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"Molecular and cellular biologists may never collect a whole fish, never even look at a whole fish," William Bemis says firmly, if not quite dismissively. "They call a supplier and order a liver."

Conversationally expansive, shoulders slouched under a baggy black polo, Bemis biology professor, renowned ichthyologist, successor to the late David Klingener as director of the university's biological collections, and person who insists on being called Willy is at the wheel of a campus van, advocating for a specimen-based, organismal biology, often overshadowed these days by the more glamorous molecular and cellular biologies. Behind the driver's seat is a rectangular framed slab of limestone bearing the brown fossil of an entire fish, Phareodus encaustus, a relative of the living arrowana of South America. The fossil is fifty-two million years old and hails from the Green River Formation in Wyoming, at a time when that area was a subtropical lake. Bemis is returning Phareodus to Provost Cora Marrett, a supporter of his mission to house UMass Amherst's six natural history collections in a new museum on campus. He'd loaned it to the provost last summer to display in her office, but needed it back for a soiree showcasing the acquisition of about 150 Green River specimens (see sidebar, page 35).

When Bemis was hired fourteen years ago, he made it a condition of acceptance that a fish collection started in the 1860s not be tossed out, no matter how tempting a Morrill room occupied by shelves of Atlas jars might look to administrators desperate for space. "There'd been an attitude of general neglect toward the specimens," he explains. "That was in keeping with a focus on cellular and molecular biology, which had been allowed to develop at the expense of organismal biology." Molecular and cellular findings make sense only when interpreted on the basis of whole organisms, says Bemis. He doesn't knock the "wonderful things that molecular biology is telling us," but maintains that its tools work with "only one tiny, tiny piece of the whole history of life."

Ultimately, says Bemis, findings about molecules and cells must be viewed in the systematic context: supplied by biologists who undertake the "messy, dirty, time-intensive" business of looking at whole organisms, and who study a large array of species with an eye to classifying them. These are the anatomists, paleontologists, ecologists, physiologists and behaviorists who systematically study differences among species, and ensure that species are recognized, named and classified on logical bases. Such information is the basis for much of what we think we know about evolutionary history.

In other words, old-fashioned biology?

"I resent the `old-fashioned' label," says Bemis, though not resentfully. "This work is far more synthetic than people think, taking information from many different sources."

Still, organismal biologists are naturalists, a term that may conjure up Victorian science, in collecting whole specimens for research and teaching. Hence the need for the continued growth and secure storage of biological collections. In an era when human health and longevity are pursued with religious fervor, with miraculous medical advances weekly in the news, it's easy to see why molecular and cellular biologies, which have applications to medicine, get the funding. "Most universities are focusing on molecular and cellular biology, because that's where the money is," says Bemis. "They're getting rid of their natural history collections. They don't know what to do with them; they don't know the science anymore."

Bemis worries that specimens, and expertise in preserving and studying them, are being lost as institutions become enthralled with biomedical research; he's determined to keep UMass in the company of Harvard, Berkeley, Kansas, and other schools that have held onto their collections. It's fitting for a land-grant university, he argues, pointing out that almost all of the fifteen such institutions in the American Association of Universities have collections, and many have full-fledged museums that attract tourists.

It's a full-fledged museum, with displays to draw visitors, that Bemis wants to see rise eventually on this campus. In addition to providing a secure home for the specimens, such a museum could bring in funds to help support the research and teaching collections, the real passion of Bemis and his colleagues. There's nothing like a specimen for teaching, they agree. And their research on evolution, ecology, and biodiversity would be furthered by, among other things, enhanced ability to borrow specimens from other museums.

In fact, molecular and cellular scientists also benefit from well-maintained biological collections. "Somewhere, there's a type specimen" the original bearer of a species's name, as designated by the person who named it "that is the reference specimen for those liver cells," says Bemis. "Fundamentally, biological collections are used by every biologist in the world, whether they're aware of it or not."

