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Night at the Museum

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A visit to OSU’s Ichthyology Collection is comprehensive (and a bit creepy).

Half a million eyes peer out from behind thick glass jars. They seem to follow me as I move down rows of metal shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with specimens.

On one corner, right at chin height, a lungfish sits. Pickled in alcohol, it resembles a human organ, and I think of the actor Steve Martin in the movie, “The Man with Two Brains.” I pick up the jar. The lungfish bobs up and down as I turn the container to get a better look. It has small pectoral fins and gill covers that look like wrinkles. It peers back at me with glassy dime-sized eyes. The fluorescent lights flicker and my imagination runs. I hope that the power stays on.

There are more that 250,000 specimens in Oregon State University’s Ichthyology Collection, representing 2,500 different species of fish, one of the world’s premier collections of freshwater fish local to the Pacific Northwest. It’s also a little creepy. The collection is being updated by its most recent curator, Brian , an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“These specimens, and the additional genetic material stored in freezers here, are part of a global library of biodiversity continually updated by scientists and researchers in institutions around the world,” says Sidlauskas as he hands me a pint-sized jar holding a Chinook salmon smolt. Special enzymes have been added to the alcohol solution, and instead of seeing the fish as a solid pickled creature, I see the cartilage that would have matured into bone to form a skeleton. It’s like looking at a 3-D X-ray.

“Trained researchers can use the collection to understand the evolution and morphology of a specific fish from a specific location,” says Sidlauskas. “These tools help us better understand life history and development, population shifts, and changes that may have affected habitat and food availability. We can learn about the fish, and also about the ecosystem in which the fish lived.”

Much like how an inter-library loan program functions, researchers at OSU and other institutions can check out samples from the collection for their own work and purposes. In addition to the fish collection, OSU also has extensive collections of plants, seeds, reptiles, and insects. “We are the biodiversity library for the region,” says Sidlauskas.

Brian Sidlauskas photo by Lynn Ketchum
OSU fish museum curator and fisheries researcher Brian Sidlauskas examines a toothed headstander, one of some 250,000 specimens in the museum.

The OSU fish collection was started in the late 1930s and has had only two other curators since then. In addition to its extensive samples of regional fish, it holds material from around the globe, and continually adds new specimens. Sidlauskas recently returned from collecting trips in South America where he discovered, and brought back to OSU, two previously unidentified species of the fish genus Leporinus.

“There are currently about 31,000 species of fish known in the world, and their number continues to grow,” says Sidlauskas, who will travel this winter to Guyana with funding from the Smithsonian to collect fish in a river system that has never before been sampled. “There is roughly one new species of freshwater fish being discovered each day, most of them in the tropics. In terms of biodiversity, freshwater fish comprise about one quarter of all known vertebrates.”

The College of Agricultural Sciences is funding a complete makeover of the Ichthyology Collection. Records are being digitized into a searchable database, and the largest specimens are being transferred into archival-quality stainless steel tanks.

The tanks will ensure the collection of salmon, sturgeons, suckers, and others will be preserved in perpetuity, says Sidlauskas. The tanks will also shutter the fish from view, closing the lids of unseeing eyes. I walk one more time down the rows of glass jars, not sure how I feel about that. As long as the lights stay on, creepy is good for the imagination.

Published in: Ecosystems