Hidden away inside Cheatham Hall, there are thousands of animals. Those animals are specimens of Virginia Tech’s very own natural history collection.
“I always assumed this kind of thing was only in the Smithsonian,” said Sam Van Noy, a sophomore wildlife conservation major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Housed on the first floor of Cheatham Hall, the museum is managed by wildlife ecology Professor Carola Haas. Haas came to Virginia Tech in 1993. She started a basic vertebrate identification and natural history class.
“Having a specimen collection made it possible to give students hands-on exposure and to teach the basic identification skills,” Haas said.
Now, 24 years later, the collection has become a big part of coursework for students in the the college as well as a research tool. Undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation help Haas maintain the museum.
“Having students in there on a regular basis just provides additional sets of eyes in case anything should go wrong, and they provide a huge service to maintaining the collections,” Haas said.
George Brooks, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, took on the responsibility of managing the collection starting in 2015. Instead of a usual teaching assistant position, such as managing a lab or grading homework for a professor, he works in a room with more than 1,000 skulls, 1,000 wet specimens (fish), and 3,000 dry specimens, such as birds, mammals, eggs, and pelts.
“I manage all of the undergraduates in terms of what they do and [coordinate] general maintenance of the museum,” Brooks said. “It’s a balancing act of preserving the collection for posterity and making the specimens available for teaching and research.”
Undergraduate students like Van Noy also spend a couple of days a week in the museum. Some are paid by the department or individual faculty members, some volunteer, and others receive course credit for a teaching practicum.
“I was part of a research project to work with Dr. Haas, so I joined that way,” Van Noy said.
Museum workers work as teaching assistants or help with curation tasks like database work, loan processing, and general upkeep of the museum.
“We sometimes think of museums as places where artifacts can be stored away, but we don’t think of what has to happen to keep them safe in storage,” Haas said. “Many materials exude acids, so in the same way that tape in scrapbooks can yellow and become brittle, or newspapers become fragile and brittle, specimens ... can get exposed to chemicals that cause them to deteriorate over time.”
Over half of the mammal skins and skulls and a third of the bird skins were collected in Virginia. About 25 percent of the specimens were collected before 1940: 86 percent of them before 1970.
According to the museum’s website, animals from Southwest Virginia aren’t well-represented in most major museum collections.
“Having a series of animals collected here in Southwest Virginia over time can allow us to see how they might have changed as invasive species moved in, as certain contaminants were released in the area, or as forests regrew and the area became more heavily wooded,” Haas said.
According to Brooks, the museum directly addresses the university’s tri-partite mission of research, teaching, and outreach. Several classes, including herpetology, ichthyology, mammalogy, ornithology, and wildlife field biology, use the specimens in their teaching. Different departments collaborate in the museum for research, and the specimens are lent to K-12 groups and different organizations for outreach events.
“Getting some hands-on experience with the animals that they actually hope to study is crucial [both] for enthusiasm and for understanding,” Brooks said.
Joel Snodgrass, fish and wildlife conservation department head, stresses the importance of natural history collections in general.
“Most of our science evolved with how we understand where organisms are, how they’re distributed,” Snodgrass said. “If we want to identify animals, we use special characteristics that only an individual species has. To see those characteristics, students really need to handle specimens, and we can’t always go and track them down in the field.”
When asked what his favorite specimen in the collection was, Van Noy instantly mentioned a famous clownfish.
“I really like Nemo,” Van Noy said.
To learn more about the museum, visit its website.
- Photos, text, and video by Olivia Coleman