Lizards, Snakes, and Frogs…Oh Yeah! with Jose Rosado, Curatorial Associate in Herpetology


José Rosado, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of for Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today I'm speaking with José Rosado, the Collections Manager and Curatorial Associate of the Herpetology Collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a collection of roughly 345,000 amphibians and reptiles. José has essentially worked his entire professional career in museum collections, beginning at 16 years old in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I wanted to learn more about what drove him to the museum world as a young man, and what today, nearly 50 years later, keeps his heart fluttering about the collections he keeps. Here he is. José Rosado, thank you so much for being here, and welcome to the show.


José Rosado 01:21

Well, thank you. It's my pleasure.


Jennifer Berglund 01:29

You grew up in Harlem. You were a bookworm, enraptured by natural history dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, which was nearby. Describe how these interests and experiences ultimately led to a career in museums.


José Rosado 01:47

I say it's kind of a fortuitous situation. It just kind of happened by happenstance. I was interested in animals, and I was always interested in the things around me. I don't know if I knew about natural history or anything like that, but I was interested in animals, and so as a kid, I grew up having a lot of pets, you know, you start with your hamsters and things like that, but turtles and lizards and whatnot. My mom was very tolerant. She even let me have snakes. But as a young boy growing up, I used to spend a lot of my Sundays going to the museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and learning about things there, looking at dioramas, checking out things, keeping a scrapbook of what I saw, and what the animals were, etc., and I always used to wonder what people did there, and I used to watch staff members in lab coats walk around, and whatnot, saying, "one of those days, I'm gonna be one of those people." And when I was going to high school, I was a member of the photography club, and a friend of mine, Emilio, happened to be working at the museum doing part-time work as a clerk in photography, and was leaving, and he had told the staff that he would find a replacement, and he just happened to ask me one day if I wanted to get a part-time job working at the museum, and I was just like, "sure, why not?"


Jennifer Berglund 03:08

Hell yeah!


José Rosado 03:09

You know, I wanted to do it. And I started working, and I think I was 16, 17, started work, I was maybe younger, anyway, started work in the photo division. They have a photographic division, as a clerk, you know, working with the staff there, assisting them, taking photographs, etc, mailing educational slides and things all over the country.


Jennifer Berglund 03:33

What do you mean by educational slides?


José Rosado 03:35

They would make series of Kodachrome. They don't make Kodachromes anymore, but you know, color slides of a lot of material that was in the museum, and it would have like a thematic presentation for school groups. So they would have, like, a school department taught by them, and it would be, like, a series on dinosaurs, a series on mammals, a series on cultures like the natives from Papua New Guinea, etc. So they will collect all these things from their exhibits, but also from field work and whatnot, and organize them as a series of educational slide programs that they can use in teaching, and so, I would assist in putting those things together and sending out shipments of these things as well as photographs for publications at the photo division, had the old classic eight by ten glass negatives that they had from years and years. The department went back since the museum's beginning, and so they had a huge collection of old glass photographic negatives. They still have the department there, historically keeping archive, all that material. But anyway, across that department was one branch of the herpetology department. So, herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles, and I met the staff there and became friends with them, and eventually met the curators from the department, and that's how I basically got into herpetology and how it started when they gave me my first summer job there when the photographic division couldn't keep me on for a summer. So the curator hired me to work in the animal room, taking care of the reptiles and amphibians they had there for research, so it was kind of cool. In the Department of Herpetology, when I started, I took care, basically assisted the staff taking care of feeding and cleaning the cages of snakes and different lizards that they kept there for research, as well as doing things like what I do now, which is wrapping up specimens for loans, answering queries about what specimens they had in the collection. So we had a lot of different things that we did, and I continue to do in my current position. I went to the City College of the City University of New York, and one of the reasons I went there is because I was pretty sure I wanted to study biology, and it had one of the finest program in the country at the time. And so I wanted to get in there, and also one of the benefits was that if you're a city resident, it's basically free. So


Jennifer Berglund 06:08

Yeah, that's wonderful.


José Rosado 06:09

So I went to college basically free. I mean, $50 a term was all I had to pay.


Jennifer Berglund 06:15

That's crazy.


José Rosado 06:16

It's amazing.


Jennifer Berglund 06:17

It does not exist anymore.


