If you have ever been to a natural history museum, you probably remember hallways of beautifully mounted animals, exhibit displays designed to mimic real-life habitats, and massive reconstructed dinosaur bones that take you back to a time before humans walked the earth. But what many people don’t know is that the heart and soul of a museum is usually hidden from the view of most museum visitors. Behind the “curtain” are thousands upon thousands of carefully curated museum research collections.
What is a Natural History Museum and why are they important?
Natural history museums are the record keepers of life on earth. Physical vouchers of everything we know to exist or that once existed are kept somewhere in a museum. Natural history collections are mainly composed of preserved animals, plants and fungi but can also include things like rocks, minerals and human artifacts. These preserved “specimens” are vital to understanding the biology and taxonomy of organisms and serve as a powerful conservation tool.
Every specimen (if preserved with detailed data) provides an inside view of a species or population at a particular point in time – like a time capsule. From them, we can learn how the earth has changed over time, what factors preserve and increase or decrease biodiversity, and answers to countless other questions that may not even exist yet. Preserving biodiversity is essential for the health of the earth’s ecosystems and also crucial to the survival of our own species!
The LSU Museum of Natural Science is one of the nation’s largest most diverse natural history museums, and it’s located right on LSU’s campus. It was founded by Dr. George Lowery in 1936 and has since grown to house world-class collections, produce cutting-edge research, and train high achieving students that go on to be top scientists in their field.
What collections are housed at the LSU MNS?
The LSU Museum of Natural Science (LSU MNS) is one part of the Louisiana Museum of Natural History, which is the official state repository for natural history collections in Louisiana. The LSU Herbarium, the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum, the Textile & Costume Museum, the Palynology Collection, the Mineralogy & Petrology Collections, and the LSU Log Library & Core Repository also fall under this umbrella.
The LSU MNS specifically comprises over 2.5 million specimens divided into eight distinct collections:
- Genetic Resources (vertebrate tissues)
- Curators: Dr. Frederick Sheldon and Dr. Robb Brumfield
- More than 100,000 specimens
- Herpetology (amphibians & reptiles)
- Curator: Dr. Christopher Austin
- More than 140,000 specimens
- Ichthyology (fishes)
- Curator: Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty
- More than 400,000 specimens
- Mammalogy (mammals)
- Curator: Dr. Jacob Esselstyn
- More than 48,000 specimens
- Ornithology (birds)
- Curator: Dr. Van Remsen
- More than 178,000 specimens
- Vertebrate Paleontology (vertebrate fossils)
- Curator Emeritus: Dr. Judith Schiebout
- More than 19,000 specimens
- Fossil Protists & Invertebrates
- Curator Emeritus: Dr. Barun Sen Gupta
- More than 13,000 Microfossil slides (2,800 primary types)
- More than 10,000 Invertebrate specimen lots
- Archaeology & Ethnography
- Curator: Dr. Rebecca Saunders
- 1.25 million specimens
- 73,000 ethnographic objects
We boast the oldest and largest genetic resources collection in the world and the third largest university-based bird collection. Not only are our collections sizable, but they are also active and data rich due to the inclusion of genetic data. This makes us a valuable institution to not only our own researchers and LSU, but also researchers across the globe.
What do we research?
Every year we travel to places like Borneo, Brazil, Peru, Papua New Guinea and Panama to collect scientific specimens. These specimens are preserved with the intention of serving as a tool for researchers for many years to come. Sometimes we discover species that were previously unknown to mankind. In fact, since 2006, we have discovered over 65 new species and more are described every year! Although discovery is usually not the main goal, it is an exciting part of fieldwork that can make you feel like a modern day explorer.
New species aside, our broader research goals revolve around studying the evolutionary history of life on earth, the factors driving speciation and biodiversity, and how populations change over time. Some current projects include understanding the systematics and diversification of old world shrews, the biogeography of Neotropical birds, and the effect of forest disturbance and plantation development on native birds in Southeast Asia.
The opportunity to combine fieldwork in remote places and specimen-based research with the latest genetic techniques makes the LSU MNS a unique place to work and study. We currently train over 30 graduate students and over 10 undergraduates in museum-based research, and our graduates have gone on to work at places like the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum and many other museums and universities around the US and the world.
Although our work is well known in the zoological research realm, we are not so well known among students at LSU. To help broaden this awareness, we have an exciting new program beginning this fall – Night at the Museum! Twice a semester, we will focus on one collection and host behind-the-scenes tours, a short talk by an LSU MNS researcher, and a chance to meet our scientists. The first event happened this week and featured our exceptional bird collection. The next event will be on November 17 starting at 5pm, with a talk at 6pm and behind-the-scenes tours of the fish collections afterwards! More information can be found on our website. If you do attend a Night at the Museum event, share your pictures with us on Instagram with the hashtag #LSUNightattheMuseum!
But you don’t have to wait until these events to visit the museum. In addition to the collections, we also have a free public exhibit area complete with habitat displays, Louisiana animal diversity displays, and even the very first Mike the Tiger (with a recording of his roar)! So if you are a fan of the natural world and are fascinated by the amazing animals that inhabit the earth, stop by the LSU Museum of Natural Science in Foster Hall. You never know what you may find!