UNDER SPOTLIGHTS in a corner of the Top of the Campus dining room, about thirty fossil fish arch delicately in pale square limestone beds. Though 52 million years old and quarried from an extinct lake in Wyoming, the specimens, exhibited on slanted platforms and flanked by descriptive placards, don't look out of place at this elegant academic function, held to celebrate "the fossils that Jane bought," as William Bemis, biology professor, director of the zoological collections, and son of the late Jane H. Bemis, puts it.

The crowd of museum supporters and potential supporters gathered before Bemis, who holds center stage in front of the fossil display, includes, among others, Provost Cora Marrett and natural sciences and mathematics dean Linda Slakey; writer John McPhee, whose story about Bemis's activities at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo appeared in the October 19th New Yorker; Karel Liem, curator of the fish collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who calls Bemis "the envy of other institutions"; members of the 100-plus-year-old Amherst Tuesday Ladies Club, to which Jane Bemis belonged; and some of the curators and managers of the UMass zoological collections, who've replaced their jeans, hip waders, and, in Richmond's case, motorcycle jacket, with suits or skirts for the occasion.

With his relaxed bulk and longish brown hair giving the impression, fittingly for a fish scientist, of a bear of small stature in a shirt and tie, Bemis talks about his mother, who died last summer and whose gifts to the museum endowment allowed the purchase of these astonishing fishes. "She went out to Wyoming with us," he says, pointing out a photograph of Jane Bemis perched on a dusty slab at the Green River site, displayed next to three possible models for the hoped-for natural history museum. "She was interested in the Green River fossils and also in how they could leverage a museum into being." Jane Bemis's assistance to the UMass zoological collections ranged from mayonnaise jars for specimens to be kept in to the bequest of her old station wagon as "museum vehicle." However, Bemis says, her biggest contribution was the way she brought up her children: "My mother raised us to pick up anything we saw and drag it home."

Jane Bemis's last gift a $700,000 donation made shortly before she died helped bring to $1.3 million the endowment funds that Bemis and the other curators have raised in the last three years to support the collections. It is the first time funds have been directed exclusively to purposes previously financed out of strained department budgets and faculty members' wallets. Bemis is hoping for another $10 million in contributions for the collections and specimen-based research, and has also set himself the formidable goal of raising $25 million to build a museum.

Beverly Wood '77, '92G, associate chancellor for campus planning and space management, chaired a committee to create three models for a museum. All provide increased storage and lab and research space for specimen-based biology, but they differ in the amount of exhibit space (read: tourist draw) they include. Though she doesn't pretend to know the outcome of this venture, she says, "When you have a champion like Willy, you have to go with it. Projects like these happen when someone has a passion. Look at the Conte polymer building. No one would've envisioned that. It took ten or twelve years to come to fruition. Now people say, `Of course.'"

Bemis knows it's a long haul to the moment the ribbon rests between the scissor-blades under the entrance marked University of Massachusetts Museum of Natural History. "We're still at the point where we could use a pickup truck," he concedes. He figures on at least ten years. Nevertheless, he says, "We're marching ahead as though we'll find the space and the money. To make sure something happens, we have to assume it's going to happen."

Turning the key in a lock and pulling out a drawer lined with jewelery-sized boxes open to display small rocks and pebbles, paleontologist Jin Meng is talking teeth cusps, crowns, roots, incisors, jaws with the knowledgeability of an oral surgeon. And the teeth he's talking about are those of rodents that lived fifty-five million years ago.

"You see this bunodont tooth has roots, crown, and cusps," says Meng, clasping with the tips of his slim fingers a fragment of a jaw embedded in a tiny, pale rock he found in the Gobi Desert.

"Now look at this specimen from a living species." He holds up a rodent's small, preserved jawbone. "The teeth are rootless and ridged." The changes, Meng believes, were rodents' adaptation to a distinct climatic change that occurred about thirty-four million years ago in the flora of what is now the Gobi Desert but was then a forest. After a global temperature drop of 13 degrees Celsius, the warmer, wet forest turned cooler and drier and grasslands started opening up. "The crown developed ridges so the teeth could deal with the tougher grass," explains Meng.

From a box, Meng selects a pill capsule and opens it. Carrying a tiny fragment of rock in his palm, he steps to his desk and places the specimen under the microscope. "Yes, a rodent's upper jaw and molars," he assures an incredulous witness. Exactly how small is that fragment?

