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Creatures Great and Small
Await New Home
September 20, 1999

Hundreds of thousands of creatures will soon move to a brand-new home, specially designed to cater to their needs. The state-of-the-art facility for which they are destined would have been beyond the wildest dreams of most of those who once collected them, for "they" are the specimens amassed during the past 100 years that support the work of faculty and students in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and other departments at the University.

The move, expected to take place in the spring, is a task that has taken faculty and staff of the department six years to plan, starting even before UConn 2000 held out the promise of new quarters.

Each of the specimens, from fragile bird eggs and serried rows of insects on slender pins to massive fossil rocks, must be specially prepared to withstand the transition. This June, with the support of a $440,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the work of labeling, recording, and packing the specimens for the move began.

A Critical Resource
The collections - now housed mostly in the Torrey Life Sciences Building - are diverse, including birds and mammals from South America and shark parasites from around the world. But the greatest strengths are the regional collections. Hundreds of thousands of specimens - the exact number is expected to become clearer in the course of the move - some of which date back to the 1880s, record the current status and history of New England's flora and fauna, particularly its plants and insects.

"Our collections are very much analogous to a collection of historical documents. The biological materials represent the biological history of the state, the region and many tropical areas," says Greg Anderson, professor and head of the ecology and evolutionary biology department. "By maintaining them, we provide a database for the researchers of the future - undergraduates, graduates and faculty."

The collections serve as resources to supplement lectures and labs in both graduate and undergraduate courses, to help both professionals and amateurs identify species, and for outreach to groups ranging from nursery schools to senior citizens.

But, above all, the collections provide the basis for evolutionary and taxonomic research. "Collections are fundamental to both ecology and systematics," says Les Mehrhoff, curator of the Torrey Herbarium, another part of the extensive collections.

"You'd think dead dry museum specimens would be a very dull, boring subject, but it's actually very dynamic," says Jane O'Donnell, curator of the insect and vertebrate collections. "People are always describing new species and classifications are constantly being revised."

New techniques using DNA - which can still be extracted, even from long-dead specimens - are offering new evolutionary information, she adds.

And, increasingly, collections are being used to track changes in the territorial range of a species or to find out when an alien species first invaded. "Species ranges are changing all the time," says O'Donnell. "Organisms move around a lot because people move around a lot these days. We can plot these geographic changes through our collections."

No published record can substitute for a collection of specimens, she adds. "Even though it may seem easy to distinguish between species using a field guide, in fact it's very hard to get down to the level of species," says

O'Donnell. "They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Well, a specimen is worth about a million words. The mind absorbs so much more information and sees similarities and differences that it takes much longer to glean from a written description."

The collections are constantly expanding and have long since outgrown their present quarters. Not only has lack of space hindered further acquisitions, but being housed in five different locations on campus has made them difficult to use. The vertebrate collection, for example, is kept locked in a room in the pathobiology building. Worse, last year, some specimens in the fossil collection in the Torrey Life Sciences Building - some of them up to 350 million years old - suffered flood damage.

"I used to be embarrassed to show visiting scientists the collections," says Janine Caira, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who headed the team that submitted the grant proposal.

So when space in a new biology building planned as part of the UConn 2000 program was allocated to the ecology and evolutionary biology department, it didn't take long to agree that the space should be allocated to the collections.

Making the Move
The logistics of the move have had to be planned as carefully as in a military operation. Each collection poses its own special challenges, ranging from pest insects that can reduce specimens to dust, to colors that will fade if exposed to light.

The project team has developed a plan to freeze certain blocks of specimens to kill any existing pests, and to transport them to their new home in a rented freezer truck.

Not everything can be frozen, however. Other plans must be crafted for the seeds of tropical plants that may be required to germinate in the future, for example, or mammal skulls whose teeth may crack if frozen.

During the summer, two undergraduates, Michelle Ng and Jessica Slawski, began preparing specimens for the move. Each vial of fish, for example, was separately wrapped in bubble wrap, boxed and labeled.

Ng, a senior majoring in molecular and cell biology, says the experience was a welcome change from looking at slides under a microscope.

"It's nice to be well rounded in the science I'm learning," says Ng, who hopes to attend graduate school to study molecular evolution or genetics. "MCB majors don't usually get much exposure to the organisms."

The project team also must ensure that each specimen is accurately labeled and entered into an electronic database that will make the collections more accessible to researchers.

Adding the specimens in the fossil collection to the database posed a special challenge. Over the years, many of the rocks containing the fossils had been separated from cards that carried their identification information. To re-identify them, Pat Genzel, a paleobotanist from the University of North Carolina and a former student of Henry Andrews, the professor who launched UConn's fossil collection, spent two weeks at the University.

Slawski, a senior majoring in biological sciences who already holds a degree in archaeology, says the project is giving her experience that will be valuable in her planned career as a vertebrate paleontologist.

Both students are continuing to work on the project as an independent study this semester.

The students were funded as part of the NSF grant, but other expenses have been met by the University, including support for a graduate assistant to help with the database and a commitment to continue to support O'Donnell as a full-time curator (previously she held a part-time position) after the second year of the grant.

"This University has a serious commitment to the kind of biology these collections represent," says Anderson, the department head.

Under One Roof
Once the collections are housed together, maintaining them and managing their use will be much easier, says Anderson.

The move also has given the department an opportunity to develop a coherent plan for its collections.

"We had to decide the amount of space for each collection," says Caira. "That forced us to make strategic decisions about which collection we would allow to expand and come up with a plan." Parts of the facility will just fit the existing collections. The more active collections will have room for expansion.

The new 8,000-square-foot facility, designed by Allan DeHar Associates, the architects responsible for renovations to Babbidge Library, will have custom-built mobile, compact storage, temperature and humidity controls, three curatorial offices, space for visiting scientists and storage for the library associated with the collections. There will also be a room for wet storage materials and - on the roof - greenhouses for the department's living plant collection.

Already, the prospect of the new facility is attracting donations to the collections. Carl Rettenmeyer, the retired founding director of the State Museum of Natural History, has promised his collection of more than 100,000 specimens of ants and their guests, one of the most outstanding such collections in the world. And, says Caira, there is a waiting list of people wanting to donate tapeworm specimens to the shark parasite collection.

O'Donnell is looking forward to the day when the move is complete and she can get back to her research. "A collection person's work is never done," she says. "You could go to any drawer and take the classification down a level. There are always undetected things.

"We don't have a clue as to the order of magnitude of species in the world," she adds. "It could be five million, 10 million or 50 million. There are still new species to be found even in Connecticut."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu