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!

About ehilton

Eric J. Hilton received his Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996, and his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, also from UMass Amherst, in 2002. Before coming to VIMS in 2007, he conducted post-doctoral research in the Geology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the Division of Fishes of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. He is a broadly trained vertebrate zoologist, with a primary research interest in the anatomy, evolution, and diversification of the ray-finned fishes, a group of animals that includes over half of all living vertebrates. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to study evolution, drawing on the data and techniques of paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, biogeography, and histology. Other ongoing research projects include the ecology of larval fishes in the Chesapeake Bay, the biology and management of Atlantic sturgeon, and monitoring the population of American shad in Virginian waters. He oversees the growth and use of the VIMS Ichthyological Collection, teaches the course in the diversity of fishes, and trains graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
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