In the steps of giants

Here we are, in Paris, for a much too short visit to this great city (though I think both of us are quite anxious to get home!).  We arrived from Bucharest on Sunday afternoon. After unloading a few of our bags at the left luggage storage at the airport (including a blue barrel containing the skeletons of the 4 sturgeons we dissected in Romania… the person at the security counter didn’t even flinch as it went through the X-ray machine). Although I could not see the screen, I can’t imagine that the image of four large heads of fishes, together with about 6 large filet knives and packages of razor blades shouldn’t have at least deserved a second glance…), we took a taxi to our hotel in the heart of Paris, cleaned up, and headed out for a walk.

Our first stop was Père Lachaise Cemetery, an amazing and dizzying array of tombs on top of tombs, probably best known (at least to some) as the final resting site of the Doors singer, Jim Morrison. However, we were here to see the graves of two early French naturalists: Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—the first chair of Zoology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and his colleague, Georges Cuvier (though, of course, we do stop by Morrison’s graffitied head stone).

The grave of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Geoffroy, beyond his other claims to fame, formulated a theory that all animals are formed of the same parts, just different sizes and shapes, and that this showed “connection” between animals. We have come to know these concepts and events as homology and evolution. Of course there has been much refinement since the time of Geoffroy, but these are basic tenets of what we do, and what this trip is all about.

Cuvier, while brought to the museum by Geoffroy, did not accept his colleague’s views (Lamark, of Lamarkian Evolution fame, was also on staff at this time) of evolution, but made his name in other ways, namely formalizing and “proving” extinction as a phenomenon, and by being the pre-eminent comparative anatomist of his era.

The grave of Georges Cuvier

Oh yeah, he also wrote 22 volumes describing all fishes known on the planet at that time, including describing about half again as many (or at least he initiated the project, as he died part way through its completion).

The names engraved on the buildings around the Jardin des Plantes offer the continued appreciation of these 18th and 19th century naturalists: Buffon, Lamark, Geoffroy, Cuvier, Dumeril, and the list goes on and on. And we are here to photograph, handle, and scrutinize the sturgeon specimens they collected, handled, and scrutinized.

The Grande Gallery of Evolution, Jardin de Plantes, Paris.

The collections at the MNHN are stored in a 5-story underground bunker at the northeast corner of the Jardin des Plantes, under the Grande Gallery of Evolution (I like this: the collections metaphorically, and in this case literally, providing the underpinning for evolution!). A small, arched gate, looking much like the entrance to a sewer system, guards the collection, but once inside, we encounter a labyrinth of poured concrete tunnels.

The lab that we worked in is on the second floor down, with nothing but the sound of the air handling systems in the background, spilling forth the cool (ok, cold) conditioned air (good for the specimens, but makes us appreciated the 55° air outside). There we continued our quest – measuring and photographing. Got two more type specimens this visit, including the one for Acipenser dabryanus, from China, one of the few sturgeon species with an original type specimen, described by the original author, still in existence. We also went to look at the oversized collection – the large, stuffed specimens prepared often in the early 1800s, which set on compactors and are neatly arranged so they interdigitate when the shelves are closed!

The entrance to the collections.

Inside the bunker.

The oversized specimen room (the sturgeons at the bottom of the picture are about 10 feet long!)

After work on Monday, we had dinner at Les Deux Magots, a now-touristy café frequented in earlier days by the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, and other literary and artistic heavyweights of their days who would argue about and discuss the state of the world, and, at least in the case of Hemingway, fuel these discussions through volumes of alcohol. While we didn’t attempt to discuss the state of the world, or other such lofty topics I like to think we fit somehow into this continuum. We had some good conversations about the state of comparative anatomy, and systematics generally, as a science, the difficult funding climate for such projects, and the need for institutions and agencies to consider that even though we continue 18th and 19th century science, we are applying 21st century technology to these problems that will continue to captivate people like us. As we have told each other so frequently this trip, “there’s a paper in there somewhere!”

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Oct 23: Time Travel

We just completed our first leg of our trip—on Friday we finished up at the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Working generally 10:30 am to 8:00 pm every day in a 60-square foot X-ray room/darkroom/visitor lab, Casey and I had 168 specimens and 15 species pass through our hands; three jars comprising type specimens. One hundred seventy five pages of data sheets and notes, and more than 400 digital images to sort through…and we just scratched the surface of the sturgeon specimens in this collection, barely made a dent in the holdings.