José Rosado 06:19

Non-existant, absolutely not. And but I went there, and I studied biology, and from there, I wanted to work, and they had work study programs that actually linked city organizations, with City College students, and the American Museum was listed as a city organization because it was partly funded by the City of New York, and so I was able, basically, to connect the paperwork, and they made the job available, and the funds were available, and so I got work study funds at the time to continue to work there after school. Through the university period, it grew because I'd been there and had experience already, and as I stayed on, I got more experience and they let me do more things. Like, you know, it was a big thing to actually do entries in the catalog, for instance, I mean, that was only done by one person, one of my supervisors, but as I grew in experience, they let me do it, especially


Jennifer Berglund 07:18

So this is the catalog that keeps track of all the specimens that you have in the collection.


José Rosado 07:23

Yes, it's basically a book, a big ledger, like an accounting ledger, where you actually wrote all the information about the specimen. So, it's given a unique number, like our social security number, each specimen gets a number, and then that number corresponds to a line in a book. And on that line, you would put down the name, the scientific name, the locality, and any other data that came along with the specimen.


Jennifer Berglund 07:49

Like who collected it, what habitat it was collected in...


José Rosado 07:52

Yeah, if we had the information, yeah, we would put it in there. The only limitation was the amount of space you had on that line. We tried to squeeze in as much as we could with handwriting and permanent ink. So, one of the things that you have to do is be very detail-oriented and be very careful in writing. So, it's not something that they let you do unless you were doing it for a while. So it's kind of cool. So yeah, over time, I got more responsibility. So yes, I worked through there through college.


Jennifer Berglund 08:26

Thinking back to your beginnings at the American Museum, I can just imagine being a kid that grew up in Harlem, in the middle of a city, working at the museum was a way for you to be connected to the natural world that you wouldn't have had access to otherwise. Would you say that? Or did it kind of create sort of an awareness.


José Rosado 08:45

One of my greatest thrills was getting stuff from Papua New Guinea in Australia from this gentleman by the name of Fred Parker, who was a conservation agent for both of them when still, when Papua New Guinea and Australia was still united. He was a chief Ranger, natural history officer, and was able to collect a lot of exotic material, and had agreements with three or four major institutions, I think the California Academy, the American Museum and the MCZ itself. And we would get tremendous shipments, you know, periodically, like, three or four big boxes full of snakes, lizards, frogs, really stuff that I had not physically seen because they're from, you know, Australia, Papua New Guinea area, and they were fascinating animals. And so it was my job to, like, sort them, and then try to identify them. I mean, basically, okay, that's a snake, that's a turtle, that's a frog, but also down to, like, the genus, you know, what type of frog is this? What family? And so I will be shown resources, things, you know, like keys to animals and stuff. And that's how I learned all this stuff that I did, just by doing that stuff, but I was always excited when a new box came, and I would ask my boss, you know, the curator, "can get to that?" You know, he's sometimes like, "Yeah, go ahead and start sorting it out for us, we'll prep it up," or he say, "no, you got other things to do." But I was like, always the first one to like, "can I open that box to see what's in it?" And I got better and better at identifying things, doing that just by myself, and with the help of a couple of, you know, my bosses and supervisors, George, particularly George Foley. And really, that's what they let me do. "Here you go. Here's a box. Go ahead and separate it out and whatnot." And then they would give me the field notes and say, "okay, here's, here's the answers." No, it was fun, because I got to see stuff that excited me. I mean, you know, all these weird, big snakes, lizards with fringes, you know, all these specialized groups of animals that have developed certain things that people normally don't see, you know, you get to see these pictures in books and whatnot, but you don't get to actually touch them, and feel what they feel like, you know, the scales. So it was really cool. It was really fascinating. And then just to understand how you separate things, just the characteristics, you know, like, animals. Look at lizards, they all tend to have four legs, but there are actual lizards that have no legs, legless lizards, you know. Some of them come from Australia because they live in sandy areas where they don't need legs. They move just like a snake because legs become an impediment. They create friction. So yeah, you get to learn a lot of little fascinating things, you know. Some people would think, oh, that that's legless. That's a snake. No, it's not. It's a lizard. And their ways of telling apart, you know. For the most part lizard have ear holes behind their eyes. Snakes don't. So you got a lot of little characteristics that you begin to see when you start to try and figure out what they are. So it's really cool. So I find that really exciting.


Jennifer Berglund 11:58

When did you move to the MCZ, and how has your job managing collections, how has that evolved?


