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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Red-eyed Panamanian Tree Frog
Carl Hansen
© Smithsonian Institution
Brown Kiwi
Brown Kiwi, Apteryx australis
Jessie Cohen © Smithsonian Institution

Vertebrate Zoology is the study of animals with backbones. Research in the department covers fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The department holds the largest collection of vertebrate specimens in the world, including historically important collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Research in the department provides a solid foundation of understanding for government agencies, conservation organizations, and individuals involved in fish and wildlife management.

X-ray of Lookdowns
Inverted radiograph of Lookdowns, Selene vomer
Sandra Raredon © Smithsonian Institution

Zoologists from two other federal agencies work so closely with colleagues and specimens at the Museum that they are permanently stationed in the building. Specialists from the National Marine Fisheries Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce focus primarily on commercially important fishes, while those from the Biological Survey Unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior (USGS) focus on amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The Biological Survey Unit provides key inventory, curatorial, and research services (Biological Survey Unit at a Glance).

Since 1972, the department has also included the Marine Mammal Program, which focuses on whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Working closely with federal, state, and local governments, Museum staff study stranded animals as well as those taken by commercial fisheries. These observations help shed new light on the population sizes, distributions, eating habits, and reproductive patterns of these rare animals.

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