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Exciting adventures with a unique UCMP collection
by Erin Meyer
Unknown to most, the UCMP houses a collection of recent, alcohol-preserved specimens, and a very large collection at that. Beginning this past May and with financial support from the UCMP and supervision by David Haasl, I became intimately familiar with the "sights and smells" of an important scientific collection in UCMP, housed alongside the fossil vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and microfossils. This Graduate Student Researcher appointment was not only beneficial to the UCMP, but also allowed me to gain valuable curatorial experience.
In a separate room within the collections of UCMP and behind a closed door, there are over 1,500 specimen jars containing mostly mollusks, but also annelids, arthropods, echinoderms, and poriferans. The room is filled with an impressive collection of aquatic animals from around the world. Sound like a great collection? Well, it is, aside from one sad fact: over time, historical specimens stored in formaldehyde tend to dry out. Their curation and museum preservation are vital as these specimens have importance for phylogenetic investigations, DNA extractions, morphological descriptions, and testing hypotheses on evolutionary relationships and biogeography. This valuable UCMP collection contains specimens collected by several faculty members within the Department of Integrative Biology, including UCMP's Carole Hickman, David Lindberg, and Jere Lipps, along with dissertation specimens of graduate students, such as Scott Nichols. Since I will be contributing to this collection with my own dissertation material, I valued the opportunity to work with it this summer and to help develop protocols for the addition of new specimens.
Just some of the specimens that need new preservation fluid, labels, and curation.
Where does one begin with such a daunting task? Well, I began by entering information into the UCMP database, which is publicly accessible at www.ucmp.berkeley.edu. I entered specimen and locality numbers, along with pertinent locality, collector, and specimen information. After the ethanol arrived, I switched gears and focused on individual specimen storage and maintenance. First step: change and/or refill the preservation fluid, while simultaneously counting the number of specimens contained in each jar. If you're not familiar with alcohol-preserved specimens, especially those that were collected and stored in ethanol many decades ago, you're lucky for obvious reasons! While working under a fume hood, I decanted the old preservation fluid and replaced it with fresh 70% ethanol. The used liquid was diluted and disposed of following UC Berkeley Environmental Health & Safety requirements. I then sealed the jars, using Parafilm around the rim to help decrease evaporation, and put two labels on each jar. One label identifies the jar with specimen number, locality number, and a unique "Wet Collection" (WC) specimen number, all which correspond to the UCMP database. The second label is the maintenance record, and lists the type of preservation fluid and the date the fluid was changed or refilled. The jars were then returned to the shelves in the wet collection room, organized by their WC specimen number.
A specimen jar containing chitons from Mexico after receiving its new ethanol solution and labels.
In addition to UCMP specimens, there are currently over 200 specimens on loan to UCMP from other institutions in the wet collection. I tracked down instructions and shipping information from eight institutions. Shipping alcohol-preserved specimens is a little tricky, especially internationally, because ethanol is a flammable substance. It requires decanting most of the liquid and then sealing the specimens in plastic bags with a vacuum sealer, similar to what you can use to seal freezer bags in your kitchen. So far, over 70 specimens have been returned to the California Academy of Sciences, with the others waiting for suitable packing supplies.
Eight weeks and 26 liters of ethanol later, I completed the databasing of and maintenance on nearly 500 specimens. Despite my best efforts, there are over 1,000 specimens to go, leaving plenty of work for the future. Specimens in the UCMP, whether modern or fossil, always require attention ongoing maintenance and database management as we care for this important scientific resource and make it available to researchers at UC Berkeley and around the world.