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VERTEBRATE ZOOLOGY
Otophryne robusta
Otophryne robusta frog in Venezuela

The Division of Vertebrate Zoology comprises four departments: Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Ichthyology (fishes), Mammalogy (mammals, including primates), and Ornithology (birds). Each Department maintains separate collections, curators, and support staff, but the Departments collaborate on issues including policy and recruitment, collection databasing, and library and archives management. The Departments also share a common skeleton preparation laboratory (supervised by the Department of Mammalogy) and a molecular systematics laboratory (supervised by the Department of Ornithology).

Painted ringtail
Painted ringtail (Pseudochirulus forbesi) in Papua New Guinea

Most curators maintain active field research programs in addition to conducting specimen-based morphological or molecular studies at the Museum. Recent major projects include studies of fish diversity and conservation in Madagascar, central Africa, Vietnam, Brazil, and Venezuela; phylogenetics of catfishes, cichlids, and other groups of fishes; biogeography and systematics of reptiles and amphibians of Madagascar and Guyana; phylogenetics of lizards; evolution of unisexual reproduction in lizards; mammal inventories in French Guiana, Peru, the Central African Republic, and Vietnam; systematic revisions and phylogenetic studies of many groups of rodents, marsupials, and bats; studies of recent mammal extinctions on Caribbean islands; studies of mammalian pathogens and possible links to extinctions; surveys of bird diversity and distribution patterns in many regions of South America, Southeast Asia, and Australia; and studies of molecular and morphological phylogenetics of many groups of birds.

The Division currently hosts approximately a dozen Ph.D. students enrolled in joint programs with Columbia University and the City University of New York. These students typically complete their coursework at their home university and conduct dissertation research at the Museum under the direction of Division curators. Postdoctoral researchers, typically supported for two years of study, pursue their own research projects using Division collections and Museum laboratory facilities.

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THE COLLECTION

Black-eared shrike babbler
Black-eared shrike babbler (Pteruthius melanotis) in Vietnam

The Division of Vertebrate Zoology houses one of the largest collections of vertebrate animals in the world. It has approximately 3.5 million specimens, which range from whales to bats, catfish to coelacanths, rattlesnakes to treefrogs, and hummingbirds to ostriches. Most specimens are preserved in alcohol, or as dry skins or skeletons. The Division also maintains collections of approximately 15,000 tissue samples for DNA and other genetic and biochemical analyses.

Other special collections include bird nests and eggs, recordings of frog and bird calls, rare sectioned mammal embryos, and one of the world’s largest collections of larval fish. Geographic coverage is worldwide, and there are no significant taxonomic gaps in our holdings. In many instances, series of specimens for single localities are large enough to permit statistical study of population-level variation, which is unusual for vertebrates.

Many portions of the collection are historically important, representing faunas decimated by human expansion. A long history of Museum support for major expeditions—particularly from the 1920s through 1950s—resulted in unique collections from many regions of the world. Significant holdings include the Lang-Chapin collections from central Africa, large collection from Neotropical South America, and uniquely extensive collections from New Guinea made during the Archbold Expeditions from the 1930s through 1950s. Collecting is ongoing; many specimens have been added to the collection in recent years from Vietnam, Madagascar, central and eastern Africa, and many regions of South America.

The last decade has seen many improvements in the Division’s data management. The Division is currently developing a Web-accessible database for its collections. Catalogue records for the Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Mammalogy departments are now computerized, and Ornithology initiated databasing this year.

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THE FACILITIES

Hillstream loach
Hillstream loach of the family Balitoridae, subfamily Balitorinae, in Vietnam

The Division has recently completed new storage facilities for the fish collection, the fluid-preserved mammal collection, and much of the herpetology collection. Facilities and compactor cabinetry have been renovated for parts of the dry mammal collection, including much of the large skin collection. Major renovations of space for the bird collection is under way. The Division maintains 83 rooms or spaces for collection storage. They include facilities for skeletons, skins, fluid-preserved specimens, cleared and stained material, frozen tissue samples, microscope slides, bird nests, eggs, sound recordings, photographs, videos, field notes, maps, archival materials, books, and reprints.

The Osteology Preparation Lab is a fully equipped wet lab with fume hoods, maceration tanks, and a degreaser for specimen preparation, with a separate walk-in freezer and a climate- controlled room that houses a dermestid beetle colony for cleaning skeletons. Each Department also maintains separate specimen preparation and handling rooms equipped as wet labs with fume hoods and freezers.

The Monell Molecular Laboratory and the Cullman Research Facility consist of four main laboratory rooms as well as space dedicated to informatics and to heavy equipment. This state-of-the-art DNA sequencing facility is used by numerous postgraduate and graduate students as well as Division curators.

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