The call of a top research university is to remain at the forefront of technological change and innovation. To answer this call, the WSU Conner Museum is shifting with the times — expanding its taxidermy specimens to include collections of tissue and their stable isotope signatures.

Two years ago, after the museum added the University of Idaho birds and mammals collection to its holding, development began on a tissue collection derived from specimens useful for DNA and other analyses.

Now, with an extensive collection from expanded regions and time periods, researchers from the School of Biological Sciences are examining climatic, environmental, genetic and spatial changes and trends within the regional animal kingdom.

“What we’re doing is exploratory,” said Richard E. Johnson, director of Conner Museum. “It’s a very unique study.”

The study examines isotopes, derived from sub-samples of specimens such as hair, feathers, claws, plant leaves, roots, etc., and their spatio-temporal variation in stable isotope levels. Isotopes, forms of chemical elements with the same atomic numbers but different atomic masses, are used in medical, biological and ecological researches to follow substances and their processes through the body and environment.

While the use of stable isotopes in answering biological questions is growing, harvesting isotopes from the dead tissues of animals ranging over a 100-year period is entirely unique to the WSU study. With such cutting-edge research, it is unknown what phenomena may be uncovered upon analysis.

“At this point we’re just asking ‘what does this technique allow us to uncover,’” said Johnson. “This creates new questions and new ideas for science.”

Working with Johnson are Ray Lee, associate professor, and Hubert Schwabl, professor, in the School of Biological Sciences, and project leader Elizabeth Yohannes, a visiting post-doctoral scientist from the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

The scientists have discovered variable isotope trends in birds, mammals, insects and plants that point to shifts within species. While the impact of such information will remain unknown without extensive analysis, it could potentially implicate changes to the environment caused by climate change, land use, competition, pesticides or other factors that altered the diet of the organisms, Johnson said.

“Through this research we are toying with something that might turn into something really important,” he said.

For more information on Conner Museum collections and research, visit the website at