Hiss-toric first: U-M museum’s 70,000 snake specimens form world’s largest research collection
The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology recently acquired tens of thousands of scientifically priceless reptile and amphibian specimens, including roughly 30,000 snakes preserved in alcohol-filled glass jars.
The new acquisitions boost the university’s collection of reptiles and amphibians to roughly half a million specimens, including some 70,000 snakes. With the latest additions, U-M now maintains the largest research collection of snakes anywhere in the world, according to museum curators.
More than 100 boxes containing jarred snakes, lizards, salamanders, newts, frogs and turtles were hauled to Ann Arbor last month from Oregon State University, which felt the U-M museum was especially well-positioned to maximize the scientific potential of this valuable resource, according to evolutionary biologist Dan Rabosky, a curator at the U-M Museum of Zoology, which is known as the UMMZ.
The zoology collections, as well as the university’s paleontology, anthropological archaeology, and herbarium collections, are housed at U-M’s Research Museums Center, several miles south of downtown Ann Arbor. At 153,375 square feet, it is one of the largest such facilities at any U.S. university and contains collections, laboratories, specimen records and libraries under one roof.
While the center’s collections are not open to the general public, researchers from around the world visit to study physical specimens firsthand. Biologists use the UMMZ collections to address key evolutionary questions, such as: How do new species form? How do reptiles and amphibians evolve? Why are there so many kinds of venomous snakes?
In addition, many thousands of U-M undergraduates have gained valuable hands-on research and classroom experience by studying biological diversity at the museum.
“The UMMZ is one of the only museums capable of supporting a collection of this size,” Rabosky said of the Oregon State specimens. “It takes lots of resources to integrate and maintain collections like this and to make the specimens and their data available to the global research community.
“In that sense, the UMMZ is more like a giant scientific instrument—such as a telescope or a particle accelerator—than the stereotypical storage room that people sometimes associate with museums. It’s an active, vibrant place where people are asking all sorts of big questions about life on Earth and how we are impacting it.”
The 45,000 or so specimens from Oregon State represent the lifetime work of two recently retired professors there, Stevan Arnold and Lynne Houck. Arnold received a doctorate from U-M in 1972 and relied on the UMMZ collection for his dissertation work.
The vast majority of the newly acquired specimens belong to two groups of snakes (garter snakes and water snakes) and two groups of salamanders (woodland salamanders and dusky salamanders). In addition to hundreds of jars containing the specimens, the transferred material includes about 30,000 frozen tissue samples.
“We have a great scientific partnership with the University of Michigan. Although Oregon State maintains and values its core reptile and amphibian collection, we were no longer able to maintain Steve and Lynne’s specialty collection,” said Oregon State entomologist David Maddison, who helped coordinate the transfer.
“After contacting multiple institutions, it quickly became clear that the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology was the only one that had the resources—space and staff—to absorb the collection. It made a lot of sense to transfer it to UMMZ, given their track record at making museum specimens and associated data available to other researchers. This will be a boost for biodiversity studies and for ecology more generally.”
The merging of the Arnold/Houck collection into Michigan collections is of special interest to U-M evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist Alison Davis Rabosky, who studies animal coloration and mimicry in snakes to better understand the origin and evolution of bright color patterns across species.
“These are two powerhouse snake collections coming together to become something entirely new—a super-collection capable of doing things together that neither one could have done alone,” Davis Rabosky said.
Davis Rabosky is an associate professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Dan Rabosky is also a professor in the department.
In recent years, major digitization initiatives at museums worldwide have made specimens far more accessible as photographs and associated data are made available online. Even so, images and databases can never fully replace physical specimens, according to Rabosky.
For example, the 30,000 frozen tissue samples from Oregon State will be used for advanced genetic studies. They were transported to Michigan in two ultracold freezers inside the delivery truck, along with 115 boxes filled with jars of specimens. The truck also held 50 boxes containing field notebooks, lab notes, data sheets and movie film of behavioral observations.
“I think that with the advances in molecular genetics, more sophisticated analyses of DNA from these specimens and their associated frozen tissue samples could be applied to understand evolutionary changes between generations and to understand how different populations are adapting to changing climates. This kind of research could never be done without having the actual specimens and their DNA,” said Greg Schneider, research collections manager for the zoology museum.
For Schneider and a team of U-M students who helped unpack and shelve the newly acquired specimens, the delivery truck’s arrival was a momentous occasion, with each seemingly identical cardboard box filled with singular scientific wonders.
Large water snakes coiled inside alcohol-filled jars. Female garter snakes with litters of newborns. Black, white and orange Kaiser mountain newts from Iran. Enigmatic Luschan’s salamanders from Turkey. “Hybrid” specimens that resulted from matings between different species, and which might help researchers understand the genes that normally keep species separate.
“Many thousands of these specimens are from sets of related individuals—i.e., parents and offspring,” Rabosky said. “This is very, very rare for museum collections and is incredibly powerful for research because it lets researchers ask questions about genetics that would otherwise not be possible.
“This is scientific information that is not replicated anywhere else on Earth, and we at the UMMZ are now the custodians of this portal to deep insights about biodiversity. It’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility for us.”