A New Home for the Museum of Natural History

Biodiversity Learning Center Ribbon CuttingOn April 19, the College of Sciences and Mathematics hosted a ceremony commemorating the opening of the new Biodiversity Learning Center, a 15,000-square-foot facility located between M.White Smith and Rouse Life Sciences Building on campus. The Biodiversity Learning Center is the new home of Auburn University’s Museum of Natural History, which includes more than a million specimens representing the rich, natural heritage of Alabama, the Southeast, and beyond. Auburn has maintained natural history collections for more than 50 years. For more than 25 years, the museum collections were located in Funchess Hall and the Physiology Building on campus. Construction of the Biodiversity Learning Center was made possible by a $3.5-million bond and represents years of dedication and planning by supporters of COSAM, including faculty, staff, administration, and alumni.

One of the strongest proponents for the new Biodiversity Learning Center was Ralph Jordan, Jr., who received a bachelor of science in biological sciences in 1970 and a master’s in zoology in 1975, both from Auburn. Jordan is the son of the legendary football coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, he is a life member of the Auburn Alumni Association and has served on the organization’s board in a number of capacities, including president. He also served on the steering committee for Auburn’s last capital campaign, and he has been a member of COSAM’s Leadership Council since 1994. While a student at Auburn, the Museum of Natural History provided Jordan with an opportunity to explore the natural world and equipped him with a solid foundation for his career with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Solid Foundation and Career Training

Jordan worked at the museum throughout his time at Auburn. He says the experience and mentorship he received served as an impetus for his career.

“The zoology faculty who were responsible for various collections within the museum were the catalyst for me, especially Dr. Robert H. Mount, Dr. George W. Folkerts, and Dr. Julian Dusi,” said Jordan, who worked for Mount as an undergraduate student assistant.

snakeJordan helped Mount curate the reptile and amphibian collection within the museum, including the maintenance and expansion of the living specimens, during his time as an undergraduate. Thereafter, Jordan continued his work as a graduate assistant to Mount, who was working to complete his landmark book, The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. As part of the research, Jordan would frequently travel throughout the state in search of specimens that could be photographed for illustration purposes. Because of his accumulated knowledge on natural ecological communities and species distributions, Jordan’s input was often sought by utilities and developers that were actively planning major construction projects, like roads, power plants, and utility rights-of-way. Jordan’s knowledge helped to ensure the projects could be accomplished in ways that avoided adverse impacts to threatened, endangered, or otherwise significant species, or unique or unusual ecological communities. Because of his expertise, Jordan was eventually offered a series of contracts with the Tennessee Valley Authority and, subsequently, a fulltime position as TVA’s nongame and endangered species biologist. Some 32 years later, Jordan retired from TVA where he had gradually assumed responsibility for natural resources management on all of TVA’s public lands.

“Auburn laid the foundation for my career. Everything that I accomplished in my career was a byproduct of the patience and persistence of the outstanding faculty and administrators at Auburn,” said Jordan. “The time I spent curating the herpetological collections within the Museum of Natural History paved the way for my career as a resource management and policy specialist at TVA.

“Completion of the Biodiversity Learning Center will allow the museum to greatly expand its collections and, in time, provide significant outreach opportunities. It will be great to once again have all of the various collections housed under one roof and in a place where they can be properly curated and studied by interested students and more fully appreciated by the citizens of Alabama. Hopefully, they can once again serve as an inspiration for future generations of passionate young scientists like I was. 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 our state, the region, and the world. And there is a tremendous need for more understanding about the natural environment and Alabama’s tremendously rich biodiversity.”

Conserving the Planet’s Biodiversity

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 to K-12 outreach programs.

“Research, education, and outreach are the major components of the museum, and the new infrastructure will help us to meet our goals,” said Jason Bond, director of the Museum of Natural History and curator of the arachnids and myriapods collection. “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. As a museum, we are very committed to the concept that natural history collections play a significant and important role in biodiversity research, conservation, and education, a role that is integral to the land-grant mission of Auburn University.”

The specimens contained in the museum are maintained by nine museum curators and four collections managers. 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; Geoffrey Hill, curator of birds; Charles Ray, curator of insects; Curtis Hansen, collections manager for plants; Brian Helms, collections manager for invertebrates; David Laurencio, collections manager for tetrapods; and David Werneke, collections manager for fishes.

