History of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection

Specimens contained in the Benthic Invertebrate Collection (BIC) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) date back to 1902 when Dr. William E. Ritter of the University of California-Berkeley and summer students began conducting biological survey work from the Boathouse of the Hotel Del Coronado. That summer Ritter met Dr. Fred Baker, a local physician and avid malacologist who became very excited over the prospect of having university-affiliated marine biologists working in the area. The resulting collaboration of these men and San Diego area residents, E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen B. Scripps, led to the formation of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego in 1903. The expressed purpose of the Association was to carry on a biological and hydrographic survey of the waters of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coast of Southern California (and) to build and maintain a public aquarium and museum.

From 1905 until 1910, the Association operated the Little Green Lab at Alligator Head in La Jolla for scientific work and as a public aquarium-museum. During this period E.W. Scripps arranged the purchase of 170 acres of land, the present site of SIO, for the sum of $1,000. The first building on the new site, the G.W. Scripps building, opened in June of 1910. The lower floor contained the research laboratories, collections, and public aquarium-museum. In 1912 the Association deeded its holdings to the Regents of the University of California, and the facility was renamed the Scripps Institution for Biological Research with Dr. Ritter as it first director. A library-museum building adjoining the G.W. Scripps building was added in 1916, and the oceanographic collections occupied parts this building until after WWII. In 1925 the name was changed to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to reflect its expanding interests in ocean sciences.

The ichthyologist Dr. Carl Hubbs arrived at SIO in 1944 and he separated the biological collections into the marine vertebrates (fish) and invertebrates. In 1951 the T.W. Vaughan Aquarium-Museum was constructed and the biological collections were moved into its basement. They remained there until the late 1950s when space in the basements of the new wings of Ritter Hall were set aside for the Marine Vertebrate Collection and the planktonic component of the Invertebrate Collection.

Following passage of a California State earthquake building retrofit or replacement bond in 1994, the administration decided the Vaughan Hall Aquarium-Museum and those wings of Ritter Hall containing the bulk of the Planktonic and the Marine Vertebrate Collections would be torn down. A fully air-conditioned replacement building, sufficiently large to include all biological collections as well as other facilities, was built in 1998 and named Vaughan Hall after the old Aquarium-Museum building. Grants from the National Science Foundation funded compactor shelving for the collections, greatly adding to their accessibility as well as the capacity of the new facilities. In addition, the Benthic Invertebrate Collection space now includes a laboratory, microscopy/library room, and an office for the collection manager.

From the very beginning, scientists were collecting marine organisms for research and public display, including samples collected by San Diego Marine Biological Association founding members Dr. Ritter and Dr. Fred Baker. Ritter was chief scientist aboard the U.S. Fisheries Steamer Albatross during its 1904 summer cruise off California and several lots of Cnidaria from that cruise are housed in the collection. Baker was an avid collector of mollusks from the local region and elsewhere. The Baker-Kelsey Mollusk Collection, part of which was donated to SIO in 1921, documents a substantial portion of the regional molluscan fauna around the turn of the last century.

As the size of the collections grew they required a staff to care for them. In 1918, Dr. George McEwen was appointed the first Curator of the Oceanographic Museum with Percy S. Barnhart as Collector and Curator of the Aquarium. By 1926, Barnhart was elevated to the position of Curator of the Biological Collections, a position he held until 1948. Following Barnhart's retirement, various people looked after the Invertebrate Collection in an unofficial capacity, particularly Sam Hinton, Director of the Aquarium-Museum, and Dr. Martin W. Johnson (benthic and planktonic, respectively), with people like Leo Burner temporarily and George Snyder permanently (1959-1990) serving as Collection Managers. Dr. William A. Newman arrived in 1962 as Curator of Invertebrates. He subsequently arranged to divide the collection into Benthic and Planktonic Invertebrate Collections with Dr. Abraham Fleminger as Curator (1966-1988) and George Snyder as Collection Manager of the latter. Tom Cukr was appointed Collection Manager of the Benthic Invertebrates. He drowned several years later on a recreational dive and was succeeded by Spencer Luke in 1969. Luke produced the first catalogs of the Benthic Invertebrate Collection holdings and established an electronic database for subsequent catalog development. Following Luke's retirement in 1998, Larry Lovell became the Collection Manager in 1999. Lovell reorganized the collection and orchestrated its move from the basement of old Vaughan Hall to that of the new Vaughan Hall. In 2006, Dr. Gregory Rouse was appointed the Curator of the collection following Dr. Newman's retirement. Dr. Harim Cha arrived in 2007 as the collection manager, followed by Dr. Charlotte Seid in 2017.

Several prominent marine invertebrate biologists worked at the Institution in its early years, helping establish it as the premier oceanographic institution on the West Coast. Its first director, Dr. Ritter, worked on tunicates and his successor, Dr. T. Wayland Vaughan, worked on corals. Dr. Myrtle E. Johnson, an invertebrate zoologist at SIO from 1904 until 1921, co-authored an early field guide, Seashore Animals of the Pacific Coast, with Dr. H. J. Snook of San Diego State College. In his later years, Dr. Wesley Coe, a world authority on nemerteans, worked at SIO (1938-1955) and published on population fluctuation dynamics in marine invertebrates. In recent years, Drs. R.R. Hessler and W.A. Newman have worked largely on deep and shallow-water crustacean fauna, respectively. The current curator, Dr. Rouse works on the systematics of annelids and echinoderms.

While forming an important archive of marine invertebrates of Southern California, the Benthic Invertebrate Collection has unique geographic and bathymetric strengths resulting from numerous SIO expeditions and individual scientific investigations involving deep-sea as well as shallow-water research. Large vessels in the SIO scientific fleet utilized by SIO scientists and others have recovered samples from coral reefs as well seamounts, the abyssal plain and deep trenches. Therefore the collection contains an unprecedented wealth of biological material for research and public display.


Collections room photo taken by Dr. Newman
All other photos provided by SIO Archives, UCSD