THE SOUTHEASTERN VERTEBRATE MUSEUM IS GROWING, CURATING, DIGITIZING, AND SHARING ITS COLLECTION TO ENHANCE ICHTHYOLOGY AND HERPETOLOGY RESEARCH.


The National Science Foundation has awarded a Southeastern specialist in the diversity of fishes a grant of $409,200.

Professor of Biological Sciences and ichthyologist Kyle Piller received the three-year grant to improve the Southeastern Vertebrate Museum. The project will focus on curation of existing museum specimens and tissue samples, digitize and georeference specimen data, and integrate the data with online repositories, making the data available to the general scientific community.

Kyle Piller
Kyle Piller

“Southeastern has an Ichthyology and Herpetology collection that initially was developed for teaching and research in the 1950s,” said Piller. “The bulk of the collection is comprised of fishes—more than 120,000 specimens and over 7,000 tissue samples—with the majority of the specimens from the Lake Pontchartrain Basin in southeast Louisiana and, more recently, from throughout Mexico and Central America. We also have an ever-growing herpetology collection, part of which was recently obtained from the orphaned Tulane University herpetology collection.”

In addition to the reptile, amphibian, and fish collection, Piller said the museum also has birds and mammals, although their numbers are much smaller. Specimens in the collection include sea turtle shells, a whale vertebrate, and alligators.

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“We actually have alligator purses and shoes to show our guests what is done with alligator skins once they are harvested,” Piller said. “We have a whooping crane, which is hard to come by, and a couple of toucans that are mounted. We are slowly growing in all areas, but the fish collection has grown the most because that’s what I study.”

College of Science and Technology Dean Daniel McCarthy said the grant will be transformative for the Ichthyology and Herpetology collection at Southeastern.

“The museum is much more than a collection of jars to look at; rather, it contains a record of the reptiles and fishes from our region from decades ago, which will prove to be an invaluable resource to scientists studying this ecosystem,” he explained. “Furthermore, the educational outreach component of the grant will expose thousands of students to the importance of reptiles, amphibians, and fish to the Gulf Coast.”

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Both undergraduate and graduate students use the specimens in the museum for research and study as part of undergraduate honors and graduate theses. Many students, Piller said, use the specimens to study their diets.

“Students can cut open the belly of a 20- or 30-year-old specimen and see what the species was eating back then versus what they are eating now,” he explained. “It also gives us a record of the presence of species now versus what they were 30 or 40 years ago, so we can look at change in communities in our region.”

Piller said the project will help revitalize interest in the natural world by using natural history collections to highlight the unique organismal diversity in Louisiana and beyond. Southeastern personnel will develop a traveling fish, reptile, and amphibian program titled “The Bone Sheaux.”

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“This outreach program will be used to stimulate interest in organismal biology for K-12 students in southeastern Louisiana, which includes some of the most impoverished parishes in Louisiana,” he said. “A permanent loan will also be made available to Southeastern’s field station, Turtle Cove, which hosts more than 3,000 visitors annually for public outreach and teacher training workshops.”

“Although the bulk of the vertebrate museum is comprised of fishes, with five herpetology researchoriented faculty on staff and herpetology oriented graduate students in the department, the herpetology collection will continue to grow in the coming years, as our specimen growth primarily has been a by-product of ongoing research and thesis projects, as well as for specimen usage in the classroom,” he explained.

Piller said a natural history museum course will be developed for Southeastern’s undergraduate students to provide them training in museum curation and specimen preparation.

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“This team-taught course will focus on collection care and curatorial techniques and will give students first-hand experience in a research collection,” he explained. “The course will culminate in the development of a museum website and a small working museum exhibit that will be displayed in the lobby of the biology building.”

Well-curated collections will continue to serve the scientific community for decades to come, Pillar said, and the value of scientific collections and data they contain are becoming increasingly important as major initiatives push the bounds and usefulness of museum data.

“Beyond hard-core science initiatives, natural history collections represent reservoirs of knowledge that need to be promoted and publicized to the general public,” he said. “Southeastern has specimens with scientific value, and this study will assure that these specimens are curated and available for study by the scientific community.”

By Tonya Lowentritt

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