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Fish Preserves

February 24, 2000

Mark Miester
Michael DeMocker

If you don't know the Tulane University Museum of Natural History exists, you are not alone. But tucked in its subterranean bunkers is a trove of zoological treasures well-known in the American research community.

"I hear the ladybugs are back."

Like the aforementioned Hippodamia convergens, which have inexplicably descended on the Tulane Museum of Natural History in Belle Chasse, La., Harold Dundee's words hover, somewhat fantastically, in the morning air.

"In the last few days, I've been noticing a little upswing in the number of them," continues Dundee, retired professor of biology and curator of amphibians and reptiles at the museum, as the polka-dotted bugs float dizzily by. "There must be a pheromone." Pheromone or not, a swarm of ladybugs is a fittingly poetic plague for a natural history museum, a nationally recognized zoological treasure that has enjoyed a quiet, subterranean existence for a quarter of a century.

Tucked away on a sprawling, wooded site on the west bank of the Mississippi, just upriver from English Turn, the Tulane Museum of Natural History looks more like a top-secret military outpost than an important research collection.

Three rows of earth-covered bunkers, vestiges of the site's previous life as a World War II-era munitions depot, line the grounds and represent the only encroachment of civilization on a tract shared with deer, wild boar and other fauna.

"This land has been a lot of things, going back to the early 1700s," says Henry Bart, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane and director of the museum since 1993. "There was an old Spanish fort, Fort St. Leon. Then there was a big plantation out here. Sugar cane." Cane eventually gave way to concrete bunkers, built by the U.S. Navy during WWII to store ammunition.

The Navy abandoned the site following the Korean conflict, and in 1964 U.S. Rep. F. Edward Hebert oversaw a transfer of the land to Tulane to be used for bioenvironmental research. In all, 27 bunkers dot the grounds of what is now known as the F. Edward Hebert Riverside Research Center. Most are used for surplus storage -- desks and chairs retired from the uptown campus -- or are just empty. One houses the U.S.-Japan Biomedical Research Lab, a neuroendocrinology research center headed by Tulane's Akira Arimura.

At the northeast corner of the site, spread across four 10,000-square-foot bunkers and housing literally millions of residents, is the Tulane Museum of Natural History. The museum might be a little off the beaten path, but to the biologists who use its collection of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles, it's a hidden zoological treasure.

For 25 years, the museum has served as an invaluable resource for scientists and researchers studying the relationships of species, the branch of biology known as systematics.

"Let's say someone wants to understand variation in a particular species over its geographic range," explains Bart. "There's a big expense involved in going out to all the different places where that species lives and collecting enough specimens in different life stages to understand variation in the species."

While the prospect of devoting six months to traveling the country, scoop net in hand, in search of lamprey might sound appealing to intrepid researchers, it's not so appealing to university budget managers. Most systematists turn to museum collections like Tulane's to line up specimens.

As a repository, cataloguer and curator of a wide variety of species, the museum takes much of the time and expense out of field work by supplying biologists with preserved specimens with which to work.

The first thing you need to understand about the museum is that it is a research museum, not an exhibit museum. Taxidermed tigers, mounted mongooses and skyscraping skeletons of stegosauri may be the images conjured by the name, but the fact is, most such specimens are useless to researchers. "They get high light exposure and don't last very long," Bart says. "The things that are studied by scientists are usually kept in places where you don't really get to go."

The Tulane Museum of Natural History, as you might have gathered, is one of those places where you don't really get to go, a repository whose customers are not school groups but scientists. Every month, the museum receives specimens collected by biologists across the Southeast in the course of doing ecological or conservation-oriented research. The specimens typically arrive preserved in formaldehyde, which protects them from decomposition.

Museum staff members catalog and curate the specimens before submerging them in jars of alcohol, where they'll float serenely in an ethyl bath, holding with them a wealth of information about their life history, environment, ecology, evolution and more. The museum's holdings include collections of invertebrates (primarily crawfish, crabs, shrimps and mussels), amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals and vertebrate fossils.

But the museum's largest collection by far, and the one for which it is nationally known, is its fish collection. Looking for a harelip sucker, extinct since the early 1900s? You'll find one. Looking for a bluehead chub, pulled from North Carolina's Bearswallow Creek, circa 1962? You'll find 11. Looking for a Pecos pupfish or a scowling silverside? A speckled dace? A Tennessee dace? Looking for a Carolina pygmy sunfish? You'll find them all. In fact, you'll find more than 7 million fish.

The Tulane fish collection is the largest collection of post-larval fishes in the world. Its 190,000 lots, which refer to specimens collected in a particular location at a particular time, make it the third-largest overall collection in North America, trailing only the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Let me show you the fish range, as we call it," Bart says, motioning toward double doors at the end of the hall. "This is where we keep the fish."