“Biodiversity, simply stated, is the variety of life on earth. It is our greatest resource. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food, the shelter, and the drugs that keep us healthy, are all a part of the living world,” said Jack Feminella, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and curator of aquatic invertebrates for the Museum of Natural History. “The Biodiversity Learning Center, which houses the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, is ideally positioned to showcase the important role of Auburn in preserving its natural heritage and the significant role of COSAM faculty and students in helping avert the loss of biodiversity through research, education, and outreach.”


Fishes Collection

Curator: Jonathan Armbruster
Collections Manager: David Werneke

More than 450,000 preserved specimens in more than 40,000 lots are catalogued in the fishes collection, and at least 10,000 more lots will be cataloged. Particularly strong are collections from all over Alabama and Georgia, including some of the few major collections from the southeastern U.S. made prior to 1950. Also included are specimens of most fish species of the U.S. and a significant collection of marine fishes from the Gulf of Mexico.

“In the last 15 years, we have taken a collection with mainly local interest and made it a very important global collection,” said curator Jonathan Armbruster. “We have specimens from every continent, and we have traveled to some of the most remote places on the earth to discover new species.”

The collection includes a Neotropical fish collection from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. There are also significant collections from Africa and Southeast Asia.

Mammals Collection

Curator: Troy Best

The mammal collection contains about 1,500 specimens and has representatives of nearly all species of mammals known to occur in Alabama, including threatened and endangered species. The collection also contains a variety of mammals from elsewhere in the country and the world. Insectivores, bats, rodents, and carnivores are all well represented.

In addition to the research collection, there is a separate teaching collection. The specimens in the teaching collection are used by students in courses such as mammalogy, natural history of the vertebrates, and wildlife biology.

Associated with the research and teaching collection are field courses that give students hands-on experience with mammals in Alabama and various locations in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa.

This past summer, Auburn students had an opportunity to study mammals and other vertebrates in South Africa and Swaziland as part of the Study Abroad Program.

“A popular course that has been offered for several years is field biology and ecology, which often is taught in the southwestern U.S. and focuses on mammals, but also includes other vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants,” said curator Troy Best. “The collection-oriented, study- abroad courses provided an exceptional opportunity for students to study species in native habitats here and abroad.”

Arachnids and Myriapods Collection

Curator: Jason Bond

The arachnid and myriapod collection is one of the most rapidly growing collections at the museum. It presently includes more than 25,000 specimens with hundreds being added every week. The collection focuses on the southeastern region of the U.S., but also includes significant series from other parts of the U.S. with a particular emphasis on southwestern mygalomorph spider taxa, including tarantulas, trapdoor spiders, and their kin. Representatives of most mygalomorph spider families worldwide are present in the collection. The collection also comprises one of the largest assemblages of North American tarantulas in the genus Aphonopelma. The spider and millipede collections are stored in alcohol and tissues in RNAlater for cryopreservation.

“The spider and millipede collection here at Auburn is growing at a tremendous pace,” said curator Jason Bond. “As part of a funded National Science Foundation project, we have already managed to pull together one of the largest collections of North American tarantulas ever assembled.”

Aquatic Invertebrate Collection

Curator: Jack FeminellashellsCollections Manager: Brian Helms

The Aquatic Invertebrate Collection is one of the most diverse of all the museum collections, containing more than 100,000 specimens of aquatic molluscs (mussels & snails), crustaceans (mostly crayfishes), worms, and stream insects from the southeastern U.S. and beyond. The collection also features the H. S. Buck Collection of marine-shelled molluscs, corals, and fossils from around the world and the A. F. Archer Collection of early 20th-century land snails from nearly every continent and many tropical islands. Also notable is an extensive collection of unionid molluscs, a worldwide family of freshwater mussels that are highly diverse within Alabama streams and rivers, yet are among the most imperiled animals on the planet.

“Having Auburn students work in the collections gives them a heightened appreciation of the wonder of biodiversity and the importance of their own ecological footprint,” said curator Jack Feminella. “There’s no substitute for students witnessing firsthand their natural heritage and the challenges of biodiversity conservation associated with human population growth.”

Plants Collection

Curator: Les Goertzen
Collections Manager: Curtis Hansen

The plants collection, the John D. Freeman Herbarium, contains about 54,000 specimens of flowering plants, gymnosperms, and pteridophytes, some 1,000 specimens of bryophytes and lichens, and about 2,000 specimens of fungi, with emphasis on the deuteromycetes. The herbarium is the largest in Alabama with the richest specimens coming from central portions of the state.

