Written by Kendra Davis
Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections is one of the largest natural history collections in the United States and includes over one million specimens of wildlife.
The Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, part of Texas A&M’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, was established in 1936 by W.P. Taylor and Dr. William B. Davis to originally act as a repository for vertebrate specimens in Texas, the United States, Central and South America and the Gulf of Mexico. However, the collections have grown to include specimens from across the globe due to the efforts of past and current faculty research. Specimens housed at the BRTC are available to the public to help increase awareness about the natural environment and the many species that inhabit it.
The facility is currently home to collections of amphibians, reptiles, birds, fishes, mammals, marine life and parasites, all of which are available to Texas A&M faculty, graduate students and scientists across the globe to use in research. Heather Prestridge, curator of fishes for the BRTC, says that most of the research conducted focuses on biodiversity science.
“The most common type of research our scientists do is looking at species’ diversity in a particular area, which includes where, when and why,” Prestridge said. “Some scientists dedicate their time to studying the ecology of the animals across a landscape while others study genetic diversity within a population through tissue samples.”
Like a museum, the species arrive in many different ways from areas all over the world and are deposited by scientists who required the collection of wildlife for research.
“The majority of the specimens come into the BRTC from collectors or researchers,” Prestridge said. “For example, one of our scientists, Dr. Kevin Conway, faculty curator of fishes for the BRTC, travels internationally to collect specimens to support his research and teaching, and then deposits them in our collection so that they are available to the scientific community. Ornithologist and Faculty Curator of Birds, Dr. Gary Voelker, also travels internationally in support of his research program, which has resulted in an addition of specimens from South Africa, Benin, Armenia, and Italy to our collections here at Texas A&M.”
In addition to the international research, the BRTC is involved in several projects funded by grants from the National Science Foundation. Such projects will also help to increase the number and variety of specimens housed at Texas A&M’s BRTC.
“One of the projects we are currently working on is funded through the Collections in Support of Biological Research programs, which has provided support
to move vertebrate collections from West Texas A&M University to the BRTC,” Prestridge said. “The second project, funded through NSF’s Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, is providing support to image specimens through the use of computed tomography, better known as CT scanning.”
While all the specimens are available to anyone interested in studying them or conducting research, they are also commonly used by Texas A&M students.
“Our collections are commonly used for our undergraduate and graduate students who have interests to go into a career field studying wildlife,” Prestridge said. “They can come in and gain hands on experience handling the specimens and examining them so that they are knowledgeable whenever they are out working in the field.”
Students at Texas A&M can also enroll in classes at the facility that are taught by professors in the Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
“We have on-site space for the Wildlife and Fisheries Department to teach classes that range from ichthyology, mammalogy, national history of the vertebrates, down river field course, zoology, and study abroad courses,” Prestridge said. “We also teach mammal and bird preparation, which involves teaching students how to preserve the specimens.”
Besides always being on the lookout for new specimen to add to the collection, those at the BRTC are also looking for help or an extra set of hands.
“The BRTC doesn’t have many staff, however, we do have unpaid volunteer and internship opportunities that are typically filled with students from the Wildlife and Fisheries Department looking to gain experience, as well as members of AgriLife Extension’s Texas Master Naturalist Program,” Prestridge said.
Although the BRTC is considered to be one of the largest collections of vertebrates in Texas and stands in the top twenty in the nation, it is still continuing to expand and has room for growth.
“We are constantly growing,” said Prestridge. “We really can’t stress enough the fact that we want people to deposit their specimens here so that they can be cared for and made available for others to study them further.”
“You can think of it as a library of specimens, without the actual books,” Prestridge said. “The specimen itself is the book that you can use in a lot of different ways.”