"Smaller than a sesame seed," says Meng.

This assistant professor of biology, who has worked as a researcher for the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, travels every summer to the Gobi Desert, "a paradise for paleontologists," to excavate fossils. While others look for dinosaurs, Meng seeks fossils of rodents, which make up 40 percent of mammals, furthering his National Science Foundation-sponsored study of "the relationship between Mickey and Bunny."

Having a lot of small fossils makes for a useful research collection, says Meng, curator of the mammal collection, which includes about 6,000 specimens of preserved mammals and mammal fossils and is housed in 321 Morrill and elsewhere. "Having the fossil record allows evolutionary research. A museum must have a first-class research component to demonstrate its entity as a museum to other institutions."

Meng found the upper jaw and molars when, after many years of studying larger rocks, he thought to have a look at small nodules, ignored by other paleontologists. "I'm a good collector," he says. "I have a lot of heart; it drives me to look at everything. At the end of the day, others may be too tired, but I go out looking. I can smell fossils."


The possibility that Kate Doyle `90, `97G, manager of the mammal collection, can smell the specimens she's after is a very real one, and usually has to do with which way the wind is blowing. Doyle processes marine and other mammal salvage, and in the last few years, since she and Bemis let the state division of fisheries and wildlife know that they wanted to add significantly to the mammal collection, Doyle has many times worked a machete through a decaying whale, dolphin, or seal to remove jawbone, skull, rib cage, flippers, pelvic bone, and other parts.

When assistant director of fisheries and wildlife Tom French sends word of a stranding, Doyle heads for her station wagon with knives, rubber gloves from the grocery store, knee-high rubber boots, plastic trash bags to put parts in, and, sometimes, student helpers. Usually, it's a full day's work, and with any luck, a cold wind will be blowing on the beach. Cold is preferable to a still, warm day when you're fleshing a decaying marine mammal. Although occasionally, says Doyle, if a whale has been rotting several days before it's found, high temperatures can actually make her job somewhat easier: whale skin retains heat well, and a corpse that's been lying in the sun a long while is stewing inside with the first cut, out pours a maggot stew.

The mammal parts are transported, often with the help of a state truck and trailer, to the UMass farm in Deerfield. There Doyle initiates the second phase of processing salvage into osteological specimens, by burying them under manure rife with bugs that take up where the maggots left off, removing the flesh from the bones.

Doyle has processed about fifty marine mammal specimens for the collection, including twenty-five Atlantic white-sided dolphins that were stranded in Wellfleet, a fifteen-foot Minke whale that washed up on Monomy Island, and a number of humpback and fin whales. She even obtained parts from a rare blue whale sixty-seven feet long with a head weighing three tons that was towed dead into Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge last year. A blue whale hadn't been seen on the Atlantic Coast since the 1800s.

The physical labor, gruesome details, and logistical problems involved in getting sets of mammal bones and teeth into cabinets in Morrill and given existing overcrowding there and the size of some of these remains, some are stowed elsewhere, in the most ad hoc spaces imaginable is worth it to Doyle.

"The way I feel is, the animals are already dead; it's important to keep the skeletons," she says. "Look at all the information that can be had. If you just bury it, you lose all of it." For example, when she pulled out of the manure the parts of a fin whale for which the cause of death hadn't been determined, she found signs of an old break in the lower jaw at the articulation. "The broken jaw would've made it very difficult for this whale to feed," she says. "That break couldn't possibly have been seen when the animal washed up on the beach. There's a lot of information about an animal's general health and history that you can only get from the bones."

Yellowed fish tails curve lithely in isopropyl alcohol, and eyes peer blankly out of rows and rows of Ball jars, in 153 Morrill, the stuffy basement room that's home to many of the approximately 18,000 specimens in the fish collection.