The collection houses valuable historic specimens dating to the 19th century and is regarded as the State Herbarium for Alabama. As such, it is the repository for plants collected by the Alabama Natural Heritage Program. Important collections include type specimens of several vascular plants and more than 100 deuteromycetes.

Botanists and interested students frequently visit the facility to answer questions about plant identification, look at collections, or review records in the database. The collection serves various natural science departments at Auburn and other local colleges and universities, as well as government agencies and wildflower societies. An important function of the herbarium staff is to provide plant identification for the Alabama Poison Center, the Medical Examiner’s office, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, and others.

amphibianAmphibians and Reptiles Collection

Curator: Craig Guyer

“I curate the largest collection of Alabama amphibians and reptiles anywhere, making this collection a national treasure,” said Craig Guyer. “Like most kids, I became fascinated with these animals in second grade and have managed to make a career out of studying them.”

The amphibians and reptiles collection includes some 40,000 specimens. The collection focuses on the state of Alabama, but also includes significant series from other portions of the southeastern U.S. Representatives of most North American species are present in the cataloged material, as is a small collection of specimens from the Caribbean.

The research collection of amphibians and reptiles was first developed by John S. “Jack” Mecham, who taught herpetology at Auburn from 1956-65 and required collections as part of the lab experience of each student. Curation of the collection was assumed by Robert Mount who taught herpetology from 1966-85. Expansion of the collection was greatest during Mount’s era and formed the foundation for the publication of the book, The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama.

Guyer, who has taught herpetology at Auburn since 1987, has expanded the collection through traditional specimens, photographic vouchers, and extensive databases of population and macroecological studies. Guyer is widely recognized as an expert in the field of herpetology, and he and his graduate students frequently provide live animal demonstrations for both the university and general public. In recent years, Guyer has also been instrumental in a project that seeks to reintroduce the eastern indigo snake to its native habitat in Alabama. For more information on the eastern indigo snake project, read the story at this web address: www.auburn/edu/cosam/indigosnake

Birds Collection

Curator: Geoffrey Hill

The ornithological research collection consists of about 2,000 bird skins, 50 bird nests with eggs, and 50 empty bird nests. Approximately 90 percent of the birds preserved as skins were collected in Alabama. The remaining skins are primarily from elsewhere in the Southeast, although a few specimens collected in Central America and Europe are represented. Many of the skins represent the first documentation of the species in the state; a few remain the only documentation of the species for the state.

Also included is a large teaching collection consisting of about 100 bird skins, 50 bird nests, and about 30 full taxidermic mounts of birds.

“The current centerpiece of the bird collection are the thousands of skins of birds that preserve the sample and color of each species,” said curator Geoff Hill. “These study skins represent an invaluable tool in teaching Auburn students how to identify birds.”

Hill has also built a loose-feather collection, setting Auburn’s museum apart from others in the country.

“I started this feather collection when I was working on a book on bird coloration, but I have since expanded it substantially. It is now one of the largest feather collections in the world,” said Hill. “Loose feathers can be used for a variety of studies, including studies of feather pigments and even migration, because elements in the feathers can serve as a record of where the bird has traveled.”

Insects Collection

Curator: Charles Ray

The 500,000 specimens in the insect collection represent more than 100 years of contributions by amateur and professional entomologists including students in the first entomology class at Auburn in 1909. The current collection formally began in 1958 under the direction of Kirby Hayes and includes dry, pinned specimens, alcohol material, and a large number of slide-mounted specimens. The collection’s holdings are primarily Alabama insects but also include significant holdings of Central and South American material. The more important components of the collection are Alabama orthoptera, which are grasshoppers and related insects, leaf beetles of Alabama, fleas of Alabama, weevils, aquatic beetles, scale insects, midges, and biting flies. The biting fly component features a large collection of horseflies and deerflies amassed by Hayes, blackflies collected by E. L. Snoddy, and biting midges collected by Jason Glick and Gary Mullen. The midge component includes a large donation of microscope slides by the Geologic Survey of Alabama. Also in the insect collection are a large number of non-insects, including mites and an extensive collection of Alabama ticks. Another component is a small but unique silk collection donated by Richard S. Peigler, which contains both raw silk and finished silk fabrics produced by caterpillars other than the domesticated Chinese silkworm.

To learn more about the Museum of Natural History, visit www.auburn.edu/cosam/mnh.