Valuable UW Research Collection Revived After 30 Years of Dormancy

February 7, 2012
Man working with specimens
Matt Carling inventories bird specimens in the University of Wyoming Vertebrate Collections Museum. More than 6,300 mammals, 2,500 birds and about 3,000 fish, reptiles and amphibians that were collected for research beginning in the late 1870s are available to be studied and analyzed in the facility. (UW Photo)

When acclaimed biologist Joseph Grinnell captured and preserved two fork-tailed storm petrels and a marbled murrelet while conducting research along the Alaskan coast in 1896, he couldn't have known that more than 100 years later the birds would be part of a valuable natural resource research collection at the University of Wyoming.

Grinnell's birds are part of the Vertebrate Collections housed in the Robert and Carol Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center at UW. More than 6,300 mammals, 2,500 birds and about 3,000 fish, reptiles and amphibians that were collected for research beginning in the late 1870s are available to be studied and analyzed in the facility.

Unfortunately, this significant scientific resource, much of which is focused on specimens of Wyoming, was inaccessible to researchers for more than 30 years before the Berry Center opened in 2011. It was stored in a crowded basement room in the UW Biological Sciences Building for most of that time and, later, in a small warehouse near the College of Agriculture building.

Robert Berry, a Sheridan philanthropist and an avid ecologist, was aware of the importance of the collection and was appalled to learn of its plight, says Greg Brown, a UW botany professor and Berry Center director. Brown says that was one of the reasons Berry worked with the university to find a home to make the collection available to researchers, UW students and visitors.

Berry and his wife, Carol, are strong advocates for conservation and are well known for their efforts on the behalf of falcons, especially the neotropical orange-breasted falcon. They gifted $10 million for the UW building, which was doubled through the Wyoming state matching fund program. The result is the 40,000-square-foot Berry Center that has become a focal point for the study, documentation and conservation of natural history and biodiversity (the number and variety of organisms found within a specified geographic region) at UW.

When the center was being built, one of the first items of business was to find someone to relocate the vertebrate collection from the inaccessible warehouse into the new building. Matt Carling, who had extensive experience working with large vertebrate collections at both Louisiana State and Cornell universities, was hired following a national search. He says the building offers a lot of room for the vertebrate collections to expand.

"Many university-based collections are fighting for their lives, but we will continually add to this collection," says Carling, an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology. "Our primary goal is to build a repository of specimens from the greater Rocky Mountain area, because very few researchers have been working to preserve such specimens in this part of the world."

Early scientists such as Grinnell had no way of knowing that the specimens they collected 100 years ago would provide a source of DNA and other data that can be analyzed with modern high-tech equipment. Carling says every specimen collected and preserved at UW will serve as a baseline for helping to understand what might happen in the future.

"The collections will provide a critical component to understanding how organisms will respond to environmental change that takes place over time," he says.

The effort to make the specimens accessible already is paying off. Author Douglas Faulkner studied the collection for his book, "Birds of Wyoming." Steve Buskirk, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, makes extensive use of the vertebrate collection for a book he is writing on the mammals of Wyoming -- the first since 1987, and the most detailed since 1965.

"Having access to the specimens and collection records at the Berry Center has been key to writing the book," Buskirk says. "I am most appreciative of the new resources available in the Berry Center to biologists like me who try to understand where species of animals are, and how their distributions are changing."

The Berry Center houses other units that stimulate research and education in the biodiversity and conservation arena, particularly for Wyoming and the region. The center houses the Program in Ecology (UW's largest Ph.D. degree program) administrative offices; the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database; and three core research facilities -- the Stable Isotope Facility; the Nucleic Acid Exploration Facility; and the Macromolecular Core Equipment Facility.

The building features display areas, a 114-seat lecture hall, a 36-seat teaching laboratory, public meeting areas, seminar rooms, a laboratory to process field biological collections, offices for visiting researchers and office space for 22 graduate students.

When the facility was dedicated, Berry noted how the building's ambience sets a high standard for academic excellence, creating an environment conducive for student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions. Brenna Wanous, office associate for both the Berry Center and the Program in Ecology, confirms Berry's vision is being realized.

"There is a lot of energy and interaction among students; they have a great sense of ownership," she says. "Students from across several departments will host a research symposium this semester." The symposium, scheduled Friday, Feb. 17, from noon-6:30 p.m. in the Berry Center, will feature 11 oral and 17 poster presentations.

Brown says the Berry Center has been host to tours and workshops for middle school and high school students, and has been a focal point to promote the biological sciences in the region. The facility's Green Roof features native Wyoming plants, ranging from cacti to wildflowers to shrubs. Brown says the Environmental Protection Agency is considering it as a model system to showcase arid land green roof technology.

Additionally, Brown says the Berry Center has promoted stronger collaboration between UW and Cody's Buffalo Bill Historical Center. As an example, he says the BBHC's popular raptor education program will be broadcast to viewers watching the large-screen television in the Berry Center.

The Berry Center is among UW facilities that have opened or are now being built that will help bolster UW's nationally competitive position among academic and research programs. Among them are:

  • A $16 million Anthropology Building opened in 2007. In addition to housing the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, the 53,000-square-foot facility is home to the State Archaeologist's Office, the cultural records section of the State Historic Preservation Office, the Frison Institute, the State Archaeological Repository and the Anthropology Museum.
  • An Energy Innovation Center will open next fall. It will initiate a new era of distance collaboration and provide new research tools for UW students and faculty. The $25.4 million facility will be home to the School of Energy Resources, which is moving forward to ensure that Wyoming becomes a global leader in building a secure and sustainable energy future.
  • The Michael B. Enzi STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) facility, funded with a 2007 appropriation of Abandon Mine funds, will provide teaching laboratories for introductory courses such as general chemistry, general biology, organic chemistry, elementary physics and other large-enrollment laboratory courses involving more than 100 students per semester.

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