With acquisition of 30,000 snake research specimens, U-M now has world's largest collection

After a recent acquisition, the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) now has the largest collection of snake specimens in the world. A research collection the museum acquired from Oregon State University (OSU) includes around 30,000 snake specimens, boosting UMMZ's collection to a total of 70,000 snakes, in addition to other amphibians and reptiles.

UMMZ curator Daniel Rabosky says that, due to the sensitive nature of maintaining many of these research specimens, OSU staff felt that UMMZ had "adequate space and resources" to keep the collection usable by the greater scientific community.

"It takes a lot of money and resources to maintain such a priceless collection," Rabosky says. "Oregon State didn't want to give the collection away, but they wanted it to be maximally useful to the community of researchers."

While Rabosky is proud to have a record-holding collection at UMMZ, he feels that the more important aspect of the acquisition is its potential to expand understanding of reptiles and amphibians.

"We want to know what kinds of new questions we can ask with this collection," Rabosky says. "One strength of this collection is that we have things going back 15 years to 40 years, so we can more easily see trajectories of change."

Rabosky also says many of the specimens in the collection are parent and offspring or siblings, allowing researchers the opportunity to study traits passed down genetically in a species.

"We can understand how populations genetically respond to things like disease or climate change better," Rabosky says. "Non-human animal populations are good for understanding how pathogens spread, so the more we know about things happening in non-human examples, the better we can understand what will affect human populations."

Though UMMZ is not open for public viewing, Rabosky says thousands of University of Michigan students utilize its massive research collection for academic purposes. He adds that "even more researchers from elsewhere in the country and beyond" apply to analyze specimens in the collection each year. Rabosky says UMMZ is also "very active" in making its information and data available online, as well as frequently working with other institutions and facilities to loan out parts of the collection.

Rabosky wants the general public to understand that museum collections like this one are "a tool for research" that is "sustainably harvested," and he hopes people can see the potential for scientific advancement.

"In the U.S., more snakes are killed by road traffic than they are by scientists creating collections like this, and to some degree these specimens are immortal," Rabosky says. "It yields far greater impact for the animals further down the road. All of that help is rooted in gathering information through the careful study of museum collections like this one."

To learn more about the UMMZ, visit its website.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photo courtesy of UMMZ.
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