In the 1960s and '70s, Richard Rosenblatt, professor emeritus of Marine Biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, set out on a number of field expeditions to examine and study the fishes that live along the coast of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. During trips south to Mexican waters, Rosenblatt and his students retrieved hundreds of specimens of various sizes and species.
Most were processed and formally incorporated into the Scripps Marine Vertebrate Collection (MVC), an incomparably valuable fish archive used by scientists around the world. Those collections formed the basis of numerous studies on the systematics of marine fishes by Rosenblatt and his students of ichthyology. But due primarily to a lack of space in Scripps' Ritter Hall, the former location of the MVC, the remaining trove of samples sat unsorted. These and more recent unsorted collections of fishes now number more than 400 collections inside jars and containers, big and small. The move of the MVC a decade ago to Vaughan Hall and installation of compacterized shelving in the new facility provided the needed space to fully process these samples.
"Each of these containers could include a couple of different species, or dozens in some cases, but from a collection or a scientific perspective, we don't know what's in those jars," said Phil Hastings, who took over as curator of the fish collection from Rosenblatt in 1999. "These potentially provide new data on the diversity, distribution and abundance of fishes throughout the region, but until they are fully processed they are of limited scientific value."
He'll soon find out what's in those jars. Thanks to an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hastings, Collection Manager HJ Walker, and several students have begun opening those mysterious containers.
Scripps graduate student Grant Galland will use the Rosenblatt specimens to further his research on historical changes in fish communities in the Gulf of California. Galland has conducted his own field work in many of the same areas as Rosenblatt's historical expeditions and will compare how today's marine environment has changed over the past 40 years or more.
Also through the NSF award, collection staff will scan and post in the collection's online database valuable catalog records and handwritten field notes made at the time specimens were gathered in the wild. These often provide information about the habitat, environmental conditions at the time of capture, other species observed in the area, and color descriptions of freshly caught fishes.
The NSF award also will allow Hastings and his colleagues to archive more than 27,000 fish specimens from remote areas of the ocean into the Marine Vertebrate Collection. The specimens, collected by NOAA scientists working across nearly 2,000 locations in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, were recently acquired as "orphans" from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, part of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. This unique collection includes specimens from some of the most isolated areas in the world's oceans.
Further, the NSF award will boost the technological capabilities of the Marine Vertebrate Collection. A high-tech X-ray machine will generate digital files of specimens to allow fish investigators from near and far to inspect detailed anatomical features such as the number of fin rays and vertebrae and details of bone structure of the specimens.
"When (pioneer Scripps ichthyologist) Carl Hubbs made film-based radiographs here at Scripps in the 1950s he would have to wait for the film to be developed to see if the image turned out," said Hastings. "This new machine gives us that same information in about 30 seconds and at a much higher resolution."
Undergraduate student hires will work under the award by sorting, identifying, and cataloguing fishes, gaining invaluable experience along the way.
"They'll be working not only on taxonomy of fishes, but experiencing how a natural history collection works," said Hastings. "This award will give us a really good training opportunity."