1999 NSF Collection grant

nsf_logo_bottom copyDBI-9876793 — Biological Research Collections: A new combined collection facility for the University of Connecticut systematic research collections. $440,876 awarded in 1999 to Drs. J. N. Caira, D. Les, K. Schwenk & D. Wagner.

Introduction: Over the course of the last century, the University of Connecticut has developed significant collections of mammals, birds, fishes, insects, ant guests, parasites, contemporary plants, and fossil plants. In 1999 we received an award to assist with the relocation of these systematic research collections from five locations across the campus of the University of Connecticut to a new combined collection facility in a new biology building. Despite a brief pause in construction owing to problems with the general contractor, the building and facility were completed in January of 2002. We are pleased to report that we were able to achieve all of the original goals of the project. In addition, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences provided funds for additional equipment purchases, allowing us to exceed our original plans. An unanticipated award from the International Water Lily and Water Gardening Society supported the purchase of a new botanical database and the transfer of records from our existing database to this new platform. The facility opened formally in December of 2003 with a gala event, featuring a talk by Dr. Peter Raven and attended by more than 150 people.


The project was conducted in three phases. The pre-move phase involved limited essential curation, and the sorting, wrapping, and boxing or packing of specimens and 705 linear feet of collection-associated library materials (books, reprints, field notes, etc.). Treatment of fluid-preserved materials: Glass jars containing fluid-preserved vertebrates (3,230 lots of fish, 200 lots of mammals, and 559 lots of birds, in total representing over 110,000 specimens) were topped off with ethanol. Cracked or inadequate lids and jars were replaced. Jars were wrapped in bubble-wrap and boxed. Approximately 24,000 vials containing fluid-preserved insects, other arthropods, and molluscs were topped off with ethanol and fitted with new stoppers as required. Approximately 4,600 of the 7,000 vials from the Penner collection containing fluid-preserved helminths, primarily of birds and mammals, were transferred to new vials with new stoppers. All vials were transferred from old wooden vial racks and metal drawers to new divided paper unit trays. The trays were securely packed in bubble-wrap and boxed. A donation of 5,000 vials and 600 jars of fluid-preserved elasmobranch tapeworms was received from R. Campbell. The specimens in jars were transferred to new jars and moved to the spirit room in the new facility along with the vials. Treatment of dry materials requiring boxing: 4,000 boxes of mammal skulls and skeletons, 1,000 bird skulls and skeletons, 400 lots of feathers, and 3,000 lots of bird eggs, were packed in boxes. All 378 bird nests were wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and re-boxed. These boxes were subsequently wrapped in bubble-wrap and packed. Approximately 34,600 unmounted vascular plant, bryophyte, and lichen and non-lichen forming fungi were boxed. Approximately 85,000 microscope slides of helminths and arthropod parasites, primarily of mammals and birds, were transferred from deteriorating wooden slide boxes to new plastic slide boxes, color-coded by major parasite group. The protocol followed for the 8,030 paleobotanical specimens differed from that followed for the other collections. These specimens had no accession numbers prior to the move, and the data associated with them were located on the wooden drawers in which they were originally housed. Thus, these specimens were given accession numbers and preliminarily databased as part of the pre-move project activities.


Movement of collections to the new facility involved an aggressive pest management program for all but the fluid-preserved specimens, microscope slides, and paleobotanical specimens. Specimens were treated for one week at -20°F in a rented freezer container (8’x 8’x 40’). This aspect of the project was streamlined significantly when we determined that many specimens could be packed and frozen in their original drawers and/or, slightly modified old cabinetry. Thus, 140,000 herbarium sheets of vascular plants and bryophytes were transferred to half-height herbarium cabinets mounted on dollies and frozen. Likewise 10,500 bird study skins and 25,300 mammal study skins were transferred in their original drawers to cabinets mounted on dollies and frozen. Approximately 1,000 Cornell drawers of insects and ant guests were loaded onto metal (railed) carts, wrapped in plastic, and frozen on these carts. This method significantly reduced the need to purchase and pack boxes, and shortened the period of freezer container rental from 6 to 5 months. Immediately following each round of freezing, cabinets were wheeled into the new facility. All collection-associated library materials were also boxed and frozen. All specimens not requiring treatment for pests were moved directly into the facility once it was open.


