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.