There are literally thousands of sturgeons, from all over the world (mostly Russia and the former Soviet states, but that is a good chunk of the planet, and as far as sturgeons go, that is home to a large percentage of species!), and from a big swath of time. The oldest specimens that we looked at were from the 1830s, the newest from the 1980s.

With each specimen, as we take measurements and look at their bones, my mind drifts to that time when the specimen was collected. Who was the person that collected it? What was going on in the world at that time? The specimens at the Zoological Institute are contained in tall old jars, sealed with hot wax—a method possibly used since Peter the Great founded the collection in the early 1700s.

Left, a few of the jars of the sturgeons we looked through. Right, a small segment of the Ichthyology Collection at the Zoological Institute.

The specimens these jars contain are truly a source of time travel. And that is one of the special things about collections, generally—they are an opportunity to go back in time, as each specimen is a unique record of that fish (or whatever plant or animal that has been preserved) being at a particular place, in a particular habitat, at a particular time.

For me, collections are synonymous with museums, a word that generally conjures images of galleries of artifacts on display for education (of which the ZIN also is well equipped, including the mummies of mammoths!). And at their core, both museums and collections, if you care to distinguish the two, serve the same purpose—discovery, be it in a scientific sense or in an educational sense. Both serve to provide an appreciation and understanding of the natural world, something that is critical for us to continue and support, and because we, as humans, are having greater and greater impacts on our natural heritage with each passing year, these resources will continue to play a pivotal role as record keeper as we lose biodiversity.

Left, Casey Dillman measuring a sturgeon at the Zoological Institute, October 17, 2011. Right, a page from the catalog, listing a few of the specimens of Acipenser stellatus held in the Zoological Institute.

Left, one of the halls of the public displays at the Zoological Institute. Right, a mummified mammoth, found in the permafrost of Siberia.

Collections are dynamic institutions, each with a unique place in the overall worldwide network of natural history museums. Some are large and expansive, seemingly comprehensive. Some are small and focused on particular regions. No matter the size, all are important.

The people that work in and run these collections also are a unique part of the “collection experience,” from the collection managers who do the lion’s share of the day-to-day operations of the collection (who in the case of our visit we were indebted for finding and bringing to us all the jars of sturgeons we wanted to study, and, now that we have left, have the task of resealing all of those jars!), to the researchers that drive the building and utilization of the collections, to all those in between. To share ideas and discovery with colleagues from other places and other cultures is as important as the data we collected on sturgeon body proportions.

On this visit to St. Petersburg, we met with colleagues with whom we had only communicated with by email, or whom we only knew of from their authorship on a scientific paper we may have read. During this one week in St. Petersburg, Casey and I collected data for our ongoing project on sturgeon—an important goal met. However, more importantly we further gained mutual respect between ourselves and our St. Petersburg colleagues, perhaps leading the way to future collaborations and forging new international cooperation and opportunities.

Eric Hilton (left) and Arcady Balushkin (right), at the Zoological Institute, October 21, 2011.

On Friday afternoon, Casey and I met with the department head – Dr. Arcady Balushkin – in his office to say our good-byes. We discussed our results from the week and other ongoing projects in our respective labs, and talked about the science and history of ichthyology at the Zoological Institute. Over the course of this conversation, Dr. Balushkin offered us a glass of wine. We raised a glass and toasted to science, collegiality, friendship, and to the future – may we meet again. So, with that… On to Moscow!

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Oct 19: Why Sturgeons?

After a long series of flights, including a trans-Atlantic ride to Paris on the new Airbus A380, we arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia on Sunday evening. The Airbus A380 is known as the “Big One.” It is definitely big, and it was a very smooth flight, but there is precious little leg room for a 6-hour flight—no wonder they can fit more than 500 people on this plane!

On Monday morning, we met our colleagues in the lobby at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ZIN), a short walk and across the River Neva from our hotel.

The Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Once inside, behind the door separating the public displays from the research side of the museum, I was immediately brought back to all the natural history collections that I have visited over the course of my research on the anatomy and evolution of fishes. The long winding hallways, leading back to collection rooms and offices. The unique smell that is common to these buildings, and a unique feel that is hard to convey. Perhaps it is the creaking floors, or the faint smell of alcohol (the preservative of choice for natural history collections) in the air. Or maybe it’s the pictures and photos of famous natural historians from the 1700s to the present day that line the walls, serving as inspiration for our study of the natural world.

