Natural History Museum’s Amphibians, Reptiles Collection Continually Growing
The origin of the amphibians and reptiles collection at the Auburn University Natural History Museum dates back to the late 1940s and early 1950s. The collections were first developed by John S. “Jack” Mecham, were further developed by George Folkerts as he finished his dissertation at Auburn, expanded greatly during the tenure of Robert H. “Bob” Mount, and were brought into the digital age during the tenure of Craig Guyer.
Currently, the collection has grown to around 44,000 specimens that include snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, salamanders and more. Most of the collection is derived from Alabama, but spans from as far as Australia and Liberia. The collection is maintained by David Laurencio as collections manager and Dr. Daniel Warner and Dr. Jamie Oaks as co-curators.
“It’s a collection that’s continually growing, which is important to a museum,” Laurencio said. “We try to find important specimens that help fill our gaps in knowledge.”
Many of the specimens are added to the collection through research being conducted at Auburn. Recent additions to the collection include toads from Alabama, Whiptail Lizards from New Mexico and Texas, and hundreds of native snakes from Florida, all from graduate student research. Dr. Warner’s lab studies invasive lizards and research conducted in Dr. Oaks’ lab includes specimens from Asia, all of which make their way back to the museum. Occasionally, what the researchers refer to as DOR (dead on road) is also entered into the collection – this usually includes snakes and turtles.
“If a dead snake or turtle is found on a road, we can take it from the road, preserve it and take genetic material from it and basically get all of the same types of information we could from one we would have to euthanize,” Laurencio explained.
One important aspect of the amphibians and reptiles collection includes tissue samples.
“Genetic work is really useful in trying to understand how different species are related to one another,” Dr. Warner said. “A lot of times taxonomists may name a species but then after more genetic research is done looking at relationships of different populations within that species, you might realize there are actually two different species or three species. That’s one really nice thing about having those tissue samples, so people from other universities or here at Auburn can utilize those.”
Laurencio said that the amount of genetic analysis being performed has significantly increased throughout recent decades.
“We’re kind of in a unique spot here in Alabama that isn’t covered by many other museums, so a lot of those requests come to us,” he said. “We kind of work as a library for biodiversity information.”
The collection is so extensive that a series of books based off the research collections in the museum is in the process of being published. They are an update to Dr. Mount’s 1975 “The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama,” which serves as the seminal herpetofaunal publication for the state. Emeritus Professor Craig Guyer worked with the late Bob Mount and Mark Bailey to publish the new series. “The Turtles of Alabama” and “Lizards & Snakes of Alabama” have also been recently published and volumes on frogs and toads, and salamanders will soon follow.
Dr. Warner said the amphibians and reptiles collection is an important part of the museum since both these groups are important components of many ecological communities.
“Understanding their role in ecological communities give us a broader understanding of the natural world and diversity,” he explained. “They are a major component of diversity in this area. Having an amphibian and reptile collection helps us inventory that diversity, helps us study that diversity and how it changes over time.”
“Since we are such a diverse state in terms of amphibians and reptiles, the museum gives us a place where that diversity can be documented, studied and then disseminated,” he said. “It’s important for Alabamians to know about the incredible biological diversity that is right around them.”