New Life for Historic Specimens


This post was written by Lindsay Roupe and Heather Leslie.  They work as project managers in the ichthyology and herpetology units, respectively.  Thank you Lindsay and Heather!

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCSM) is a well-respected repository for natural history collections utilized by researchers and educators around the world. Here at the NCSM Research Lab we house fluid, skeletal, and tissue collections for DNA studies of invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles along with their associated data, including where and when they were collected.

The NCSM amphibians, reptiles, and fishes collections contain over 1 million specimens combined, making them part of one of the largest and most complete regional collections in the United States. This representation is growing larger as a result of orphaned collections (collections that cannot be supported at their current institutions) and other partnerships geared toward preserving natural history collections. When we obtain these orphan collections, we aren’t starting from scratch: these specimens have already been preserved for up to 100 years and it is our job to make sure the collections are upgraded for long-term storage, along with digitizing their associated data.

In 2014, we acquired fishes and amphibian and reptile collections from The Charleston Museum. The collection was physically transferred from Charleston to Raleigh, where the specimens are being housed temporarily in our collection ranges. These specimens and their data are being processed here at the Research Lab, where we are working to get them assimilated into our existing collections.

Let us take you behind-the-scenes of the Research Lab to illustrate what happens during this assimilation process!

1) Specimen jars are unpacked and we evaluate the needs of each specimen: What is the condition of the specimens? What type of fluid is it preserved in? Are there cracks in the jar? Is the seal or lid leaking? If so, the specimens are rehoused into new jars and/or lids and seals are replaced to ensure that the specimens do not degrade during long-term storage.

specimens in jars

2) The specimens are removed from their fluid and given a water rinse in order to ensure that any degraded fluid is completely removed.


3) The specimens are then placed in a solution of 70% ethanol for long-term storage.

Refilling the jars with ethanol

4) Next, all available specimen and locality information is gathered via catalog ledgers, field notes, and specimen labels. Species identifications are verified.

Reviewing specimen data

5) All specimen and locality information are entered into a relational database. Geographic coordinates (latitude and longitude) are determined from locality descriptions and added so that the information can be mapped.

entering data into the database

6) A specific catalog number is assigned to each specimen or “lot” (a group of specimens that are the same species found at the same place at the same time) so that we can easily track them. All of this digitized data is printed on an archival-quality label that is stored within the jar of specimens.

adding catalog numbers to the specimens

7) Finally, the jars are stored in our collection taxonomically (on the basis of similar characteristics) so that they can be easily retrieved when needed in the future!

jars stored in collections

The completed assimilation of our recent acquisitions will establish the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ collections as the major holdings for fishes, amphibians, and reptiles of the Carolinas, expanding our data coverage spatially and temporally. By preserving these biological samples and digitizing their associated data, we are making this information globally-accessible, so that it may be used in species discovery, guiding the conservation and management of species, and to aid in future research and curiosity. As our collections grow, so does the information available to expand our understanding of the biodiversity of our world.