Past meets present at Natural History Museum
On the third floor of the Fleischmann Agriculture Building at the University of Nevada, Reno, there is a nature preserve of an unusual sort. A mountain lion stands guard (body frozen in eternal leap) from a corner near the door, while a bighorn sheep gazes back from a display across the room. A box of moths, held down by pins, rests on a low table, and display cases hold the preserved bodies of Nevada’s birds, reptiles and small mammals. In a large back room, cabinet after metal cabinet contain folders of pressed plants—more than 90,000 samples in all.
The UNR Natural History Museum, which opened in 2013, houses preserved specimens of Great Basin plants and wildlife that date back to the 1850s. More than a morgue of Nevada’s natural heritage, much of the value of these specimens lies in opportunities for modern-day research, according to museum co-director and plant ecologist Beth Leger.
Each specimen has information from the original collector about when and from where it was taken. “Research that I love to do is going back to these old collections and asking how populations have changed,” Leger said. “Are they still there? How do the plants differ today than they did 100 years ago?”
For example, Leger and her students used museum samples to study seven Great Basin plant species, measuring how plant height and leaf size at a particular site changed over time. “Of the seven, five were shrinking over time, which is the predicted response to the warming and drying of our climate,” Leger said.
Museum specimens can also be used to study things like changes over time in accumulation of heavy metals in plant tissues, or pesticides in bird eggshells. Mining companies use museum specimens to locate areas with particular soil types, for prospecting purposes. Other possibilities are endless.
“The questions you can ask in here are amazing,” Leger said. “What I love about it is the total chance and happenstance involved with some scientist killing something and preserving it for the future. They don’t know who they’re doing it for, and yet they take these meticulous records. They write where they are. They write down observations. They take all the time to glue it on a sheet of paper and stick it in here. They don’t know how it’s going to be useful.”
One of the museum’s ongoing projects is currently housed in a warehouse in Stead. Here, more than 22,000 Great Basin fish specimens, many at risk of rotting or dehydrating, are being transferred from old mason jars to better sealed containers with new preserving fluid. This irreplaceable collection includes many species that are threatened or endangered, and four species that are now extinct.
“If we don’t take care of these, they’re literally species that are gone,” Leger said. “What I really want to do is take some of these, 3-D scan them, print them out, and show them to people. Because no one has seen these things since whenever they went extinct. They’re totally lost.”