Nine curators + 600,000 specimens = one great collection

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Chris Conroy, a curator at the campus Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, sits framed by two of the facility’s many thousands of avian specimens — a wandering albatross, left, and a bald eagle.
Noah Berger photo

24 October 2002 | Chris Conroy is looking at the ridges, bumps, and broad surfaces of bone on a skull about the size of a thimble. The curvatures and notches of the bones of any vertebrate are the topography of evolution, showing scientists what physical capabilities nature has selected.

In this case, the diameter of the hollow eye sockets on the skull of this montane vole (a.k.a field mouse or meadow mouse) are evolutionary signposts of its poor eyesight and natural inclination to burrow in dark places; a protruding jaw and tiny teeth reflect its diet of grasses and seeds. For a curator, whose work involves describing and classifying species, such characteristics are of great importance.

Conroy is one of five curators and four curatorial associates in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ), which maintains one of the largest research-based collections of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals in the United States. As one of the keepers of these natural-history collections, Conroy has access to approximately 237,000 specimens in the amphibian/reptiles collection, about 180,000 bird specimens, and almost 200,000 mammal specimens. The collection makes the museum, housed on the third floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building, one of the leading centers for the education of undergraduate and graduate students in vertebrate biology.

Founded in 1907 with the help of benefactress Annie Alexander, the museum is dedicated to research into Earth’s dwindling biodiversity and to efforts to study and conserve the species that exist today. Alexander was an amateur naturalist who wanted to advance the study of natural history through the collection of specimens. She collected thousands of animal, plant, and fossil specimens throughout western North America, and helped to document the flora and fauna that were beginning to disappear with urbanization and agricultural development. Today, at least 17 taxa are named in her honor.

A curator’s role
Curators such as Conroy oversee the MVZ collections, acquiring new specimens through purchases, gifts, field exploration, and inter-museum exchanges. Then they plan and prepare exhibits, displaying their affinity for the species that they study, and the environments in which the animals are found. And that makes sense, because curators spend a fair amount of time collecting and observing species in their natural habitat. Conroy, for instance, a biologist by training, studies the biogeography of rodents, particularly voles and lemmings, in an effort to trace their evolutionary patterns and adaptations to different environments. Voles, for example, migrated to North America when the Bering Strait was still a land bridge. “They’ve only been around maybe a few million years,” says Conroy, “but they allow us to test hypotheses about the Earth’s history, when the Bering Strait formed, and how the species evolved and adapted as they began to migrate with changing climates.”

He pulls out a specimen — a perfectly reconstructed vole body — from a metal drawer next to the vole skull. He’s spent the better part of a morning removing the delicate internal scaffolding — the skeleton — then stuffing the skin with cotton. The specimen, which weighed about 30 grams when it was alive, has been stretched to its full length of about six inches so it will lie flat on its belly, and Conroy has pushed tiny wires through the center of each arm and leg to keep the appendages straight. The shiny, dark-brown fur on this once-healthy rodent smells slightly musty from its concealment in a specimen drawer.

“All of the information about this specimen will be indexed in our files and cross-referenced, using this identification number,” Conroy says, holding up a tag dangling from the specimen’s ankle and taking it to a catalog of alphabetized index cards, where he files it.

Across the hall from the mammal collections are the bird specimens — thousands of them, stored tray by tray in large metal specimen cabinets that form dozens of aisles. Alison Chubb, a freshly minted Ph.D. in biology, pulls out a drawer full of exotically feathered Birds of Paradise, all from the tropical jungles of New Guinea. Apart from the peacocks, these species are some of the most flamboyantly decorated creations of the avian world, she says.

She shows off some of these treasures: a mocha-breasted Bird of Paradise, then a larger ribbon-tailed specimen, with long, delicate wing plumes pressed closely to its sides. These are rare specimens that cannot be found at many another museum, because the birds are protected today by government treaties. “You wouldn’t be able to import them for a museum collection now,” Chubb says.

DNA, MaNIS, and more
Researchers use more than just specimens to study the taxonomic distribution of a species. Today’s curators use the marvels of DNA sequencing in performing molecular analyses. The museum stores approximately 40,000 tissue samples in ultra-cold freezers, and there is a growing collection of non-frozen tissues as well. The tissue collections represent a potentially important resource for genetic studies.

Also of great promise is an ongoing project to build a computerized library of biodiversity information, based on the collections of 17 North American natural history museums, whose holdings total more than 1.4 million specimens. The Mammal Network Information System (MaNIS) will allow researchers sitting at their desks to retrieve a wide variety of data about individual specimens — ranging from the geospatial coordinates of the sites at which they were collected to the climate, rainfall, and temperature patterns of those sites. It’s information of the kind that previously could not be made available without individual attention from overworked curators … and not always successfully even then.

Diligently pursuing her fieldwork a century ago, Annie Alexander never would have guessed that curation would one day involve distributed databases, genomics, and subzero tissue preservation. But as a pioneer who helped shaped the world of science in California — as well as the financing of its study at UC Berkeley — she surely would have applauded the advances.

For additional information about the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology collections, visit For information about a biography of Annie Alexander published by UC Press, Barbara R. Stein’s “On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West,” see


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