My favorite place locally is the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection (TCWC). It is not a well-known attraction, but every former student of the local university who majored in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (WFS) or Renewable Natural Resources (RENR) knows what and where it is.
The “collection” is a natural history collection, in short, dead animals. Dead animals in drawers, dead animals in jars, dead animals in tanks. Technically, they are called study skins, alcoholic preps, or just specimens. They represent wildlife, large and small, from all over Texas and the world, and from every imaginable habitat on land, sea and air. They are arranged, within the collection, according to a taxonomic or systematic scheme. They are in order phylogenetically, which means that the presumed oldest groups are “first.” For instance, the sharks and their closest relatives are in the front ranks of the fish study (ichthyology) collection. As creatures with cartilagenous skeletons, they are presumed to predate the “bony fishes.”
There is a lot of “stirring the pot” going on in the field of systematics because of molecular genetics and the new field of “evo-devo.” Groups of organisms are being rearranged with new and different relationships to other groups of organisms. It won’t mean one group of mammals ending up in a closer relationship to fish than to other mammals — nothing that radical — but for instance whales and cattle have moved closer together. And some of these moves are being supported by new fossil evidence, too, not just molecular data. Hard specimens are still important, although many institutions have packed up their collections and dispersed them to other holding facilities because there are no more funds or caring individuals to properly maintain them.
About eight months after I moved back home to help take care of Pop, I looked up TCWC on the web and sent them an e-mail, asking if I could come and work a few hours a week as a volunteer. Why? Because I’m one of those former WFS students and I always felt a connection to those stuffy rooms in the basement of Nagle Hall, and later the basement of Evans Library. Now the collection is housed in one section of the former Texas Instruments plant east of the Highway 6 by-pass (now known as Earl Rudder Freeway) between University Drive and Harvey Road. They have a lot more room there and have absorbed some of those orphaned collections from other places. But they aren’t really any better funded for collection maintenance, and the neglect is starting to take a toll.
You might think, well, aren’t they preserved? and doesn’t that mean indefinitely? Or you might think, what’s the loss if they crumble to dust? And, yes, they are preserved, but like a lot of things, some were prepared better than others and hold up better. And if they crumble to dust and are lost forever — what’s one more vanished piece of history? Yes, we value our history, or we wouldn’t have museums at all. I think a few people would kick if the Italians decided to stop wasting funds trying to keep the Colluseum from falling down, or if the Egyptians knocked apart the Sphinx to make room for an apartment complex, but what are a few drawers full of field mice, or jars of minnows, or toads? I mean, really.
It’s only a matter of scale — scale of size, scale of focus, scale of appeal. Nearly everyone can appreciate some aspect of the Roman Colluseum or the Great Sphinx, but it takes a special individual to get excited about those drawers full of field mice.
Drawer full of field mice.
Case in point. Who finds this picture exciting? Intriguing? Mildly interesting? Not even mildly? How sad. Because there are about 12 cases of these guys in the collection. Each case holds up to fifteen of these drawers, and as you can deduce, that means there is room for just buckets of mice.
What’s the point of having so many? They represent a range of sizes and conditions through space and time, grouped by country, state, counties within states in many instances. Often the size and color of a population reflects where within the range of the species it is found. If only one member of a population is collected, it could be a fluke. Only by having a representative sample size can you begin to draw conclusions about the life history of a species. And when the specimens fall apart or get eaten up by bugs, your representative sample is no longer so representative.
It took me several hours, working one drawer at a time, to get this whole case looking this organized. This one case had apparently been skipped during a previous cleaning bout, because it was the only one that needed so much attention. There were other cases — some with pocket gophers, some with squirrels — that needed to be rearranged to alleviate crowding in some drawers, but I’ve barely started. And I only have a few hours a week to spend there. No one is paying me, or anyone else, to do it. And that’s a shame. It’s honorable work. It’s a labor of love.