A Museum Renaissance

Three Have New Homes in Valley Life Sciences Building

by Robert Sanders

The main room hints at natural history's Victorian heyday, with mounted horns and heads, immense turtle shells, and the occasional pelvis.

The bleached skull of a whale lurks overhead. Row upon row of locked cabinets conceal stacked drawers of mammal pelts and bird skins and skeletons and skulls.

Refrigerated rooms about the perimeter house shelved jars afloat with pickled salamanders and frogs and lizards and snakes.

Its roots firmly in the past, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology nevertheless is at the forefront of 20th century biology.

Its bright and cheery new quarters on the third floor of the renovated and renamed Valley Life Sciences Building reflect that, in sharp contrast to the museum's previous dim and cramped warren.

From its founding in 1908, the museum has grown to become one of the largest and most important collections of vertebrates in the world.

Its mammal collection is the third largest in the country, its bird, reptile, and amphibian collections among the top 10.

As a repository for vertebrates of the West, it records a time and populations and ecosystems that no longer exist.

What makes the museum unique, however, are its frozen collections of vertebrate tissue that allow researchers to conduct genetic studies of species and populations, using molecular techniques that have appeared only recently.

The museum was one of the first in the country to collect and freeze tissue, starting in the 1970s.

Today the collections are used to chart the genetic relationships among isolated populations of tamarins and spiny rats in the Amazon, to map flycatcher species in the Southwest, and to determine the relatives of newly discovered salamanders in the Pacific Northwest.

The museum's scientists have waited a long time for this, says curator of herpetology Harry Greene, a rattlesnake expert.

Greene says one of the great things about the new building is that it consolidates all of evolutionary and organismal biology in one spot.

Two floors below--past the spacious new Biosciences Library--is the future home of the Museum of Paleontology, and across from them are the Jepson and University Herbaria.

All research museums, they are not usually open to the public except during campus open-house events.

The director of the herbaria, Brent Mishler, is ecstatic over the current move to quarters commensurate with the scientific status of the plant collections.

The two herbaria combined contain 1.7 million specimens, making the collection the sixth largest in the United States and the largest west of Missouri.

Founded 104 years ago, the University Herbarium contains world-class collections of fungi, algae, mosses, and ferns, as well as flowering plants from around the world.

The Jepson Herbarium, an independent collection interleaved with the plants in the University Herbarium, is the official repository for all California plants.

The staff recently completed a monumental project, coordinating preparation of a new manual of California flowering plants published last year, "The Jepson Manual, Higher Plants of California."

Though the herbaria are only now moving in, they held an open-house symposium in June that turned out to be, in the words of well-known biologist, Berkeley alumnus and keynote speaker Peter Raven, "a botanical Woodstock."

Mishler used the occasion to dedicate the Jepson Herbarium to a leading role in worldwide efforts to preserve the planet's biodiversity, in particular California flora.

He considers Berkeley well positioned to lead the country in educating biologists who can catalog this diverse plant life and produce a plan to preserve it.

As for the Museum of Paleontology, it will not take occupancy until spring. Nevertheless, look early next year for its mascot rising ominously in the hub of the spiral staircase.

A life-size, 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton will be mounted in the three-story atrium to impress future generations of undergraduates.

The paleontology museum's fossil collections are the fourth largest in the country, its fossil plant collections the second largest.

If you've wondered where all those fossils from Los Angeles' La Brea tar pits ended up, they're here.

One can get a flavor for the collections by tuning into the "Virtual Museum of Paleontology" accessible on the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Voted one of 1994's "Best of the Net," the virtual museum is almost a complete course in paleontology, an Internet textbook that is complete with color photos and audio narration.

As a result of recent successes in finding DNA in fossil bones, the museum recently created a new lab to conduct DNA studies of living and fossil plants and animals.

Don't expect a "Jurassic Park." though.

The real goal is to find out how long-dead animals, such as the dinosaurs, are related to living animals.

DNA analysis could establish once and for all whether today's birds are the living relatives of the dinosaurs.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.