The Vertebrate Museum is the oldest collection of its kind in New Mexico, perhaps in the entire Southwest, boasting many unique records for the state. The earliest specimens of the Vertebrate Museum are as old as New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Sciences itself. Specimens more than a century old document the local fauna of Las Cruces long before the city boomed.
The early development of the Vertebrate Museum was guided by the interests of College faculty, the U. S. Biological Survey, and local enthusiasts. The first professors of Biology taught classes in fields as disparate as chemistry, geology, and physics. They deserve special credit for nurturing the development of the Museum since they were not specialists of vertebrates. Credit is also due to the U. S. Biological Survey, which considered documentation of New Mexico's flora and avifauna urgent priorities. Most Biological Survey specimens were deposited in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, but NMSU received duplicated material and even some novel specimens that have never been collected before or since in the Southwest. The Biological Survey, in turn, relied on the assistance of local naturalists. One of these was Miss Fannie Ford of Mesilla Park. Miss Ford's "Preliminary list of the birds of New Mexico" of 1911 was based almost exclusively on information gleaned from specimens in the Vertebrate Museum. Imagine this colorful gun-toting young lady scouring the countryside for birds during the rugged days of the Wild West.
Of course, the "museum" didn't exist as such at first. It began as a small collection of skins and stuffed animals that reflected the needs of classes and the interests of students. But by the turn of the century - the 19th century that is - several hundreds of specimens had been amassed. Unfortunately, many of these earliest of specimens did not survive the years of wear and tear and were eventually discarded. Those that survived until the 1950's were finally given the curatorial support they deserved, when they were catalogued and stored away for the first time in what could be recognized as a museum.
The Museum has moved several times during its history. Originally part of the Department of Botany, Geology, and Physics, the collection was stored on the top floor of the Science Hall built in 1897. It moved with the Biology Department to the third floor of Foster Hall in 1930. Specimens were stored in boxes and wooden drawers, and were consequently prone to infestation and damage by carpet beetles. The Museum moved for a few years to a temporary building just outside Foster Hall, and then back inside again to its current location on the bottom floor of Foster Hall. Proper storage cases were bought by the department for the specimens. These cases would ultimately save the specimens from a devastating flood many years later.
Over the decades, the Vertebrate Museum has proved to be a fertile ground for the development of biologists, wildlife and natural scientists. It is the most important historical collection of wildlife in the state, and includes specimens prepared by historically noteworthy individuals. The Museum played a key role in the early descriptions of the state's avifauna, and it will continue to be important in documenting changes in our fauna over time. The time and skill invested in preparing study skins and skeletons of mammals and birds puts the importance of the collection in perspective. It may take only minutes to pin an insect or press a plant, but it requires nearly all day of skilled work to stuff a bird as large as a great blue heron. Moreover, we are more conservative about collecting vertebrates because these are thinking, feeling animals. We rely heavily on the salvage of animals found already dead from natural or accidental causes, instead. Last, we are more restricted by legislation limiting the collection and possession of wildlife. Since these mitigating factors promise only to worsen in the years to come, we are committed both to the preservation of the specimens in our possession and to the enhancement of the Vertebrate Museum while it is still possible.