Zero to 140,000 (Specimens) Real Quick

….well okay maybe not real quick, probably more like 150 years.

Today the Peabody Museum’s Invertebrate Zoology (IZ) collection houses around 140,000 specimens. It is hard to comprehend the shelves of jars and drawers of boxes required to hold this vast number of critters, but on the second floor of the Environmental Sciences Building on Sachem St, there is such a space. It is hard to conceive that behind the internal floor-to-ceiling glass windows blocked by white blinds lay the doors of the Collection of Invertebrate Zoology. Although not all specimens are housed here (there is simply not enough room), a large proportion of them are.

Natural History collections generate an almost dreamy childish wonder. In our imagination they are mysterious and exciting, dark rooms filled with dusty shelves of bones, feathers, and alien-like creatures that peer back at us through the alcohol and glass they are housed in. Often in this imaginary concept of the collections, they are antiquated, an aggregation of objects that have existed together since the beginning. They sit on their shelves and when we close the door, will continue to exist for ever more. This perception of a natural history museum correctly imagines the timelessness of a collection and its ability to capture and preserve snapshots of life. However, this rather romanticized view of collections being akin to Victorian Era Cabinets of Curiosity is shattered by the equally exciting, although perhaps less mysterious, reality that collections are growing, evolving, and being interacted with on a daily basis.

In thinking about how we conceptualize natural history collections and relating this to the Invertebrate Zoology collections at the Peabody, I felt compelled to investigate how the collection became the 140,000 specimen-lots it is today.

In perhaps a twist of irony to my earlier statements, the collection did indeed start as a cabinet of curiosity. Then, starting in the mid 1860’s the aptly named “Yale Cabinet” received a rapid influx of specimens across all fields of natural history. Over the span of only two years it was estimated that upward of 100,000 specimens were collected and/or donated. As the collection grew the university needed somewhere to house everything, and in 1876 the Peabody Museum of Natural History was created.

There were many major players in this amassing of specimens for the Peabody collections. However, for the IZ collection, perhaps the most important character was Yale’s (and America’s) first Professor of Zoology, Addison Emery Verrill. Appointed to Yale in 1864, for more than 40 years he contributed not only the specimens which he collected to the collection but also a wealth of knowledge and scientific papers to the field of Invertebrate Zoology. In the year of hi original appointment, the Yale Cabinet was still meager. To resolve this, Verrill sampled Long Island Sound every summer for his first six years at Yale. He also arranged for other collectors around the world to send specimens to Yale. In these years, Yale’s collection grew to become the foremost zoology collection in the United States at the time.

Following on from Verrill’s contributions, the IZ collections have continued to grow and amass specimens. Below I present an overview of the catalog data pertaining to the specimens, collectors and expeditions of IZ.

New Specimens added to the collection each Year

Number of specimens added to the IZ catalog by year.

This is cool, but where are all these Specimens from?

Specimens by Location and Collection Year

Location on map depicts where each specimen was collected, the color indicates the year they were collected and the opacity of the color shows the density of specimens in that location.

Sooooo….. who has been doing all this collecting?

The 20 most Prolific Collectors/Expeditions and number of specimens collected.

The 20 most Prolific Collectors/Expeditions and number of specimens collected.

Here we see a number of people and exhibitions that repeat in slightly different strings. Most notably, the U.S. Fish Commission, E. A. Lazo-Wasem, A. E. Verrill and W.D Hartman.

Verrill is on the list but not near the top … I bet you are asking, “I thought he was a prolific collector, what is going on here?”. This is where the data gets interesting, Verrill was so prolific in his collecting that he was the scientist tasked with leading the U.S. Fish Commission’s deep sea collecting trips. Acknowledging this, is interesting to note that if it were not for Verrill, the specimens attributed to U.S. Fish Commission expeditions would likely have never have entered the Yale catalog.

The U.S. Fish Commission Collection – Thanks Verrill!

Specimens by location by expedition.

Although some there are some specimens from the Pacific ocean and Caribbean, the vast majority of specimens in the IZ collections from the U.S. Fish Commission expeditions are heavily concentrated to the Eastern Seaboard.

So what about all those other prolific collectors? Where did they collect their specimens?

Most Prolific Collectors and Expeditions of the IZ Collection

Specimens by location and expedition/collector

Here again we see many specimens from North America and the Caribbean. However, what I find most interesting about this map are the exceptions to this, for example the heavy sampling in Antarctica and or the sampling in Eastern Asia.

In my search for stories from within the collection, both this map and the “Specimens by Location and Collection Year” Map shown earlier, are sources to direct questions of further investigation.

In the absence of globally balanced collecting, who is responsible for collecting at each of these unique localities outside of the North Americas?

What are the stories from these expeditions?

What specimens did they bring back?

These are just a few of the questions that I look forward to investigating further!


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