Archives of Life: LSU Museum of Natural Science

By Lauren Hull, Twitter: @BiophilicBios

This story is one in a series on the Louisiana Museum of Natural History.  I reserve rights to all photos and written content.

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Prior to the 1950’s, this place was a cafeteria.  You would never know, given the detailed dioramas, glass cases and interactive exhibits of the LSU Museum of Natural Science.  This gem, nestled in Foster Hall of Louisiana State University, is one of seven collections in a network called the Louisiana Museum of Natural History.  At the LSU Museum of Natural Science, the public can see animals from around the world, including the original Mike the Tiger.  But most of the action, and what the museum’s international reputation is based on, lies behind these doors.

The doors leading into the research collection.

The doors leading into the research collection.

Behind these doors are the world’s third largest university-based bird collection, the world’s largest genetic resources collection, impressive mammal, reptile and amphibian collections, and a rapidly expanding fish collection.  In total, the museum has over 2.5 million specimens.  But why should anyone care about this massive collection of dead animals?  Is it really necessary?

Given the Museum’s accomplishments: securing over 3.7 million dollars in grant money, discovering of new species, insights into human disease, publishing hundreds of scientific papers, providing educational opportunities for students, and conducting public outreach, I say yes.

In addition to the collections, the LSU Museum of Natural Science houses 9 curators, an average of 30 graduate students, an outreach coordinator, a handful of undergraduates and high school students, and a group of volunteers.  These people create and uphold the museum’s international reputation. Outreach Coordinator Valerie Derouen was kind enough to take me behind the scenes to experience what many of the public never get to see.

Donna Dittmann, Manager of Genetic Resources/Ornithology, and a graduate student use the collection to identify a hummingbird.

Donna Dittmann, Manager of Genetic Resources/Ornithology, and a graduate student use the collection to identify a hummingbird.

We step through the doors into the bird collection: a massive room with skylights housing thousands of birds from all over the world.  We shuffle through cabinets of birds, each marked with identification tags including when and where it was collected, and 20 other variables relevant to science, such as size, weight, body condition, and so on.  And while the collection creatures may be dead, we happen across science in action, as some of the collection is being used to identify a hummingbird that was found in downtown Baton Rouge.

Next we move into the mammals, where skeletons and skins stack to the ceiling.  Each bone is marked with tiny numbers and labels corresponding to catalog information.  Detailed measurements and notes in the catalog can be used to identify variation in a particular species, or its change over time.  The Curator of Mammals, Jacob Esselstyn, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to explore the mammal family tree and determine relationships between different species. This information can be used to support studies of biogeography and conservation biology.

The herpetology collection, made up of reptiles and amphibians is next on our journey.  We descend into a cool, dark room filled with shelves upon shelves of preserved specimens. Reptiles and amphibians do not keep well in the taxidermic stylings of birds and mammals.  They must be stored in glass jars of ethanol or other fluids.   Over time the fluids leach color and patterns from the specimens, which is accelerated by light or temperature change.  Regardless of aesthetic considerations, this collection still holds detailed information on morphology (the physical features of individual organisms) and geographic location of collected specimens. One of the most interesting members of the collection is the smallest vertebrate in the world, a recent discovery by Curator of Herpetology Dr. Chris Austin and his graduate student Eric Rittmeyer.  Found among the leaves of Papua New Guinea’s rainforest floor, this tiny frog is less than half the diameter of a dime.

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The fish collection also holds recently discovered species, such as the Louisiana pancake batfish found in the Gulf of Mexico by Curator of Ichthyology (fish), Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty.  The fish collection is stored in a similar fashion to that of the reptiles and amphibians.  This method of preservation fixes the cells of organisms, making the genetic information inaccessible.  Thankfully, the museum boasts the largest genetic resources collection in the world.  Separate samples, such a fin clips, are stored in deep freeze below -80 degrees, and are requested by researchers all over the globe.

The applications for research and educational opportunities stemming from the LSU Museum of Natural Science are undeniable.  Though the public may not see the hours each staff member spends in the field, at the lab bench, or behind a computer screen, their contributions are making lives better.  Their work informs conservation practice and provides insight into the natural world we all seek to understand.  People like Valerie, the museum’s outreach coordinator, invite us into realms of science communicated through displays and dioramas.  They guide us through public museums, and sometimes give us the once in a lifetime chance to see what lies behind those doors.

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