Fragments of our past
Natural history collections at universities are an important resource for undergraduate and graduate education. The University of Calgary’s diverse vertebrate collection (known as the Museum of Zoology until 2008) contains over 8000 fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal specimens.
Originally housed in the Science A building, the collection was relocated in the mid-90s to ground floor spaces in Biological Sciences. A large room houses the majority of skins, skeletons, and mounted preparations such as a sea lion, ostrich, leopard and a variety of birds. Shelves in a small room adjacent to the teaching lab are filled top to bottom with jars of preserved specimens.
Four technicians have managed the collection since the 1970s – each making substantial contributions to its growth and the quality of preservation.
The first technician Bruce Jones worked closely with Dr. Tim Myers, an ornithologist, to produce the majority of the collection’s stuffed birds. Many of the birds mounted in taxidermic-style mounts (such as those in the basement hall display cabinet) came from the Glenbow Museum when it divested itself of this kind of material. Barry Curtis followed Bruce and helped expand the mammalian skeletal collection, including many of the mounted skeletons. The third technician, Ann Hickie, focused on teaching materials, ensuring many of the skulls were stored in protective plexi-glass boxes for use in student labs.
Warren Fitch has been the collection’s manager since 1993, and his early focus was on bird skeleton material.
The extensive vertebrate collection includes specimens from a large 1960s provincial fish survey by R. E. Peter, as well as donations from the Calgary Aquarium, which operated in the city from 1960 to 1972.
A number of biology courses use the collection in their labs, and graduate students access it for their research projects. Specimens are also loaned internally to departments such as art, anthropology and geology. External loans are difficult because of the fragile nature of the specimens. However, researchers have come from as far as Japan to study material in the collection.
Did you know?
The biggest skull in the collection is that of a five-year old elephant, while the smallest is that of a pygmy shrew. The heaviest specimen in the collection is the skull of a rhinoceros.
An unfortunate equipment malfunction in Spring 2011 resulted in what came to be known in the department as the “Great Stink.” A freezer containing potential specimens for the collection broke down on a weekend; the thawed contents had to be thrown out.
The collection includes about 300 vertebrate fossils. Many are from the Upper Cretaceous Judith River Formation of southern Alberta and were collected and prepared by Dr. Betsy Nicholls during the late 1970s and early 1980s.