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Museum of Biodiversity collects specimens for research

| Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Unknown to many of the students who walk past every day, behind the glass doors of the Museum of Biodiversity lies one of the largest repositories of biological specimens in Indiana. The museum, located on the first floor of Jordan Hall of Science, maintains the Department of Biological Sciences’ vast collection of insects, plants, fossils, mammals and other specimens. Collected over its 150-year history, the collection now stores roughly two-thirds of the one million specimens.

Founded by Notre Dame founder Fr. Edward Sorin, the museum’s collection was first exhibited at the University’s first graduation ceremonies in 1844. When most of this original collection, kept in the Main Building, was destroyed by fire in 1879, Sorin commissioned Fr. John Zahm, the namesake of Zahm Hall, to rebuild the collections. Much of the museum’s current collection of skeletal remains was purchased by Zahm and delivered to the University in 1897. Founded by Fr. Julius A. Nieuwland in 1904, the museum’s herbarium has grown to contain over 280,000 plant specimens and actively supports research efforts around the world. The museum’s current collections also include 150,000 insects and a smaller collection of mounted animals and wet specimens of fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates in jars.

Today, in addition to supporting research efforts, the Museum of Biodiversity also offers a valuable resource for teaching. Museum director and professor emeritus Ronald Hellenthal stressed that the collections have been widely used both by explicitly science-related classes, such as entomology and parasitology and classes not explicitly related to science, such as studio art. Additionally, students interested in research may request access to museum materials.

“At any given time, we often have a dozen or more students engaged in undergraduate research projects or graduate research projects that are using our material,” Hellenthal said. “We do have some small laboratory facilities where people can work on material here, but we don’t normally check out material to students. We have some students that are doing museum work for pay, we have some students that are doing undergraduate research projects and we have some students that are here doing volunteer work in the collections.”

While the collections are available to students enrolled in these classes or with a specific research interest, they are not intended for general browsing or public access.

“We’re a support facility for the University,” Hellenthal said. “We support research activities, we support teaching activities, we do outreach. That’s our principle function. We’re not a public museum. We don’t have the staffing or the facility to be open to the public, so that’s really our principle purpose.”

The museum, however, does open its doors for select events every year.

“There are a limited number of opportunities each year where we do open the museum up,” he said. “We participate in the Smithsonian Museum Day Live, so we’re open to the general public one day a year, but we’re also open to a variety of events throughout the year, such as the College of Science Fall Undergraduate Research Fair and Junior Parents Weekend.”

Another function of the Museum of Biodiversity, especially the Greene-Nieuwland Herbarium, is the retention of “voucher material” — specimens previously used in published scientific reports or studies. Storing these specimens in perpetuity is frequently required by research grants, said the museum’s curator Barbara Hellenthal.

“When researchers publish papers, their obligation is to file specimens that are reported or worked on in their papers,” she said. “We acquire material from people who have done outside work out in the field, and when they write their paper or dissertation, they file their specimen here.”

Over the summer, the museum completed the daunting task of surveying the over 10,000 trees and woody plants on the Notre Dame campus with the help of undergraduate students and is working to process and publish this data. Another ongoing project it is engaged with is producing high-resolution images of all the specimens kept in the Greene-Nieuwland Herbarium. Most specimens of historical importance have already been imaged and all images and data are available online, Barbara Hellenthal, the curator of the museum, said.

“We have about 280,000 specimens,” she said. “We’ve already imaged about 10,000 specimens from the Greene Herbarium, and about the same for the Nieuwland Herbarium. My goal is to get the data for all of them and get all of them imaged. We have a ways to go.”

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About Andrew Cameron

Andrew is a senior from Orange County, California. He is an associate news editor at the Observer, and is majoring in Biological Sciences and English. While he has greatly enjoyed his time at Notre Dame, during the winter months he often wonders why he ever left the perennial warmth of Southern California.

Contact Andrew