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Biodiversity Blog

 

ULM fish specimens come to Biodiversity Collections

By Adam Cohen, Melissa Casarez and Dean Hendrickson (Ichthyology Collection)

Tulane

Some of ULM's Texas holdings that are now at UT's Biodiversity Collections. Photo taken at Tulane prior to packing

In spring of 2017, administrators at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM, historically NLU – Northeastern Louisiana University) made the decision to get rid of their natural history collections, including their large fish collection of 74,441 specimen jars that represents the life’s work of Dr. Neil Douglas, author of Fishes of Louisiana (1974), and other ULM biologists. The original Facebook post announcing ULM’s decision prompted immediate media coverage (Washington Post, Science Magazine and others) and concern by the natural history museum community, which, recognizing the collection’s immense scientific value, rallied to the rescue. Dr. Hank Bart, Curator of Ichthyology at Tulane University, and diverse collaborators including our own Fish Collection, secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to take the entire fish collection to Tulane, where they had the space to organize the jars. UT’s Biodiversity Collections funded our efforts to retrieve and incorporate the specimens into the fish collection.

We knew what we were getting into when we stepped up and agreed to acquire the collection’s Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico holdings, since over a decade before, we secured the ULM collection’s database and incorporated it into our Fishes of Texas Project. Our work with those data demonstrated the value of these specimens, and our staff made a trip to visit ULM in 2010, before the collection was made inaccessible by a move to temporary storage. The purpose of the trip was to examine specimens that we had flagged as suspicious, usually because, given what we then knew of the distributions of Texas’s fishes, they were from surprising locations and dates. Despite our suspicions, however, many of the flagged ULM records were correctly identified and thus documented range extensions or previously unknown outlier populations, thus correcting our prior incomplete knowledge of historical ranges of many species. By including specimens from the 1928 Texas expedition by Arkansas’ Byron C. Marshall to collect blind salamanders and perhaps sirens, the ULM collection also provides some of the oldest specimens collected in Texas, including the first record of Mexican Tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) collected at San Marcos, outside its native range. It also has other rarely collected species, such as subterranean blind catfishes (Satan eurystomus) and (Trogloglanis pattersoni) from the Edwards Aquifer deep under San Antonio.

graph

Distribution of ULM records through time peaking in the 1970's. The oldest records are from the 1920’s and 30’s.

Even in 2010, it was obvious that the collection had seen little recent use, and there were no staff dedicated to the ichthyology collection. Specimens were difficult to find, and some jars had dried up. Even though we managed to find many of the specimens we wanted to examine, to our frustration, others remained unfound. We hoped those jars existed and were only not found because of simple past mis-shelving.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hank Bart, Justin Mann (Collection Manager), and other staff at Tulane University, we again will have a chance to find those “lost” specimens to examine them and the data on their labels. In fact, once cataloged into our collection’s database, the data (updated with missing data found on labels), and specimens will be available to the world. Researchers will also be able to access them at our facility, request loans, and, because we regularly supply our specimen holdings data to online data aggregators (GBIF, VertNet, iDigBio), as well as our online Fishes of Texas Project database, anyone will be able to examine and use the data.

 TexasMap

Spatial distribution of 2,003 ULM specimen records from the Fishes of Texas Project. The specimens behind these records are now housed at the UT Biodiversity Collections. Note that we received another 100 jars that are not yet georeferenced, largely from Mexico, and New Mexico.

On March 27, we (Adam Cohen and Melissa Casarez) rented a moving truck with a 15x8 foot holding space and drove the 520 miles to Tulane, where the specimens awaited us, held in one of their World War II ammunition storage bunkers converted into collections facilities. The next day we inventoried and packed 2,103 jars and loaded the resulting 53 boxes into our truck. Luckily, we had the much-needed help of their Collection Manager, Justin Mann, who had been preparing for our visit by organizing the jars by regions. It was a long day, and Justin agreed to stay late with us, but eventually the truck was packed. The next day was also long as we drove back to Austin and unloaded.

Now begins the laborious process of integrating the ULM specimens and their data into our collection. Ryan Rash, who started working in the fish collection a year and a half ago as a volunteer and is now temporary staff, will be responsible for the day-to-day efforts. This includes transferring specimens from isopropanol to ethanol (through a stepping process), replacing jars and lids that don’t match our standard sizes, adding our own jar labels, and perhaps the biggest job - measuring the largest and smallest specimens in each jar. Luckily, we have ULM’s original database and our improvements to it, coming from our Fishes of Texas Project, as well as several volunteers now to help Ryan. Thus data entry should go relatively quickly and proceed in a semi-automated way.

 

 

1928fish  catfish 
Mexican Tetras (Astyanax mexicanus) collected in 1928 from San Marcos (NLU15048) represent some of the oldest specimens in the fish collection of the Biodiversity Collections. Two ULM bale-top jars containing rare Texas blind catfish. The two species (Satan eurystomus and Trogloglanis pattersoni) occur in the Edwards Aquifer of Central Texas and are represented in the specimen record with only a handful of specimens. Thus, these specimens represent an important addition to our collection. Note the Fishes of Texas label taped to the outside of the jar that we (Dean Hendrickson in this case) left at ULM when we visited back in 2010.
bunker Melissa
One of Tulane’s World War II era ammunition bunkers converted into collections facilities. These are excellent for holding collections since they are temperature buffered by the earth built up on all sides and heavy-duty construction. Tulane staff used one like this to organize the ULM specimens for distribution to the various receiving collections. Melissa Casarez (Biodiversity Collections, Ichthyology staff) taking inventory and packing ULM specimens in one of Tulane's bunkers.
tryck working
The 53 packed and loaded ULM specimens fill almost entirely the 15X8 foot floor of the moving truck. Our own gear thrown in too. Ryan Rash (left) begins the arduous task of changing fluid preservative and jars for the ULM specimens before they can be cataloged and shelved. Long-time volunteer Dale Jaroszewski (right) assists. 
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