Bridging the Gap

October 10, 2022
person working with specimen in room with animal skeleton
Elizabeth Wommack, staff curator and collections manager at UW’s Museum of Vertebrates, examines round skins of an American mink and western spotted skunk. A skeleton mount of a coyote is in the foreground.

The Museum of Vertebrates and Wyoming Natural Diversity Database collect important wildlife data for better understanding and decision making.


By Micaela Myers 

In a large room in the University of Wyoming Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, a snowy owl spreads its wings, and a ruddy duck sleeps peacefully. They, along with thousands of other specimens of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish, are part of the UW Museum of Vertebrates. Each carries a tag noting where and when it was found, some dating back to the 1800s when the collection began. 

Museum of Vertebrates

The UW Museum of Vertebrates aims to document and understand regional and global biodiversity. Toward this mission, it acquires and investigates vertebrate specimens — animals with internal back bones — to advance academic knowledge and public appreciation of the natural world.

Staff Curator Elizabeth Wommack works with organizations around the country, as well as private citizens, to grow the collection, which currently includes about 4,000 birds, 6,500 mammals, 2,000 fish and 400 amphibians. Students, staff and volunteers — along with a colony of flesh-eating beetles — help carefully process the specimens. Skins, skeletons, eggs and nests are kept in the dry collections room, and a wet collections area preserves whole animals. The museum is a member of Arctos, a digital database software and collection management system that allows interested parties — such as researchers and wildlife managers — worldwide access to collections, complete with various media like recordings of bird song and papers.

At UW, the collections are used by researchers and students. Albatross are a family of pelagic birds with the longest wingspan of any modern bird. A family of albatross died due to longline fishing, and the specimens demonstrate conservation challenges. A bird wing from a black-footed albatross has even been used in a physics class, and specimens are often checked out for other classes, such as ornithology. Doctoral ecology graduate Shawn Billerman of North Massapequa, N.Y., recently studied two types of birds — red-breasted and red-naped sapsuckers — whose hybrid zone is shifting due to climate change. Wommack and a group of students are studying the after-effects of the Mullen Fire on local wildlife. Even the art department uses specimens as models for artwork. The library is also helping the museum create 3D models of the skulls of birds and mammals.

“Wyoming is one of the few places there are megafauna left,” she says. “I think it’s important we keep that record here.”

two men working with a computer and plant specimens
Wyoming Natural Diversity Database Director Gary Beauvais scans samples with Ben Legler of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium. (Photo by Ali Grossman)

Wyoming Natural Diversity Database

The Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD) is also devoted to gathering and developing biological information but with a special focus on species of conservation concern and natural vegetation communities. It operates as a service and research unit of the university and is a member the Natural Heritage Network of similar programs. Each of the 50 U.S. states and most Canadian provinces house a network program that cooperates in a group known as NatureServe.

“We’re a biological survey for Wyoming,” says Director Gary Beauvais. “We’re a little like Extension, except we deal with issues of native plants and animals and their conservation. Our mission is to develop the best scientific information possible on native plants and animals in the state and then distribute that data to anyone who needs it across the spectrum of potential partners — from natural resource developers, consultants and managers all the way to natural resource conservationists.”

WYNDD has four areas of focus — botany, vertebrate zoology, invertebrate zoology and ecology — plus the database itself. In the vertebrate program, the unit focuses on practical applied research on the rarer species of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals in the state. For example, Wyoming is home to 18 species of bats, eight of which are susceptible to a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome that has caused millions of bat deaths in North America. WYNDD is working with Wyoming Game and Fish Department to develop a strategic plan to combat the disease.

However, it’s invertebrates — a group that includes insects, mollusks and crustaceans — that are now being most frequently petitioned for listing under Endangered Species Act. Therefore, WYNDD-collected information on invertebrates is desperately needed by federal and state agencies. For example, the western glacier stonefly was believed to only exist in Glacier National Park in Montana and was listed as threatened under the act. However, WYNDD located the insect in Grand Teton National Park and, recently, in the Wind River, Absaroka and Beartooth mountains.

The state also comes to WYNDD for information when a plant is petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act — like the recently petitioned thickleaf bladderpod in northern Wyoming. Meanwhile, the ecology program focuses on habitat-level issues, often pursuing projects that map unique habitats such as sand dunes and wetlands.

Lastly, WYNDD’s information systems and services group maintains the database and web tools that allow partners to access their information.

“At last count, we have 430 organizations as partners,” Beauvais says. “They submit about 12,000 data requests a year.”

These requests may come from private consultants hired by industry or from federal and state agencies that need the information for management or development. WYNDD is home to 11 full-time employees and also employs students as field technicians to assist the team’s scientists. WYNDD was first developed in 1979 and came under the UW Office of Research and Economic Development in 1998. It’s overseen by advisory committee made up of representatives from partner groups.

The role of units such as WYNDD and the Museum of Vertebrates is to bridge the gap between science and those who make the decisions about managing habitats.

Beauvais says: “We exist to produce and distribute information under the philosophy that good decisions on Wyoming’s natural resources will be made when everyone involved has access to the best information possible.”

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