In order to streamline use of the rented freezer container, specimens that had been frozen were integrated into the new facility in two stages. They were initially transferred into new drawers and cabinets in their original unit trays and arrangement, i.e., drawer for drawer. All mammal and bird study skins were subsequently transferred from the old non-archival unit trays and expanded and reorganized into drawers lined with acid-free paper. The mammals were reorganized based on Wilson and Reeder (1993) and the birds were reorganized based on the AOU checklist (1998, 2000, 2002, 2003) for North America and Clements (2000) for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we underestimated the number of skull boxes requiring replacement as a result of water damage incurred in the previous facility. Thus, following freezing the skulls were moved to shelving in the new facility, but now await new boxes and reorganization. The purchase of 1,300 new Cornell drawers paved the way for the expansion of the insect collection to alleviate significant overcrowding in existing Cornell drawers. The existing Cornell drawers were arranged in phylogenetic order in the new facility, and the new Cornell drawers were interspersed among them. Expansion of the existing drawers of insects into new drawers was completed for approximately 30% of the collection. Approximately two-thirds of 400 lots of bird feathers were transferred to archival zippered plastic bags. The 140,000 sheets of herbarium specimens were expanded and arranged alphabetically by family. Approximately 2,000 bryophyte and lichen specimens were transferred to new genus covers, color-coded by geographic locality of origin. The paleobotanical specimens were transferred into new drawers lined with acid-free paper on top of ethafoam. This collection awaits additional curation, reorganization, and expansion. All fluid-preserved specimens were unboxed and transferred directly onto designated areas of shelving in the new spirit room.


Complete databasing of the collections was beyond the scope of the project; however, we were able to achieve both of the major databasing goals of the plan. The platforms and formats of the databases were finalized, and we were able to make significant progress with the population of the databases for all collections. We chose BG-BASE as the database platform for the contemporary plants. The software was acquired with the assistance of a donation from the International Water Lily and Water Gardening Society made specifically for this purchase. The ~30,000 contemporary plant records in our existing less versatile database, were migrated to BG-BASE, and an additional ~20,000 vascular plant and bryophyte records were entered into BG-BASE over the course of the project. In addition, 26,000 of the records, mainly New England specimens, were geo-referenced and all 237 type specimens of contemporary plants were imaged. We chose FileMaker Pro as the database platform for the remaining seven collections. Individualized databases, tailored to accommodate taxon-specific information, were created for each collection. In general, databasing was done directly from specimens, as we determined early in the project that the written catalogues inaccurately reflected holdings. Approximately 5,000 bird study skins (~50% of specimens) and the 378 bird’s nests were databased, as were 769 mammal study skins (~3% of specimens). The insect database was transferred from Excel to FileMaker Pro and now includes records of 3,000 species representing over 47,000 pinned specimens (~25% of specimens). The ~24,000 vials of fluid-preserved insects and other invertebrates were databased. An inventory of ~4,600 vials of fluid-preserved helminths in the Penner collection, which are currently associated only by the original collection code, was created in Excel as part of the pre-move activities. This inventory will be databased at a time when the associated data can be extracted from host cards and correlated with the collection codes. As noted above, the 8,030 paleobotanical specimens were databased in a preliminary fashion to allow them to be moved; they await more detailed databasing. In total, 50,769 specimens were databased over the period of the award. A website for the collection facility and its associated web pages was developed to accommodate the new databases. Currently, 6 of the 8 databases can be accessed via this website. This site now also includes a “clickable” plan of the new facility with images of its components.


