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UNT Insider | August 2011 issue | UNT's Elm Fork Natural Heritage Museum attracts art, science students

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UNT's Elm Fork Natural Heritage Museum attracts art, science students

From Inhouse, UNT's faculty news source

James Kennedy

James Kennedy

Sequestered on the second floor of the Environmental Education, Science and Technology building is a maze of towering, pewter-colored filing cabinets crammed with specimens. Along the back wall, shelves are laden with jars of oily fish and reptiles packed in ethanol, and thousands of insects are stowed away in the cabinets and in drawers around the perimeter of the room. Antlers loom over the doorway. A preserved reptile, sliced in half lengthwise, stands guard. It looks like a storage cabinet for a horror movie.

Not at all, says James Kennedy, Regents professor of biological sciences. While he admits that some people get "freaked out when they come in and it's a bunch of dead things," he and teams of colleagues and students have brought together collections to transform the room into a resource for research and learning.

Room 291 is the Elm Fork Natural Heritage Museum, a branch of the Elm Fork Education Center. The museum harbors collections of 100,000 insects, 20,000 plants, 1,000 small mammals and birds and more than 1,000 mussel specimens -- representing many species in these categories of organisms found in the Southwest.

You can visit the museum weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 940-565-2891 to be sure someone is available to explain the collections.

The museum features:

  • An extensive collection of mussels
  • Bat collections, including one from the San Antonio area in 1895
  • A herbarium launched by former faculty member B.D. Harris
  • An in-progress database, soon to be affiliated with the National Science Foundation

North America has the most diverse population of mussels in the world, but they're swiftly vanishing, Kennedy says. Mussels are fickle and ultra-sensitive. Any changes to the environment or water can cause them to die and slip into extinction. The museum collects shells to create an omnibus of the variations of mussels that live or once lived in the area.

The museum's specimens came from collections found scattered all over campus, some that were forgotten, damaged and eaten by insects. About six years ago, Kennedy and other faculty recovered the collections and compiled them in one room.

Other collections were donated. A former doctoral student gave a collection of Southwestern caddisflies. The shell collection of Joseph Britton, a Texas Christian University professor and mussel enthusiast, was donated to fill in gaps of the extensive mussel assemblage.

Each year, the College of Visual Arts and Design brings about 600 drawing students to sketch specimens. Kennedy debriefs the students with a lecture that covers what the specimens are, where they came from, their ecology, and why students shouldn't freak out just because multitudes of dead things are lying in front of them.

One of the most interesting pieces in the museum is a bat from San Antonio in 1895. The preserved animal's tiny face is withered, its brown fur has clubbed around its artificial filling and arsenic dots its wings.

In a drawer next to the bats are rows of tagged, skewered rodents and containers of rodent skulls. Kennedy says these collections are known as teaching collections, meaning, "their historic value is probably minimal and their research value is probably minimal, but we use them with students." Other, more important collections in the museum are known as research collections, meaning their identifications have been verified by known experts.

The museum contains the B.B. Harris Herbarium, named for a former faculty member who helped transform UNT's biology department into a research program. He started the botany collection -- now a herbarium -- that is made up of stacks of thousands of file folders holding dried plant specimens. Some date to the late 19th century.

The museum adds to its collections regularly through donations or student projects.

"We're going to double the size of this collection very easily," says Kennedy, who has curated the museum as a hobby since its beginning. "The ultimate goal in this museum is to get everything up into Specify, a National Science Foundation database so people can come and search if they want to know about a particular species."

Kennedy and his crew have logged thousands of hours preparing the database. Entering the specimens into the Specify (NSF) database would make the collections available nationally. When the database is complete in summer 2011, users will be able to access the collection through the UNT Digital Collections Library.

Read other stories in this issue:

August 2011

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