José Rosado 12:07

Well, I came to the MCZ in 77, July of 77, when they were looking for a curatorial associate in the department. The previous person had left, and at that time, it was a grant position, and Dr. Ernest Williams, who was the curator at that time, was looking for a replacement, and was asking his colleagues, who would be, probably, one of the best candidates, and that my name came up, and he contacted me directly at the American Museum, and asked me to come up for an interview. And I had dealings with the MCZ over, you know, just loans and stuff that we sent back and forth, questions, you know. And I'd always wondered how this MCZ department operated, because we'd had some issues with them, so I figured, hey, you know, I'll go for an interview and check it out, see how it works. And as it turns out, I had a very interesting conversation interview with Dr. Williams, and basically, you know, I had really no intention of taking the position, so I didn't hold back, I let them know what I thought and how things should be done and it impressed Dr. Williams enough that he offered me the position right then and there. It took me a while to decide because it was a big move, and I had other things to consider. But I did. And it was an interesting challeng, I would say. There were so many things going on that I figured, "oh, god, this is gonna be interesting." So, I had learned a lot about running collections and doing collection work at the American Museum, and I thought that the stuff that I had learned would be very useful to apply to the MCZ collection, and turns out that it was. It's been a long time. And in that period of time, I mean, I think we're talking about 43 years, 44 years, the position has changed, and it has evolved, and so have practices in managing collections, research collections, Natural History Collections, in a very, very positive direction. And so, at the time, when I started in '77, there were really just basic concerns. There were two things that were going on at the MCZ. One was the start of national support for Natural History Collections to the National Science Foundation, which would support grants to renovate infrastructure of Natural History Collections. So basically, physical things needed to be renovated like storage space, shelving, etc. When I came to the MCZ, the department was basically bursting at the seams because there was basically no more space to put things because of the way we stored material.


Jennifer Berglund 14:49

The quintessential dusty museum collection.


José Rosado 14:52

Exactly. With the stationary shelves and everything, like, and dusty conditions. At the time, the best possible conditions for storing material. I mean, bottles that were glass-stoppered jars, which weren't the best, but all that needed to change. And the National Science Foundation grants allowed us to facilitate that change over time, and so one of the first jobs was to start working on stuff that my predecessor has started the process, and my first priority was just to finish that. That was important, but, remember the quintessential condition of the museum at that time was this. I mean, I was down in the basement, I used to call it the dungeons, and it was, you know, dusty, and so we had to clean all that up. So, I would spend a good time of my time in the beginning, five years or so, going around, making sure that the collection didn't dry up. And so we would hire undergraduate students to spend the days going up and down the aisles and refilling jars that were evaporating, or if they, you know, just a little bit, or if they, in fact, had kind of evaporated any more than a quarter, we would basically replace all the old alcohol and put new alcohol in, and make sure that the caps were all nice and then cross our fingers. It worked for a couple years until we had to do it again.


Jennifer Berglund 16:20

One of my favorite things to do at the MCZ is to go into the herpetology collection, into the large reptile cases where we have the taxidermy specimens of, like, Galapagos tortoises and crocodiles.


José Rosado 16:33

Oh, yeah.


Jennifer Berglund 16:33

It's just amazing. You just, you open the door to these closets, and there are just specimens.


José Rosado 16:39

Turtles get big.


Jennifer Berglund 16:41

They really do. It's amazing you can fit all of them in


José Rosado 16:45

That's part of the job, trying to find space or the appropriate containment units, shall we say, you know. Where do you store these things? We do have large tanks that hold some of the whole things that are stored in alcohol. We also have the dry specimens that you speak of like Galapagos Tortoises that we have in these large cabinets and on shelves, and those have all been modernized since when I first started there, so everything now is stored in really appropriate containment units, shall I say, depending on what it is. I mean, we go from bottles, you know, to these large cabinets, so we have it, and we're still going to be changing some of these things because some of them are still not what we consider state of the art storage. So, we have specimens that have come up, I think you're familiar with these, some of the specimens that have come up from displays in the public halls, you know, 7, 13-foot alligators, or models and stuff that need to be put in these large shelf units, etc. Those are things we're currently working on. It's kind of cool.


Jennifer Berglund 17:51

That's quite a job.


José Rosado 17:54

Sometimes it's a matter of doing a lot of problem solving, you know. What do you do with a, you know, an alligator it's, like, 10 feet and on a plinth that adds another two feet on each side, and you want to keep it nicely stored. Where do you put it?


Jennifer Berglund 18:09

It's like, super weird Tetris.


José Rosado 18:11

Yeah. But yeah, but we find ways, I mean, we, you know, get the funding and get a large custom cabinet, for instance. That's where we keep our Galapagos Tortoises, as you've seen. The Galapagos Tortoises are fantastic.