The fish range is an awe-inspiring sight. Stretched across the concrete floor are 23 double rows of steel shelves, each 10 feet high and each packed to capacity with glass bail-top jars. In those jars, arranged in phylogenetic order, from the most primitive species (lampreys) to the most complex (by current classifications, flounders and pufferfish), is the product of 50 years of collecting fish from across the Southeastern United States and beyond.

In terms of systematic research value, a measure of the diversity of species in the collection, the museum ranks 12th nationally, a ranking more reflective of its regional focus -- the museum specializes in the freshwater river basins of the Gulf South -- than its national importance.

"Naturally, centers that have collections from all over the world are going to rank higher," Bart says. "Where we would rank higher is if there were a rating system for ecological and environmental research value. What's unique about our collection is we have very high repetition of collections from the same places over long periods of time. We've gone back to some places over and over for almost 50 years, so we can talk about the history of biotic change."

The museum has existed in its current form since 1976, when the university's zoological collections at Riverside were formally designated as the Tulane Museum of Natural History. But Tulane's tradition of natural history collections dates to the very roots of the university. In 1885, a special grant from university founder Paul Tulane provided for the first natural history museum, which comprised an assortment of exhibit-oriented specimens purchased from private collections.

Notable among the early museum's collection was a number of specimens from the 1884 World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, which had been held in New Orleans, and that were donated to Tulane by civic leaders. Although they're of no research value, a few of those specimens -- a family of stuffed Tasmanian platypi, for example -- still reside in the collection. The museum was a popular, well-maintained attraction at Tulane for 40 years, but as the 1930s dawned, it began a long period of decline.

Housed on the fourth floor of Gibson Hall, the museum and its exhibits suffered from curatorial neglect and campus indifference. In 1955, the museum was finally disbanded and the pieces of the collection were distributed to various academic departments.

"There were some interesting things in that old museum," Bart says. "Very little of the holdings of the original museum remain, and none of it has any research value. We've kept them for their connection to the past, but if we were to use them it would be in an exhibit, not in this kind of research."

What does remain from the old museum are assorted curiosities -- stuffed, mounted, fossilized or petrified. You'd be hard-pressed to find research value in the mounted specimens that festoon the rear wall of the bunker that houses the museum's birds, mammals, and amphibians and reptiles.

Donated by a New Orleans dentist, a big game hunter whose trophies apparently exceeded his wall space, the enormous stuffed heads of buffalo, rams and mountain goats are little more than decorations and conversation pieces. They're not the only strange things you'll find sifting through the remains of the old collection.

"This is probably a giraffe," Bart says, picking out a particularly exotic-looking bone from a cabinet in the mammals section. "Even-toed ungulates, like goats and cows and pigs."

Another cabinet reveals a collection of fossils unearthed on Avery Island, La., in the late 19th century and donated to the museum by members of the McIlhenny family. "We have some extinct megafauna -- ground sloths, camels, mammoths," Bart says. "It's really quite interesting stuff."

The modern era of the Tulane Museum of Natural History began in the years following World War II with the hiring of four biologists whose collective work would provide the backbone of the collection: herpetologist Fred Cagle, botanist Joseph A. Ewan, invertebrate zoologist George H. Penn and ichthyologist Royal D. Suttkus.

Cagle arrived first, in 1946, and wasted no time revitalizing the university's dormant zoology department. Among his accomplishments were starting the herpetological collection, revamping the zoology curriculum and launching Tulane Studies in Zoology. Ewan and Penn followed Cagle in 1947. Ewan established the Tulane Herbarium, today housed uptown in Dinwiddie Hall.

Penn started a major collection of crustaceans and became a well-known authority on the systematics, ecology and life history of crawfish. Cagle, Ewan and Penn played a major role in laying the groundwork of the museum, but none did as much to make the museum a reality as R.D. Suttkus. When Suttkus joined the faculty in 1950, the Tulane fish collection included a grand total of two fish -- a sturgeon and a chobia -- both mounted specimens left over from the earlier museum and both useless to researchers.

Recognizing the potential for establishing an important research collection, Suttkus began making regular field trips across the Southeast to collect specimens. By 1968, the collection had grown to more than 2 million, outgrowing its spaces in the Richardson Memorial Building and Dinwiddie Hall.

After Tulane acquired the F. Edward Hebert campus in Belle Chasse, Suttkus lobbied for and oversaw the relocation of Tulane's fish, bird, mammal and vertebrate fossil collections to the site, establishing what was then called the Systematics and Environmental Biology Laboratory.

In 1976, Suttkus was instrumental in convincing the university's administration to rename the laboratory the Tulane Museum of Natural History. The future of the Tulane fish collection may lie, surprisingly enough, in ecological and environmental research. "There's a lot that we can learn about environmental change through the organisms," Bart says. "What I'm trying to do is promote the use of our collections for those kinds of studies."

