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Biological Survey Museum

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Huntington museum is home to the largest collection of animals native to WV

By JIM ROSS jross@statejournal.com

HUNTINGTON — It began in 1935 when a man named Neil Richmond received $100 from the West Virginia Academy of Sciences to travel the state to collect specimens of its amphibians and reptiles.

But Richmond was not associated with a museum or a university. He didn't have the means or the place to store the specimens he gathered, so in 1937 he gave them to Marshall College under the care of N. Bayard Green.

In the 75 years since, what is now the West Virginia Biological Survey Museum contains more than 21,000 cataloged specimens of West Virginia mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The museum, which is part of the Marshall University College of Science, has the world's largest collection of animals native to West Virginia.

The museum has specimens of 59 of the state's 66 mammal species, 37 of its 42 reptile species and 50 of its 50 amphibian species.

"We have the best resource for anyone who wants to work on West Virginia mammals or herps anywhere in the world," said Suzanne Strait, the Marshall biology professor who oversees the mammal part of the collection.

The herpetological part is curated by biology professor Tom Pauley, who is well known for his work on West Virginia's amphibians.

Many of the amphibian specimens are in jars of formaldehyde or alcohol. But the methods of studying animals are changing. Pauley said he and his students are more likely to find an animal, measure it and photograph it rather than stick it in a jar.

Strait said the museum is collecting more tissue samples nowadays as mammal research changes. She said one of her students is studying the DNA of coyotes to see how many of them are offspring of wild coyotes breeding with domestic dogs. In the past, that was done by measuring and examining skulls. Now it is done through tissue samples from about 125 coyotes that have been taken from road kill or from trappers, she said.

The consensus is that about 30 percent of wild coyotes in West Virginia have some domestic dog in their background, but that estimate could be high, Strait said. Thus, the student is testing that theory.

And that's a big part of what the museum does. It is used to record West Virginia's biodiversity, to train students in the biological sciences, to be a resource for research and to be involved in outreach efforts to encourage higher education in a state whose residents are below the national average in education.

And soon, its collection will be part of a worldwide searchable database for academic use. 

As part of a $373,256 grant from the National Science Foundation, the Biological Survey Museum will build databases of its collections and link them to portals such as VertNet and HerpNet, along with improving facilities and equipment.

The grant will help build a new facility for storage of tissue collections for genomic studies, digitize all archival data and develop the electronic database.

Strait said the museum also will scan all the field notebooks, maps and slides in its collection. The museum has 40 years worth of natural history records from the same mountain in West Virginia, a rare accomplishment.

As that work goes ahead, Strait and Pauley will be creating and updating maps. Strait said she is working on a map showing which counties are known to have certain mammals, just as Pauley has documented where each known amphibian species lives in the state.