Marsupial Collection News: May 2013
The AMNH preserves one of the largest and most taxonomically comprehensive marsupial collections in the world. Numbering approximately 17,000 specimens, it includes 100% of Recent marsupial orders and families, 88% of Recent genera, and 66% of Recent species. The accumulated product of almost 200 years of fieldwork, AMNH marsupials were collected on numerous expeditions to Central and South America, Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea.
Notably productive collectors included G.H.H. Tate—author of many influential monographs on marsupial taxonomy—and H.C. Raven, who planned but did not live to complete a multivolume treatise on kangaroo evolution. Unusually, many species in our collection are represented by complete postcranial skeletons and fluid-preserved material in addition to the typical skin-and-skull preparations. Additionally, most specimens are accompanied by archived field notes that contain essential observations about the habitats in which they were collected, many of which have subsequently disappeared.
Numerous publications have been based on the AMNH marsupial collection including generic revisions, higher-level taxonomic monographs, phylogenetic analyses, and evolutionary morphological studies. New technologies (such as CT-scanning) have dramatically increased the information that can be obtained nondestructively from our specimens. Increasingly, DNA extracted from dried tissues of AMNH marsupial specimens are used for molecular-phylogenetic and phylogeographic analyses. In effect, our collection is a vast archive of marsupial morphological and genetic data with a wide range of potential uses. Every year dozens of visitors from North and South America, Europe, and Australia study AMNH marsupial specimens onsite, and other researchers borrow them for study at their home institutions.
Unfortunately, this important research resource was for many decades stored in antiquated 19th-century cabinets that provided inadequate protection from insect pests and urban soot. Specimens were stored in wooden drawers on acidified cardboard trays, overcrowding often resulted in damage to fragile extremities (ears, tails, toes, and claws), and scientific names on specimen labels and in our database did not reflect current taxonomic usage. Specimens housed on mezzanines had to be carried down narrow staircases to be studied on the main floor of our facility, and microscopes were in short supply. As a result, the collection was difficult for visitors to use and for our own staff to curate effectively.
On November 15, 2012 we celebrated the official opening of our new marsupial research facility. With the generous support of a grant from the National Science Foundation (DBI-0956347) that funded a three-year renovation project, the entire marsupial dry collection (ca. 11,000 skins, skulls, and postcranial skeletons) has now been re-housed in modern, insect-proof cabinetry; skins now rest on archival-quality, acid-free cardboard trays in chemically inert powder-painted steel drawers; the collection footprint has been expanded to alleviate overcrowding and provide room for future growth; and the taxonomy has been updated on specimen labels and in our database. New working surfaces with electrical outlets have been installed on the mezzanines so that specimens can now be studied and curated adjacent to the cabinets in which they are stored. New microscopes were also purchased to reside permanently in work spaces adjacent to the marsupial collection on the main floor and mezzanines.
In short, our marsupial collection is now ready for another century of productive research. For permission to visit the collection, borrow specimens, or query the database, please follow the appropriate links on our departmental webpage.
In addition to the NSF, we thank Darrin Lunde for his assistance with initial planning and logistics; Nicole Edmison and her small army of volunteers (including Nazreen Aziz, Nathaniel Staneck, Sasha Titley, Silvia Pavan and Erin Verdonik) for many, many months of painstaking work with the specimens and the database; and Karen Quigley, Elizabeth Brooks, Nigel Julien and their staff from the AMNH Facilities and Electrical departments for essential infrastructural improvements. Last but not least, Darrel Frost and Scott Schaefer (past and current Associate Deans of Science for Collections) were consistently supportive from initiation to completion of this long project.
Robert S. Voss, Nancy B. Simmons & Neil Duncan