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MU's herpetology collection becoming research tool

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It might be trite, but it's still fun to say that Marshall University's reptile and amphibian collection has kept a profile lower than a lizard's belly.

Tom Pauley is trying to change that. The retired Marshall professor and renowned herpetologist is trying to turn the 107-year-old collection into a 21st-century research center.

"We have quite a resource here," Pauley said. "We have 14,823 specimens as of today, and the collection is getting considerably more use from our graduate students and from researchers at other institutions."

Housed in six rows of steel shelves in an otherwise nondescript room in the university's science building, the collection consists of hundreds of vials, jars and tanks that contain the preserved remains of salamanders, frogs, lizards, turtles and snakes collected from every corner of West Virginia.

The collection originated at West Virginia University in 1907. A professor there, A.M. Reese, sent master's-degree candidates on collecting missions to counties throughout the state. At the time, biologists collected and killed creatures they wished to study, and preserved the remains in alcohol or formaldehyde for immediate or future study.

With so many students making so many field trips, the WVU collection grew steadily. In the late 1930s, two biologists who had contributed many specimens to the collection, Graham Netting and Neil Richmond of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, discovered that funding used to maintain the collection was about to disappear.

The two men arranged to transfer the collection to Marshall herpetologist N.B. Green, who agreed to assume responsibility for the specimens' care. The collection moved to Huntington in 1939 and has remained there since.

"Before they expanded the science building [in 1985], the entire collection was kept in a closet," Pauley said. "A lot of the specimens weren't even identified or cataloged."

Green was responsible for the collection into the 1970s, and Marshall students added steadily to it as the years passed. Pauley maintained it from the 1970s until his retirement last May. Another Marshall professor, Jayme Waldron, has overseen it since then, but Pauley remains its curator.

"I have quite a bit of work left to do before I get the collection into the shape I want to leave it in," Pauley said. "There are specimens that have to be identified and put into jars, and all of those specimens will need to be cataloged.

"Also, all the information from the notebooks where the locations of the specimens' collection sites were logged need to be computerized, complete with [Global Positioning System] coordinates. The work on that is going pretty well. I'd estimate that I have 12,000 of the almost 15,000 locations in the database already."

Some of the work is more physical. The jars that house most of the specimens have cheap cardboard seals in their lids. The cardboard allows the alcohol that covers the specimens to evaporate.

"It's amazing how much it evaporates," Pauley said. "As soon as we see the specimens' tails sticking above the alcohol's surface, we know it's time to top off the jars. Right now we're recharging them at least once a year, if not twice. We're starting to put paraffin on the jar lids when we replenish the alcohol, and we think that will stop a lot of the evaporation."

While the collection occasionally gains a new creature or two, Pauley said today's technology has rendered almost obsolete the practice of collecting large numbers of physical specimens.

 "What we're doing a lot now is taking using the marvelous cameras they have on smart phones to take pictures," Pauley explained. "We measure the animals, photograph them and release them, and that gives us records of their capture and the morphometrics of the animals themselves."

What it doesn't give is information about the creatures' inner workings. That's where MU's extensive specimen collection proves its worth.

"Having a collection allows researchers to dissect the animals and study what they eat and what their reproductive potential might be," Pauley explained. "We promote the use of the collection to our students, and so far we've had four or five masters' theses be generated from research done from our specimens.

"The Marshall collection had never been a center of research before, but we're really using it now. People from other universities are borrowing specimens for use in their research."

The collection is open to the public by appointment, though that fact isn't widely known.

"We have teachers bring students through here on school tours. We encourage people to come in and see what we have," Pauley said.

He estimated that the work of entering the remaining GPS data, identifying and cataloging the yet-unclassified specimens could take another 4 to 5 years.

"So I'll be spending a lot of time here," said the 73-year-old with a chuckle. "The old man will probably be here until they put him in a jar."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

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