In 1962, Neil Douglas accepted a position in the brand new biology department of what is now the University of Louisiana Monroe. The school asked him to start a vertebrate biology course, which he said he’d be happy to do. Then he realized, because the department was new, there was nothing to work with.
“So I began collecting frantically all the fishes and frogs and toads and snakes and lizards and mammals that I could get hold of,” Douglas recently recalled.
He arrived on campus in a Uhaul full of preserved animals. As he settled into his position, the collection effort focused on fish and turned more systematic. “I had an army of students that pursued their interest and my interest in as far as collection of fishes and we would take annual collecting trips,” Douglas said.
Some spots they visited annually. “So we had a tremendous record of what transpired as far as changes since we were at the same place here year after year for 23 straight years,” he said.
ULM is a relatively small school but its fish collection grew to be one of the largest and scientifically important in the region. Scientists have described more than two dozen new species of fish from this collection and have used it to evaluate changes in the environment.
But in early 2017, ULM administrators decided to get rid of the fish, along with the school’s massive herbarium, its plant collection.
The fish collection and the herbarium each had primary collectors – Douglas for the fish, and Dale Thomas for the plants. They’re both retired from teaching and collecting. Usually such collections have a curator and a collection manager, to facilitate use of the specimens by researchers, maintain them and do their own research, but the ULM collections haven’t had such support in about a decade, relying primarily on volunteers to manage them. They’ve also been shuffled around campus a few times, each time ending up in less glamorous spaces.
The natural history collections have spent the past five years cramped into an old locker room by the football stadium.
The call to eliminate the collections came when ULM received some money to renovate the athletic facilities.
“Of course at my age I reflect back a lot about what was and why not now and so forth,” said Douglas, 86. “Competition and making money are foremost in an administration of a university as mine. It’s got to be.”
ULM did not respond to requests for comment. But, here’s some context: ULM is a public school in a state that has repeatedly gouged funding for higher education, cutting more money than any other state from 2007 to 2015. Out of research universities, it is ranked in the lowest category for the amount of research on campus; in other words, research is not a funding priority. Instead, teaching faculty at the university said the school has a vocational focus, training students for well-paying jobs in the region.
For better or worse, taxonomists are in less demand than nurses.
Thomas Sasek is a biologist at the university and volunteers as a curator for the collections. In the collections’ last days at ULM, he made his way around the labyrinth of metal cabinets that hold the herbarium. He paused at a cabinet marked ‘M,’ full of specimens of the state flower, magnolia, mounted on sheets of paper.
On one sheet, with a large white flower, a label said the specimen was picked in a backyard in town.
“I think that’s Dr. Thomas’ house,” Sasek marvelled. Thomas is the collector of much of the herbarium. Sasek had just passed a portrait of him unceremoniously tucked behind some boxes. “It has a lot of stuff from his house,” Sasek said.
Because the collections are so particular to Louisiana and the Southeast, Sasek wanted them to stay close, so local students and researchers could easily use them. He arranged for the fish to go to Tulane University, in New Orleans, from where they’ll be further split up into other collections. The herbarium went to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Both are about five hours away. At least, Thomas conceded, they’ll be well cared for and available to scientists for research.
Still, he’s really struggling with it, upset that this all happened on his watch. “It’s just sad to see it go,” Sasek said.
“They’re your experiences captured by plants on paper,” said Barbara Thiers, director of the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden. “You know we all look at our specimens, we remember who we were with, what we were doing, what we found that day, how it made us feel. The specimens we generate are a public record for everyone to use. But they’re very personal to us and to see that go away would be extremely hard.”
Thiers maintains a list of herbaria around the world, and receives a call whenever a herbarium is closed or opened.
On average, she adds 60 to 100 new herbaria every year to her list. Most are started abroad, primarily in Asia. Those in the U.S. often start in places where it’s important to keep track of local biodiversity, like public lands.
She gets calls about closings for 10 to 15 herbaria each year. Sasek has been dreading making that call for months. Thiers says there’s a common narrative.
“Generally when a key player, a scientist who is really interested in the herbarium and devoted his career to building it, when that person leaves sometimes they’re replaced with someone not with similar research interests and the herbarium is sent somewhere else,” Thiers said.
In other words, the fate of a collection often depends on just one key person.
In addition, “it’s always a function of the space that the collection occupies,” said Hank Bart, curator of the fish collection at Tulane University.
Just last year Tulane got rid of its plant collection, in part because it occupied prime real estate on campus. But Tulane does have room for a big share of ULM’s fish. That’s because the fish collection lives in a bunker at a former U.S. Navy facility a half hour from campus – it’s kind of like the vast, metaphorical Tulane basement.
Inside one of the bunkers, fish in jars occupy rows and rows of tall metal shelving. The glass jars full of fish look retro, like somehow we’ve moved beyond this in science, and there isn’t really a need to preserve these almost -Victorian artifacts. Bart says that’s sort of true. “One of the big things that’s jeopardizing retaining collection curators on, particularly, university campuses is a change in biology.”
Biology is becoming more and more molecular, looking at the cells, rather than the whole organism. But Bart says it’s a false separation – you still need the full animal, even when studying cells. You need it for DNA, you need it to identify species, you need it to understand what you’re looking at.
But Bart says new hires are often molecular biologists, who may not agree with him. “A person using molecular techniques has different kind of laboratory needs, different start up needs, a lot more expensive start up costs, you know. And the interest in the collection just really plummets at that point because they’ve just a whole shift, a change in focus.”
While Bart waits for the ULM fish collection to arrive at his bunker, he worries Tulane’s collection could also be disbanded once he retires. He’s taking steps to preserve it, and keeping his fingers crossed that it works.