Jonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He recently told (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129212121) National Public Radio's Guy Raz that the thousands of jars of specimens held by the museum — including marine specimens from the Gulf — are an invaluable resource for scientists. In the case of the Gulf oil spill disaster, they provide a comparison point: if a scientist needs to know how oil have affected crab larve after the spill, it helps to know the characteristics of crab larve before the spill, for example. Each specimen is a recording of the animal, its characteristics, its environment and other details at a particular moment in time. At the KU Biodiversity Institute, we have more than 8 million such research specimens and tissue samples preserved in jars, freezers and cabinets.
Inside the herpetology collection
A jar of snake specimens
Most of the museum's reptile, amphibian and fish specimens are kept in jars, along with ethanol to preserve them. These collections contain nearly one million specimens that provide vital information to biologists doing research in areas ranging from evolutionary patterns to locomotion to conservation. Here are some interesting facts about our collections:
1.We try to keep the fluid collections in relative stasis in regard to temperature and humidity. The goal is 65 degrees F and 50% relative humidity. In practice, however, the temperature is fairly steady but the relative humidity varies quite a bit.
2.The oldest specimen in the herpetology collection is Ceratophrys aurita, KU 98129, collected in Brazil in 1863. It, however, is an exchange specimen. The oldest specimen collected by a museum affiliate is a Thamnophis elegans from New Mexico, KU 2408, collected in 1880. The oldest specimens collected in Kansas are two copperheads and a massasauga from Franklin county in 1888. The history of specimen collecting for these collections has been steady ever since. There are 60 specimens collected prior to 1900.
3.The specimen with catalogue number 'KU 001' is Alligator mississippiensis. The specimen is on display in the panorama at present for the Adopt-A-Specimen exhibit.
4.The sheer volume of ethanol used in the collection is impressive. We have a 1795 gallons for amphibians, and about 1875 gallons in large specimen tanks. The reptiles utilize about 1500 gallons. That's a 5,170 gallon capacity for reptiles and amphibians. Double that in fishes, and add a touch for the others. For everything together, 12,000 gallons total is a reasonable estimate. Of that, a substantial amount of space in the jars is taken by specimens and air, so we would actually have about 8,000 gallons of 70% EtOH (ethanol) in the wing. That's about 5,600 gallons of Ethanol (about 102 drums), significantly less than a typical residential swimming pool.
Fieldwork may be completed for this season in Peru, but now we must shift our focus to processing the thousands of specimens we have brought back with us. Since the specimen bags (whirlpaks) travelled back without preservative Ethanol,we spend a week adding EtOH to this large volume of samples. It is a smelly job: if the samples were left untreated, these precious specimens would rot. Finally, we store the collection (in a fridge) to sort each bag. It is a long road before we can have a beautiful identified pinned collection sitting in a drawer in our entomology collections.
Like any good ichthyologist, I keep saltwater fish. When I lost a Banggai cardinalfish recently, how did I deal with this tragedy? Not by flushing it or starting a pet cemetery, but by turning that loss into a gain for the Biodiversity Institute's Ichthyology collection.
It is true that aquarium fish make less than ideal specimens. It is impossible to get accurate, reliable information on the natural habitat, behavior, distribution, and population structure of such a specimen. However, for large-scale genetic studies, a specimen without such data can still provide valuable insight into the evolutionary relationships among fish species. Likewise, we can gain important morphological information to further inform our ideas on the evolution of structures like jaws and tails.
So how does a fish reach scientific immortality after passing on to the great aquarium in the sky? First, and not surprisingly, it's important to get the fish into the freezer as soon as possible to keep it from decomposing (genetic material starts to break down quickly as the fish decomposes). When we are ready to process the fish, we first take photos of it, since preservation often causes bright colors and patterns to fade. Then a small piece of muscle is taken from one side and added to our tissue collection--this leaves the other side of the fish intact for morphological studies. We then inject the fish with formalin and store it in alcohol, or clear and stain it.
While at first blush this may seem perverse, my cardinalfish now lives on as frozen tissue and fluid specimens, where it will provide valuable genetic and morphological information for researchers and students. I know I would much prefer that to being flushed.