Personnel: Over the course of the project 26 individuals were supported fully, or in part, with funds from the grant. These included 2 high school students, 8 undergraduate students, 7 graduate students, 5 curatorial assistants and 4 consultants. The high school students and undergraduates assisted with many of the pre-move activities including transfer of specimens to new containers (jars or vials), topping off alcohol in fluid collections, wrapping and boxing of specimens, numbering fossil plant specimens, and transfer of microscope slides from wooden to archival plastic slide boxes. They also contributed significantly to databasing activities in all of the collections. The graduate students were primarily involved with post-move activities. They designed and implemented the FileMaker Pro databases and collections website, and expanded and curated portions of the insect and parasite collections. They also contributed significantly to the databasing activities of the project. The curatorial assistants supported on the grant targeted vertebrates, so as to provide expertise that complemented that of our current invertebrate and botanical curators. These individuals were responsible for the reorganization, expansion and curation of the bird and mammal specimens. They too contributed significantly to the databasing activities in these collections. Each consultant was hired to travel to UConn for a period of 4 to 7 days to provide advice on specific issues. Tom LaBedz, vertebrate collections manager of the University of Nebraska, developed a detailed plan for the freezing and move of the vertebrates. Pat Gensel, Professor of Paleobotany at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, assisted with the accessioning, labeling, and organization of the paleobotany collection. Kerry Walter, Director of BG-BASE Europe, assisted with the migration of data from our existing herbarium database to the new database. Martin Pullen developed Perl scripts for database queries. In addition, Dr. Jane O’Donnell, who was a half-time employee in the facility at the beginning of the award, was increased to full-time, with half-time support from the grant for the first two years of the award, on the condition that she be employed by the University permanently on a full-time basis thereafter. She is now a permanent, full-time employee of the University.


Equipment purchased in combination with award and matching funds allowed us to equip the facility fully and includes: a Crown powerlift (work assist vehicle) to access the upper ranges of the 10 ft high cabinets, an ultra-cold freezer 25 ft3 , 1,300 Cornell drawers, 3M MP8749 portable LCD projector, three Dell Optiplex GX260s computers, two PowerPC G4 Macintosh computers and a Macintosh powerbook computer for databasing in the spirit room, a Macintosh Airport Extreme Base Station, an HP Laserjet 5100 printer, an HP Officejet 7110 color printer/fax/scanner/copier, an EPSON Expression 1640XL flatbed scanner, three Wasp barcode readers, a Speedotron A50 strobe kit, a Nikon D100 digital camera and Bencher copy stand and Balcar Light Pyramid 71, an Automontage imaging system with IBM IntelliStation M Pro computer, a Leica MZ16 stereomicroscope with drawing tube and 1X and 0.5X objectives, a Schott Fostec DCR III illuminator, an Olympus UCA compound microscope with Nomarski optics, and a JVC 3 chip digital camera, a Cannon PC 940 photocopier, a Kenmore refrigerator, a Lane Scientific Plant Drier Cabinet, four steel storage cabinets, a map cabinet, and a Dicksonware temperature and humidity datalogger. Software purchased includes: three copies of Filemaker Pro 6 (Macintosh), two copies of Timbuktu 5.1, and four copies of Adobe Photoshop 7 (two for Macintosh & two for Windows).

Broader impact: This new state-of-the-art collection facility at the University of Connecticut has already been able to serve the curatorial needs of several other institutions. Over the period of this award several institutions and individuals throughout New England approached us about the possibility of accepting orphaned or languishing collections. We have accepted or agreed to accept: botanical collections from Dartmouth University (a large portion of the former Jesup herbarium) and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (recent collections from Latin America), the Rhode Island Odonate Atlas voucher collection, the Vermont Butterfly Survey voucher collection, and the parasitology collection of R. Campbell. The most dramatic impact has been the increase in the number of visitors. The number of visitors in the 6 months since the facility formally opened, has already exceeded the number of visitors to the collections over the last 5 years combined.