafauna that once roamed through these lands. Each natural specimen in our collections is one of nature’s ambassadors. This expanding web of connectedness, in turn, depends upon the dedication and care of our human ambassadors to the natural world, including Jim and the rest of the team in the Natural Sciences Division.

First Steps

In the last few days, we’ve all become aware of another kind of gift, furthering bonds between humans and non-humans. Our friends at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo reported the birth on the morning of Christmas Eve of a black rhino male calf to Doppsee, the zoo’s 12-year-old black rhino. Within ninety minutes of the birth, the newborn took his first steps. Potter Park Zoo Director of Animal Health Dr. Ronan Eustace, an adjunct faculty at MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, and visiting MSU veterinarians and students collaborated to perform ultrasounds on Doppsee before the birth. The zoo veterinary department has a long history of inviting veterinary students and residents to the zoo to work with the veterinary department to learn about zoo medicine.

The symbolism of the moment, on that specific day, was deeply resonant; at a time of year when we ponder the mysteries of renewal and regeneration, the birth of a representative of a critically endangered species seems to herald a spark of hope for the global conservationist movement. Doppsee’s gift, in part, lies in helping us envision a future for ourselves, our posterity, and the whole biosphere.

As a captive member of a critically endangered species, the new black rhino is born into an intricate network of exchange and gift giving. Potter Park is part of an international system of Species Survival Plans (SSPs) linking zoos the world over. Based on genetic testing, endangered species are exchanged between zoos in the interest of promoting breeding that will create the most resilient and generically diverse populations possible. Doppsee herself, born in Kansas, came to Lansing nine years ago for this reason. It is likely that once he is old enough, the as- yet-unnamed rhino calf will travel to another zoo, to play a vital role, it is hoped, in the continuing Species Survival Plan for black rhinos. Potter Park, in return, will likely receive other animals with genetic profiles that render them appropriate candidates for mating and breeding.

Welcome Baby Rhino! Born Dec. 24, 2019 at 5:40 a.m. at the Potter Park Zoo Photography by Kaiti Chritz | Potter Park Zoo

Welcome Baby Rhino! Born Dec. 24, 2019 at 5:40 a.m. at the Potter Park Zoo Photography by Kaiti Chritz | Potter Park Zoo

Given the calamitous decline in the populations of black rhino and other endangered species in the wild, resulting from over-hunting, poaching, habitat loss, and the impact of climate change, the fragile global system of Species Survival Plans across the world’s zoos and sanctuaries is clearly a gamble. We do not know, realistically, if humanity will be able to reintroduce successfully all endangered species back into the wild, to nurture the webs of biodiversity which our own species has so extensively undercut. Yet, each captive birth brought about through these plans should be treasured as a gift, welcoming a new member of the corps of nature’s ambassadors, a living reminder of our shared vision of environmental restoration. All of us, celebrating Doppsee’s gift, can join in reciprocating by giving back to the cause of conservation and global biodiversity protection.

The Gift of Light

The New Year also sees the official public opening of the Museum’s “Science On a Sphere” system, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We will gather on Saturday, January 11 for a festive celebration of the Sphere, delighting in animated 3D visualizations of everything from global atmospheric chemistry to the network of life recently discovered around deep sea vents. Starting on January 18, special ticketed Science On a Sphere shows with live presenters will be available every Saturday. We’ll be able to follow a single penguin feather on its journey across the world’s oceans, trace the movement of the continents and tectonic plates across hundreds of millions of years, envision projected patterns of sea level rise, and, we expect, follow the global exchange of zoo animals through the Species Survival Plans mentioned above.

MSU Museum’s “Science On a Sphere Gallery”

MSU Museum’s “Science On a Sphere Gallery”

The gallery is made possible by a generous gift from the MSU Federal Credit Union, supplemented by donations from many museum friends and supporters. In a larger sense the Sphere system is a gift from NOAA’s climate scientists, who have worked long and hard to enable us to see our own fragile, beautiful planet, rotating in space, in all its dynamic and constantly evolving complexity. The gift is given to the hundreds of young children who have already responded to the Sphere with shrieks of delight, as they watch in wonder the global pathways of international bird migration patterns and commercial air flights, or explore the surface of Mars and distant exoplanets. It is also a gift presented to MSU scientists: one colleague recently realized, looking at the Sphere’s three dimensional rendition of tectonic plate movement, that a set of closely related species he had been studying had resided in geographically contiguous zones 90 million years ago, even though they had been collected thousands of miles apart, across oceans.

The Sphere, too, is one of nature’s ambassadors, continuing in the work that Jim Harding and his museum colleagues have pursued across the years, sharing with all of us the gift of wonder about the universe and our place within it. How do we best reciprocate this gift? For many of us, the answer lies in continuing the great work of building the beloved community here on planet Earth, nurturing a common sanctuary that includes both our species and the other species with whom we share the biosphere. All of us can in that sense serve as envoys, bridging the gulfs between diverse human communities and between human and the non-human spheres.

Turtle Crossing Ahead!

In this light, I’m delighted that Jim reports he is happy to continue his work as the Museum’s “Critter Guy,” now as a volunteer and Museum Research Associate. Please keep those calls, emails, and visits coming. We can’t wait to learn what you discover, out in the wild or in your backyard.

A final plea: as we look forward to spring and wait for the local turtles and frogs to revive from hibernation, let’s keep an eye out for tiny creatures slowly crossing the road. Each time we extend attentive care to our smallest, non-human neighbors, we have a chance, like Jim, to be ambassadors ourselves, reciprocating each day the miraculous gifts we receive from the natural world and its remarkable inhabitants.