|By Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
Universities are great accumulators of stuff
some worthless, some of great scientific and educational value.
UMs Herbarium and Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum definitely fall into the
latter category. Both hold the largest collections of their kind in the state, according
to curator David Dyer, and are growing continually, straining their storage facilities to
the bursting point.
Were adding things all the time, Dyer says, with most specimens
being donated by the community.
The plants and animals in the collections predominantly represent the native flora and
fauna of Montana and the northern Rockies, with significant additional specimens from
South America, Europe and Asia. The materials are used extensively by faculty and students
in research projects, and Dyer has put together separate teaching collections for hands-on
classroom use. In addition, he frequently loans out specimens for comparison studies to
other academic institutions in this country and abroad.
Each specimen we have is unique, collected at a particular time and place,
Dyer explains. The more you have to compare, the more information can be gleaned.
One or two red squirrels from one location cant tell you much about the species as a
whole and the variations that can occur. One hundred or 200 from all over will tell you
Four work-study students do most of the work preparing and maintaining the collections,
Dyer says. Currently, Kim Oldehoeft handles museum loans and cataloging. Cheryl Bregen
juggles the skeletal preparation, taxidermy and care of the museums dermestid beetle
colony. In the herbarium, Pam Purdy and Jonathan Rothman make sure the plants are
carefully dried, pressed, mounted and labeled with all necessary identifying information.
Dyer also selects and trains interns from the Montana Natural History Center, located
at old Fort Missoula, to give tours of the museum and herbarium to school groups and the
general public upon request.
The Zoological Museum, formally started by the late Professor Philip L. Wright in the
1930s, contains 18,000 bird and mammal specimens plus 3,000 samples of fish and reptiles.
Every order of mammal is represented, Dyer says, except for a few very obscure ones. The
earliest specimen, a study skin from a Russian ferret, dates back to 1851 and was part of
a large assortment of Eurasian animals obtained in the 1960s by former biology faculty
member Robert Hoffman, now undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. While most of
the museums collections reside until needed in the Health Sciences Building, some
pieces are getting a public airing at the Natural History Center. Its a great
partnership, Dyer says. They have space but no collections, we have the
collections but no space. The UM Herbarium is an equally rich resource, containing
more than 125,000 plant specimens neatly filed according to family. Examples of everything
from diatoms to parts of giant sequoia trees fill 75 seven-foot-tall cabinets on the third
floor of the Natural Sciences Building. Peter Lesica, a University-affiliated botanist, is
the herbariums unofficial curator, Dyer says, donating as many as 500 specimens a
year from his private contract work. The herbariums collection, begun with specimens
collected by Morton Elrod at the Universitys Flathead Lake Biological Station,
recently celebrated its 100th birthday. Many of the specimens seem fragile, Dyer says.
But if the plants are prepared, stored and handled correctly they should last
forever, he says. In the preparation room, boxes of plant material line the walls,
waiting to be sent out on exchange across the state or around the world. The things
we collect here in Montana dont just stay here, Dyer says, they go