History of Collections
by Steve W. Gotte
Beginning in the early 1850s the herpetology collections were stored in the Smithsonian Castle along with all the other early Smithsonian collections. The herpetology collections were moved several times within the Castle, then moved to the United States National Museum (now the Arts & Industries Building) in 1881, then moved to the Natural History Building (NHB, then the new U.S. National Museum) after its construction in 1910. The collections were moved within NHB at least once; the most recent move occurred in the mid-1960s, when the specimens were transferred from what is now the exhibits preparation area to the recently completed west wing. When that move occurred, the jar collection was reorganized from an arrangement by jar size to our current taxonomic/alphabetical/numeric system.
Due to severe space constraints, ethanol turtles, crocodilians, salamanders, and caecilians were moved to the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland, in the early 1980s, and dry specimens of the same groups were moved there in 1990. The majority of the remaining collections were moved to the MSC in 2009 and 2011. Currently only the dry lizard collection is housed at NHB.
The National Collection of Amphibians and Reptiles contains specimens collected over a span of more than 200 years. Our oldest verified specimen dates from 1817; however, soon after the Smithsonian began its collections, the French national museum in Paris donated a number of specimens that have no collection dates associated with them that may have been collected even earlier. Ledger cataloging started in 1856 but did not become a regular activity until 1858. Computer cataloging replaced handwritten ledgers in 1970. Many of the early specimens were from Wilkes' U. S. Exploring Expedition around the world, early western exploring and military expeditions, and railroad and boundary surveys. Many of these surveys were conducted before the Smithsonian was established; the majority of those specimens were housed at the National Institute in the Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery) until their transfer to the Smithsonian in 1858.
Because our knowledge of relationships changes, so does the taxonomy of amphibians and reptiles. Thus, we must periodically curate the different taxonomic groups; that is, specimens are periodically having their identifications confirmed and their taxonomy updated. Data are captured from the original handwritten ledgers, specimen labels, field notes, and literature and stored in an electronic data base. Early on, groups of like specimens were cataloged as "lots," whereas now each newly-cataloged specimen receives a unique catalog number (with the exception of tadpoles). As part of curation, we recatalog the lot-cataloged specimens so that each individual specimen has a unique catalog number, and the specimens are rehoused or otherwise conserved.
The collection of amphibians and reptiles is one of the fastest growing collections in the museum's Department of Vertebrate Zoology. In recent years the Division has cataloged ca. 2,000 new specimens annually.
The Division is a very important repository for type specimens, which serve as reference points for scientific names. New types are deposited here each year as researchers both within the museum and from other institutions describe new species. Currently, we have over 14,100 type records on our data base; over 2,600 of these are holotypes and syntypes. Because many of the early types were cataloged as "lots," the total number of primary types under the care of the Division is nearly 3,000.
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