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Biology Department Acquires Smithsonian Specimens

By Abbey Becker

Professor Christopher Tudge

Photo of Professor Christopher Tudge by Abbey Becker

When biology professor Christopher Tudge was forwarded an email that said the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History had a large collection of specimens available for free to anyone who wanted them, he knew he had to have them. The only caveats were they had to be picked up by a quickly approaching date, and the Smithsonian wouldn’t help transport the specimens. “They said if we weren’t there by close of business the very next Friday, they were going to throw the collection away,” he says. “Because it wasn’t easy to get it to other places, they were going to throw it out. It’s sad to see that, so I was really glad I got ahold of this.”

He rounded up a few faculty members and their minivans, and they went down with their own packing materials to bring the jars back to AU’s biology department. “We had to pack it and haul it ourselves,” says Tudge. “In about two and a half hours, we managed to pack the entire collection into 40 to 50 tubs and boxes.”

Unfortunately, in the rush, the organization method that the Smithsonian had in place couldn’t be maintained. Tudge asked for and received $1,000 from Dean Peter Starr to pay four undergraduate students to catalog and sort the 2,500 to 3,000 specimens and create a spreadsheet to keep track of each item. “Once we have a database, it will be really useful,” he says. “If someone teaching oceanography asks if we have any deep sea stuff they could use, we can look in the database and see that we have crabs, worms, and corals, and they can take them to class and show their students.”

Tudge, also a research associate at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, corresponded with the museum’s director and offered to let him take a subset of the specimens once they’re sorted, specifically those native to Virginia. “We’ll share what we have,” he says. “It will be kind of like our own little museum.”

He’s already used part of the collection in his invertebrate zoology class. “We were talking about jellyfish, so I brought in a big selection of them,” he explains. “Normally we see lovely images on screen, but we don’t often get to physically hold the specimens. The collection has great teaching value.”

The collection is of great monetary value as well. “If we had to buy this, it would cost thousands of dollars,” says Tudge. “You couldn’t even buy most of it. No scientific company would be able to supply anything like it.”

Some of the specimens are over 100 years old—they are from a collection expedition on a former U.S. Fish Commission Steamer, called the Albatross, which sailed around coasts of the United States from the 1883 through 1913. “For a U.S. biologist, the Albatross is a very famous set of cruises,” says Tudge, “and it formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s collection, essentially, of at least marine organisms.”

It’s no coincidence that the Smithsonian was looking to get rid of some of these specimens, however. “Items like these make it into teaching collections because the Smithsonian has lots of it, often duplicates,” Tudge explains. “They might not have complete collection information either, so sometimes specimens can’t be placed very accurately in the collections.” The material from the Albatross that AU acquired does have Albatross station data listed on the labels, so if Tudge and his students can’t place an item right away, there are records at the Smithsonian that they can use to find out exactly where and when it was collected.

The undergrads helping to sort the collection are also his students, and they couldn’t be more excited. “Four of the undergrads are in my invertebrate zoology class, so they’re learning this stuff this semester and seeing it firsthand,” says Tudge. “They think it’s just the most awesome thing. These students don’t normally get to see this kind of material.”

Tudge, who is also a research associate at the Smithsonian, does his best to create hands-on opportunities like this for his students and bring them into the science world outside of the university. “There are a lot of benefits and spinoffs that I get from being a research associate,” he says. “I have access to people, equipment, and labs. Over the years, I’ve had about 14 AU students who have gone down and either volunteered, done internships, or done independent study projects. It’s a nice connection for us to have with the institution. This is a good example of how two institutions can work well together.”