By Darrell J. Pehr

Center for Natural History Collections

Group proposes central museum for 250,000 specimens
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David Richman, curator of the arthropod museum in Skeen Hall, examines a male goliath birdwing butterfly in the collection. The butterfly is found in Papua, New Guinea.

Darrell J. Pehr
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The arthropod museum collection includes these cecropia moths from Pennsylvania. They are part of the giant silkworm moth family, which includes some of the largest moths in the world.

Darrell J. Pehr

Some might see Arizona as the best place to marvel at the rich colors found in petrified wood. Entomologists may be drawn to the rain forests of Central and South America to get a glimpse of the giant Hercules beetle. Birdwatchers, meanwhile, may consider grasslands in Madagascar as the most likely place to check out the surprising plumage of the hoopoe.

But don’t pack your field binoculars and pith helmet just yet.

Consider spending an afternoon at New Mexico State University, where natural history collections contain more than 250,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, arachnids, plants, microorganisms, rocks, minerals, fossils and even frozen tissue samples. NMSU is home to world-class fossils and massive slabs of petrified wood in the Zuhl Collection, huge walking sticks and vivid butterflies in the Skeen Hall arthropod museum and plant specimens in two herbaria that were collected over more than a century. Some of the specimens are truly unique – mounted insects that are now thought to be extinct, for example, in the arthropod museum and more than 600 specimens in the biology department’s herbarium that represent the work of researchers as they described plants from the Southwest that were previously unknown to science.

“These collections reflect the biodiversity in New Mexico and to the area south of us,” says Daniel J. Howard, head of the biology department. “This is a relatively unexplored part of the world, but we’ve had botanists doing very good work for a very long time. The fact that this region is poorly known and has been poorly represented by other museums makes our collections important.”

The collections also serve as a roadmap for researchers. “All these collections contain invaluable data on the environment,” Howard says. “They help us understand what’s changing about the area, about what was present and what is present now, what is disappearing and what is appearing.”

But the collections are scattered across campus in five departments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. Some are open to the public, others are open only by appointment, and some are open only to researchers or used mainly for diagnostic purposes or teaching. Also, some collections are duplicated: NMSU has two vertebrate collections, two herbaria and two arthropod collections.

A group of NMSU faculty members has been working since 2000 to ensure these incredible collections are properly curated and made more accessible to the public, students and researchers. In an effort to begin to think of the various collections as a whole, the group formed the Center for Natural History Collections, with a mission of preserving, documenting, protecting, enlarging and enhancing the natural history collections at the university.

“We want to be able to keep the collections for teaching, research and education,” says Rebecca Creamer, associate professor in NMSU’s Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science. The center has partnered with the Institute for Natural Resource Analysis and Management, which manages biodiversity, spatial and environmental information resources in massive computer databases, to further protect the NMSU collections.

In February, the center proposed the establishment of a state-of-the-art, permanent facility, which would gather the various collections across campus and include an auditorium, meeting rooms, display areas, offices, specimen storage, teaching rooms and research facilities.

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Graduate students, from left, Patrick Alexander, Nabeeh Hasan and, far right, Lillis Urban preserve flowers in a plant press with Donovan Bailey, assistant professor of biology, outside the biology department herbarium.

Darrell J. Pehr
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An elk skull is part of the collection in the vertebrate museum at Foster Hall.

Darrell J. Pehr
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David Richman adjusts a collection of giant beetles at the arthropod museum in Skeen Hall.

Darrell J. Pehr

“This effort reflects the importance of curating the collections and having a professional staff to care for them and be sure they are curated and well-managed,” Howard says.

Even in their scattered status, the university’s collections are in demand. David Richman, curator of the Arthropod museum in Skeen Hall and a science specialist and graduate professor, estimates 1,000 people visit the museum each year by appointment, and specimens from the museum are seen by an estimated 10,000 people each year at events and in schools across the state.

More than 1,000 pieces of petrified wood, fossils, minerals and geological artifacts are on permanent display in the Zuhl Collection, which is open to the public Monday through Friday in the Alumni and Visitors Center on the west end of the campus. Curator Marilyn Huff says the sheer size and weight of many of the specimens would prohibit their relocation to a central museum, but smaller pieces could be displayed there. In the Alumni and Visitors Center’s new addition, for example, walls had to be specially constructed and brackets were custom-designed to handle the weight of pieces that are attached to walls.

Zuhl pieces also are on display in the Zuhl Library, in the provost’s office and outside Breland Hall, home of the Geological Sciences Department and other offices.

Huff supports the idea of a central museum for the other collections, in collaboration with the Zuhl Collection.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she says, especially for visiting groups of schoolchildren. “The kids go from place to place to place. This would make it a lot easier for teachers.”

Richman, Howard and Creamer are members of an executive committee established to further the goals of the Center for Natural History Collections. Support for a central museum is starting to spread, and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Waded Cruzado-Salas and College of Agriculture and Home Economics Dean Lowell Catlett are doing what they can to help. The next step will be to seek funding.

Howard expects a central museum would be invaluable for researchers, not only because a combined collection would be easier to study, but also because having researchers working together in the same place would encourage collaboration, synergies and idea sharing.

“We really hope the museum serves as a catalyst to help people explore common interests,” Howard says. “People tend to communicate with people around them. Different buildings or even different floors of the same building can be barriers to a good flow of communication. If we had a single place where people would gather on a regular basis, for conferences, talks, etc., it would do a great deal to marshal the incredible talent we have here.”

For more information:
Donovan Bailey, herbarium director, (505) 646-7021, dbailey@nmsu.edu or David B. Richman, arthropod museum curator, (505) 646-2900, nmbugman@taipan.nmsu.edu