Where in Las Cruces would you go to see the skeleton of a whale? How about a stuffed Costa Rican motmot (hint: its a bird)? The Vertebrate Museum of the Biology Department at New Mexico State University is probably the only place anywhere nearby to see these exotics from far-off lands, not to mention about twenty-six thousand other preserved mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians of the Southwest. The Vertebrate Museum is veritable library of biological specimens from around the world. In addition to books and journals, the Museum houses jars of snakes and lizards pickled in alcohol, stuffed birds, and skeletons. The Museum distinguishes NMSU from most other universities nationwide.
More than just an attic full of eclectic curiosities, the Vertebrate Museum aspires to be a comprehensive reference collection that documents the diversity of life both in space and time. The mission of the Vertebrate Museum is to serve in research and education. The collection consists mostly of Southwestern fauna. For example, the Vertebrate Museum has one of the biggest collections of pocket gophers in the world. Like cigars in a box, countless rows of gophers lay side by side in trays, which themselves are stacked like sardines in cabinet after cabinet. Who cares? Biologists who strive to understand what makes a species unique care. It turns out that populations of gophers that look pretty much alike one another to humans actually have different numbers of chromosomes. This makes them reproductively isolated from one another. This fact was first discovered by biologists at New Mexico State University. The stuffed gophers, their skulls, and microscope slides of their chromosomes are all saved to document the discovery. Biologists depend on this kind of data for the study of ecology, conservation, genetics, and evolution. State and federal government wildlife specialists and the authors and artists of field guides also rely on the Museum collections to identify species and establish their distributions and how they change through time.
Hundreds of students pass through the Museum every year. Many classes taught by the Biology Department make regular use of the Vertebrate Museum. The Museum serves undergraduate and graduate level classes in Introductory Biology, Zoology, Herpetology, Ornithology, Mammalian and Avian Ecology, Field Ecology, Comparative Anatomy and Embryology, and Evolution. Groups from public schools visit the Museum every year, too.
Examples from the spread-wing collection.