While other fish collections may have a greater diversity of species, the Tulane collection is unique in that no other has as many specimens collected from the same locations over time. According to Bart, preserved specimens hold the key to understanding the changes that occur over the life of an organism, referred to as its life history.

"We've got samples representing different life stages, collected in different seasons, so you can put together a picture of how the fish changes," Bart says. "Those kinds of data are readily obtained from study of our specimens because the specimens are fixed in every stage of development."

An intriguing study by a John Carroll University scientist demonstrates one way the collection can be used to track environmental quality. Jeff Johansen, an associate professor of biology at John Carroll University in Ohio, had spent a number of years working with diatoms, a microscopic algae often used to calculate water quality in lakes and rivers. Because diatoms preserve well in sediments, scientists have used sediment cores to study historical changes in water quality in lakes and ponds.

The technique, which enables scientists to gauge water quality by analyzing the number and diversity of diatoms preserved in layers of datable sediment core, is especially useful in instances where no historical data exists. Scientists can use core samples, for example, to chart the water quality of a lake in the years prior to a nearby chemical plant going online, enabling scientists to better determine the plant's impact on the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, it's a different story with rivers and streams. The constant flow of water flushes sediments downstream, making traditional sediment coring -- and thus paleological studies of rivers -- impossible. Johansen, however, came up with an ingenious solution: Fish guts. Since fish eat diatoms, Johansen reasoned that diatoms found in the bellies of fish taken from a particular river and preserved in museum collections could be used to produce a snapshot of the river's water quality over time.

Johansen contacted Tulane with his thesis, and Bart sent him specimens of the Mississippi silvery minnow gathered from the Pearl River in Bogalusa, La., between 1967 and 1997. Just as he suspected, Johansen was able to calculate water quality over that 30-year period by using diatoms found in minnows' intestines. What he didn't expect was the result.

"We found that there was a severe drop-off in water quality," Johansen says. "The water quality improved from 1967 to 1977 and then there was a sudden deterioration. It's remained in a degraded state until the present."

While he doesn't have an explanation for the decline in water quality, he suspects it might be related to changes in agricultural practices that swept across the South in the mid-'70s. "That's when a lot of fertilizers were used much more extensively," Johansen says. "This is a response to fertilizers." The results of the Pearl River study underscore the value of the technique, but the methodology itself is what most interests Johansen.

"This is a novel approach in that no one has ever done a paleological study of a river," he says. "This is a possible way of getting a historical look at water quality in rivers when you don't have data but you have some fish." While the fish collection is a major national collection, the same can't be said of the other collections, whose combined holdings number only about 30,000. "They're important regional collections, but not nationally ranked," Bart says.

What is missing, of course, are resources. The museum has two full-time employees, and Bart, who also has teaching responsibilities on the Uptown campus, is the only permanent curator. The museum's other curators -- Dundee for amphibians and reptiles, Joseph Fitzpatrick for crustaceans and Craig Hood of Loyola University for mammals -- do so on a voluntary basis.

The lack of permanent curators and collection-support staff for those collections is the biggest obstacle, Bart believes, to transforming them into nationally important collections. Hiring curators isn't as easy as it sounds.

In recent years, the number of biologists training in taxonomy, the science of naming new species, has seen a dramatic decline. More and more young scientists are using molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing, to investigate the relationships of organisms.

This relatively new branch of biology is known as molecular systematics, and it has brought with it some problems.

"There's been a huge shift in emphasis favoring the more sophisticated, more expensive kinds of techniques," Bart says. "What has been lost in the shuffle is knowledge of the organisms themselves. The problem we've got today, and this is a severe problem, is we have people doing systematics that do not know the organisms. All they know are the molecules."

"That's what it's coming to," Dundee adds. "We have these people who know chemically the parts of an animal, but they don't recognize the animal." "That makes collections like this important for the future," Bart continues, "because these are the kinds of places that people are going to come for expertise with identifying fish and other organisms."

Bart isn't yet ready to throw in the towel on traditional systematics and taxonomy. He has developed a strategic plan for the museum that involves hiring permanent curators to bring the invertebrate, mammal, and amphibian and reptile collections up to national standards and adding an educational component that combines academic classes and community outreach.

By solidifying the museum's research mission and promoting that mission through educational programs, Bart is confident he can attract the support necessary to keep the Tulane Museum of Natural History at the forefront of systematics and taxonomy research. "I'm making a push for it," Bart adds. "But it's like swimming upstream sometimes."

Mark Miester is editor of the magazine of the A.B. Freeman School of Business and is an editor in the Office of University Publications. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Tulanian.


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