These are special institutions and over the course of these postings, we hope to give a glimpse inside them, and what makes them so special, and why they are vital to the modern study of biology. But first, I want to start with a simple question directly related to this trip: Why sturgeons?

This question is best answered by example. On our first afternoon of work, Casey and I worked through the holdings in the ZIN collections of a sturgeon called Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi—the Syr Darya sturgeon. We took measurements of the specimens, studied them under the microscope, and figured out which specimens we would take photos of for future reference and use in publications.

When one hears the word “sturgeon,” the mind often wanders to thoughts of large, prehistoric looking fishes, or at least the most famous of their products, caviar. The Syr Darya sturgeon, found only in the Syr river of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, is “prehistoric” looking, I suppose (though another member of the same genus, the Great Amu Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni, may be more so—with its head and body covered by bony spikes!), but you would be hard pressed to get much caviar from any one individual. The 20 or so specimens we spent the afternoon with—the largest not quite 10 inches long—were all sexually mature, the females filled with eggs (the bellies of these had all been cut open by some previous sturgeon researcher, which gave us a chance to look inside).

So, this is a good answer to, “Why Sturgeon?” The variation captured in this one family of fishes—going from the small Syr Darya sturgeon to the great beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), famed for its prized caviar and ranking as one of the world’s largest bony fishes—is amazing.

Another answer to this question is perhaps, unfortunately, also best exemplified by the Syr Darya sturgeon: this species is widely thought to be extinct, a victim of the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. These specimens, and others like them in collections (though few if any specimens of this species exist in collections outside of Russia) are the only records of the species that we have – or ever will have – left to study, to learn about, and to appreciate this little part of the biodiversity of the planet.

The Syr Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi

The Amu Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni

A "large" Syr Darya sturgeon - a female loaded with eggs.

But many groups of fishes, indeed many groups of organisms can fill this bill: there are many groups that have very peculiar life history strategies, and many groups of organisms have members that have recently gone extinct (whether we know it or not). But in thinking about it, this answers probably another question better: why should we care about sturgeons? To get to “why sturgeons” question, maybe I should back up a little: sturgeons are intrinsically fascinating to both scientists and the general public alike. These are charismatic animals that have captured our imagination, which is no small feat for a fish (most of the so-called charismatic megafauna are adorned with hair and, in many ways, are much closer to humans, evolutionarily, if not ecologically or geographically). They quite literally have been around since the time of the dinosaurs (in 2006, I helped describe a fossil sturgeon species that was discovered inside the ribcage of a hadrosaur), and therefore have a long, and interesting evolutionary history. These are culturally important fishes for peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere. And yes, there is the economic value of sturgeons – caviar and meat. But it is more than all this, or perhaps all this wrapped together that makes these special fishes. Personally, I can’t really say why I am drawn to these fishes, except that they represent a puzzle to me – anatomically, evolutionarily, and ecologically. For over half of my 15-year post-baccalaureate academic career, I have had grant support for my study of sturgeons, and for the other half, I have been thinking and studying sturgeons, at least on “nights and weekends” if not full time. In working on the paleontology of sturgeons, and holding the remains of sturgeons some 80 million years old, I can’t help to wonder how such biological variation has come to be, and persisted for such long periods of times. Some days I think I am close to understanding these fishes, but most days I just keep coming up with more questions to ask about them… we’ll see how this trip ends, but I suspect we will come home with reams of paper with data – measurements and notes, some quantitative and some qualitative. Among these data will be the answers to some questions, but also, in all likelihood, enough new ones to replace those!

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Oct 5: Museum Sturgeon Blogs

VIMS researchers Eric Hilton and Casey Dillman will leave VIMS on October 15 for a 3-and-a-half-week expedition to visit sturgeon collaborators and collections at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg; the Moscow University Collection in Moscow; the Danube Delta National Institute in Tulcea, Romania; and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.

Follow along here as the pair blog about their visits to some of the world’s oldest, largest, and most important natural history museums, and their study of both preserved and newly sampled sturgeon specimens.

VIMS professor Eric Hilton holds a shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus) from the Missouri River.

Eric Hilton

Hilton says the ultimate goal of their study—a collaborative venture with other sturgeon experts across the globe— is to correctly identify new and preserved sturgeon specimens in order to resolve the tangled classification of this ancient and threatened group of fishes.

With that, he says “we can make informed conservation decisions for rare and poorly known species, based on ecological and behavioral data that we might have for a closely related species that is more abundant and better studied.”

For more details about their study, visit

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