Auburn's Museum of Natural History is a hidden gem

By Candis Birchfield, College of Sciences and Mathematics

 

 

Images of dinosaur bones and larger-than-life exhibits are what may come to mind when envisioning the enormous natural history museums in the U.S., such as The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., or The Field Museum in Chicago, Ill. However, behind the fantastic exhibits of every great natural history museum is a foundation based on research. Although smaller than the well-known national museums, Auburn University's Museum of Natural History and Biodiversity Learning Center functions much the same way in that the museum's foundation is also on research.

Located in the Physiology Building on campus, the museum could be described as a hidden gem housing a spectacular collection of mammals, birds, paleontological invertebrates and vertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and flowering plants. Sponsored by the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, the museum is used primarily by Auburn professors and students conducting biodiversity research. Museum curators will also periodically extend the vast collection beyond campus and provide specimens to outside researchers as well as K-12 outreach programs.

Although not well known at present, plans are under way that will enable the museum to broaden into a recognized state treasure. Revitalization of the museum began when Jack Feminella, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, hired a museum director, Jason Bond.

"I did my postdoc at The Field Museum in Chicago and my research was collections based, so my dream job has always been associated with collections and a museum. I am very committed to the idea that natural history collections play a significant and important role in biodiversity research, conservation and education," Bond said. "There is an ongoing loss of biodiversity. Natural history collections serve as a record of what is here, what we are losing and how the ranges of species are changing through time. We should be very concerned about biodiversity loss, and museum collections help to highlight why it's important. Biodiversity is integral to human health, quality of life and ultimately our survival as a species."

Bond hopes to further develop the public interface of the museum as plans are in the works to build a new facility to house the collections.

"The current conditions in the Physiology Building are not ideal for the people working there or the collections. We need a new building to house the collections, and hopefully, in the long term, the new space will also allow us to grow the collections and provide public and traveling displays," Bond said. "Research, education and outreach are the major components of the museum, and a new infrastructure will help us to meet our goals."

Providing a new building to house Auburn's Museum of Natural History and Biodiversity Learning Center has been an important goal for COSAM for many years. One of the strongest proponents for a new facility is Ralph Jordan, Jr., who received his bachelor of science in biological sciences in 1970 and his master's in zoology in 1975, both from Auburn University. The son of the legendary Auburn University football coach, Jordan is a life member of the Auburn Alumni Association and has served on the organization's board in a number of capacities, including as the board's president. He also served on Auburn's National Campaign Committee as well as on COSAM's Advisory Council. An Auburn native, he says he has always harbored a fascination for the natural world and natural history.

"I enjoy the full gamut – birds, insects, mammals, fish. No one in my family ever said, 'Don't touch that!' so I was constantly getting bit or stung when I was growing up. Even in high school I kept snakes in my room and a pet raccoon. I think all kids harbor an interest and curiosity for the natural world, and I think what we would like to see with the museum is for it to be a place where young people who have these same interests  have a place to go and gain further understanding and knowledge about our natural resources," said Jordan.

The Auburn museum served this exact purpose for Jordan during his high school and college years.

"The person who was a catalyst for me was Dr. Bob Mount," said Jordan of the now-retired Auburn University emeritus professor of biological sciences. "When I was a senior in high school, I took it upon myself to go to his house and talk to him after he moved in. We had a strong common interest in the natural world, and I told him I was coming to Auburn in the fall and would love the opportunity to work with him. Sometime after the start of the quarter, he said he had been given the go-ahead to hire someone to work with him to manage the reptiles and amphibians on campus, so I worked there my entire undergraduate career, curating the reptiles and amphibians in Funchess Hall."

Mount received his undergraduate degree in fisheries management and his master's in entomology, both from Auburn. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in zoology with specialty in herpetology. As the founder of the museum's reptile and amphibian collection, Mount watched the collection grow during his career at Auburn from 1966 to 1987.

"I started collecting when I came to Alabama, and there was very little known about the reptiles and amphibians in Alabama. I began traveling around the state and brought my collection with me when I came to Auburn. I continued to do research while at Auburn, and when he was a student, Ralph Jordan was my right-hand man," Mount said.

As a graduate student, Jordan continued to work with Mount and was offered the opportunity to scout locations for companies planning major construction projects, like building roads or laying natural gas pipelines, to be sure the construction wouldn't cause irreversible damage to the biodiversity of the region. It was through this work that Jordan was offered a job as an environmental scientist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, where he retired after a long career.

"Literally, Auburn laid the foundation for my career and Bob Mount and the Museum of Natural History had a lot to do with it. The hiring of Jason Bond, along with money from the Auburn University Board of Trustees for funding a new facility, means the museum is finally ready to move forward. It will be great to get the collections into a place and condition where they can be fully understood and appreciated by the people of the state, and properly curated and managed in a way that will present learning opportunities for young scientists like I was," said Jordan. "We have an opportunity to excite young minds for learning, to take that flame that's burning in every third grader and keep it burning so when they come to Auburn, they will have an interest in exploring the natural history of the state. And there is a tremendous need for more understanding about the natural environment and Alabama's tremendously rich biodiversity."

Bond agrees with Jordan and adds, "Auburn is a great university. I did my graduate work at Virginia Tech, so I have a strong appreciation for the commitment to research, extension and outreach often found at a land grant type of institution. As a public, land grant institution, we have a responsibility to invest in and continue to grow our museum."

Bond specializes in the evolution, systematics and taxonomy of arachnids and myriapods, and his work has been featured in a myriad of press agencies including MSNBC, BBC, NPR and the New York Times. He was even featured on Comedy Central's Colbert Report for his discovery of two spiders, a trapdoor spider Bond named after Neil Young, Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, and another spider he named after television show host, Stephen Colbert, Aptostichus stephencolberti. He received his bachelor of science in biology from Western Carolina University, and both his master of science in biology and his doctor of philosophy in evolutionary systematics and genetics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Currently Auburn has eight museum curators and three collections managers working in each of the collections. They are: Jonathan Armbruster, curator of fishes; Troy Best, curator of mammals; Jason Bond, curator of arachnids and myriapods; Stephen Dobson, curator at large; Jack Feminella, curator of aquatic invertebrates; Les Goertzen, curator of plants; Craig Guyer, curator of amphibians and reptiles; Curtis Hansen, collections manager for plants; Brian Helms, collections manager for invertebrates; Geoffrey Hill, curator of birds; and David Werneke, collections manager for fishes.

For more information on Bond, visit http://www.auburn.edu/academic/cosam/faculty/biology/bond/.

For more information on the Natural History Museum, visit http://www.auburn.edu/academic/cosam//natural_history_museum/index.htm.

Last Updated: Nov. 9, 2011

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