Jennifer Berglund 18:27

Some of them are type specimens.


José Rosado 18:30

That's correct. Some of them are.


Jennifer Berglund 18:34

Would you explain what a type specimen is?


José Rosado 18:36

Sure. In science, when we find something new, that was just first discovered, and yet to be described scientifically, there's a procedure on how you do this, and one of the things that is accepted, and is done, just to give you an example, I go to the Galapagos Island and find a set of new lizards of those land iguanas, which actually is true. The Pink Iguana was recently named. I go out, I might collect them, I will in one way or another find a voucher specimen, a physical specimen that I will sit down and describe according to current protocol, scientifically. So I would detail what it looks like--how many scales it has on the chin, all the characteristics that are intrinsic or part of that specimen, so I would morphologically describe it. I'll tell you it's a lizard, to be simplistic. You know, I'll tell you, it's a lizard, it has scales down the back. It has a fringe thorns that come out from the back and all those frills. It has this number of scales, the size of legs, etc. And when I do that, I will publish it, I have to select one unique animal that actually represents that, and I describe it as unique in the world. That specimen is called the holotype in the publication. And it's so noted in the publication that you describe it in. With those specimens, you also have a secondary class of type called paratypes, and those are also noted in the publication and described. The basis of that description forms what are the boundaries of what we call that new animal. And so you'll spend your time comparing it to other animals that are related to it to make sure it's different, and distinct. And that's what you're doing. You're separating in from what exists already, you select the types, the holotype, and the paratypes, those are the secondary types, to give you an idea of the range of its characters. So, for instance, a human being is not just one thing that looks like me. There are hundreds and hundreds of us that look very different. But when you describe Homo sapiens, you have to describe kind of the range of differences that can exist to give you, kind of, the boundaries of that thing. And those are the animals that we call holotypes, or holotype, which is a unique one, and then the paratypes that we use. And we have a good number of them in the collection. I think we have about four, or at least two holotypes of Galapagos tortoises.


Jennifer Berglund 21:19

And I just want our audience to understand how significant and amazing that is that we have the first specimens described of this species that we all know and love. They're significant in the history of science.


José Rosado 21:37

Yes, they are. They're, they're the most valuable specimens in the natural history collection because they're the standards. In the government, we have the Bureau of Standards, which actually gives you a physical representation of a yard, a meter, etc. These are the standards that give you the biological standard for a taxa, an animal that we call this. Okay, so, whatever the name, scientific name, this is what it is, and that's what the holotypes represent. So they're a standard in natural history. So they document the diversity of our planet. This exists not only in herpetology, but in Mammalogy, mammals, birds, etc. And these are the actual unique animals that represent what we see that we described as this bird or this Galapagos Tortoise, and they're very important because they set those boundaries. They identify and give you this point of reference, and so this is a Galapagos turtle of this species. This is this, this is this. Yeah. So they're very important. The most important animals and Natural History collections.


Jennifer Berglund 23:01

As someone who's fully realized his childhood dreams of working in a natural history museum, what advice would you give to young naturalists with similar dreams?


José Rosado 23:13

Gee, it would seem cliche, it's just to simply say, follow your dreams. I think, given my experience, in real sense, yeah, that's what you do. If you're excited about something, go for it! Now, that that's hard to sit down and give you a, you know, point by point way, how do you approach it? But it's like, if you're really interested in something, and it gives you excitement, follow it. Follow through. Do what it takes to kind of develop it and see where it takes you. If you have an interest, then nurture it. If you find you're nurturing it, find people who can actually support you doing that, who can actually expand and give you some opportunities to check things out, even if it's, like, joining the herp club, or even as, like, being able to visit a museum and get a tour. You know, check out things for yourself, see where it could go, and follow that. And then obviously, you know, you have to get educated, but you're going to do that anyway, so find things you'd like to take. I have been lucky in my career because, as my wife likes to say, "you're the only person I know who enjoys going into work every day." It's because I like what I do, and I think you need to find something that you like doing that keeps you motivated and keeps you excited and expands your mind, as well as your life in a way. So, I think the easiest thing to say to people is, like, if you find something interesting, follow it. And once you start to follow it, see if you can get other people who are interested in it to expand it for you to give you doors to open.


Jennifer Berglund 24:55

Jose Rosado, thank you so much for being here. This has been really fun.


José Rosado 24:59

It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.


Jennifer Berglund 25:09

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Jose Rosado, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!