The collection represents 200 of the 482 known families of fishes. It's more than 100 years old, and every passing year increases its research value, according to Alan Richmond `87, `90G, `95G, the lecturer and doctoral student who helps Bemis manage it. "When it gets this old, a collection becomes really useful," says Richmond with enthusiasm. "After a hundred years, you can start asking really interesting questions. Cutting sections out, you can look for the presence of heavy metals in fish from, say, the 1950s compared with the 1990s."

Most of this collection was built by Professor Tom Andrews in the 1960s. Since Bemis has been curating, he's added species from Missouri's Osage River; lungfishes from East Africa, South America, and Australia; fossil fish including a four-foot bowfin from Wyoming; and sharks, tarpon, ladyfish, and about fifty other species brought to the docks of Dauphin Island by participants in the annual Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. In 1997, the collection received six specimens of Cuban gar, a highly protected fish, making a total of only twenty-five specimens of this gar in the United States. The prized gar came from Dr. Herbert Axelrod, former publisher of Tropical Fish Hobbyist and current president of Animalia, Inc. Which should tell you something about Bemis's resourcefulness as a collector. He's the trash-to-treasure king of the waters.


"We're pretty fortunate to have this," remarks Alan Richmond, who manages the amphibian and reptile specimens as well as the fish, lifting a jar from a shelf in the section of 153 Morrill where many of the former are housed. Floating in the jar is a creature that appears to be a lizard. It isn't. "It's a Sphenodon," says Richmond. "He's his own order." Sphenodon, which lives on islands off New Zealand, is the only true diapsid other reptiles being modified diapsids left on earth. Records show it was a departmental purchase made around 1900.

At one time, animal specimens were routinely bought from supply companies. "You can still get some things from supply houses, but it's not the thing to do," says Richmond with a note of regret. "It encourages the whole-sale collection of species." Suppliers today purvey more videos and fewer unusual specimens.

The amphibian and reptile collection represents seventy-two families and includes 2,500 preserved specimens. Richmond also maintains a small collection of live animals, including an alligator confiscated by the Boston police and a captive-bred callagur turtle from the Wichita zoo, that may be brought into labs so students can observe their movements or feeding. Although associate professor Elizabeth Brainerd was recently named official curator of this collection, Richmond has added to it for years. How has he obtained specimens?

"I go to pet stores and ask for dead stuff," he says. "And breeders," he adds, lifting a jar from a work table strewn with skins, bones, jars, indeterminate items. "A female puff adder came dead in the mail from an out-of-state snake breeder. It turned out to have seventy embryos in it." In the jar float embryos, pickled. Richmond sent several others to a Harvard biologist who's researching fang development in poisonous snakes.

Nature itself sometimes provides a windfall of specimens. A sudden steep drop in the temperature of the water off Cape Cod kills scores of small Kemp's Ridley and loggerhead turtles; a leatherback sea turtle seven feet long with meter-and-a-half-long flippers washes up dead on the Cape, and Richmond goes to get it. Other salvage comes from fish and wildlife agents who confiscate protected species from people trying to bring them into airports.

Richmond takes a coil off a shelf, and together we unroll a long python skin. On the floor at his feet is a box holding pillow cases, purses, and belts made of python and lizard. These will be added to the teaching collection. "Some people are unaware of the plight of these species," he says.


Connected to 153 Morrill by a short passageway is the room housing the invertebrate collection, curated by lecturer Douglas Smith `77, `82G. Despite a computer occupying a desk, this room would thrill a Pottery Barn stylist. Metal shelves harbor neat rows of black- and white-lidded jars. Cinderblock walls are lined with orderly series of clipboards, wooden pegs across which lie funnels, bottle brushes, and strainers, hooks from which green hip-waders hang next to a heavy canvas bag.

What would thrill a biologist sits in a locked cabinet on the wall: vials containing the type specimens of a new species of worm and a new genus and species of amphipod that popped into Smith's vision, magnified as it was by drugstore reading glasses, on Mona Island in 1996. The reproductive cycle of the worm, Mesostoma tubiseminalis, has adapted remarkably to the hydrological cycle of the ephemeral rainwater pools it lives in, which exist about a week. Babies are carried in cocoons and hatch inside the parent; when the puddle dries up, the parent dies and the babies burst through the integument, to make fast-food of mosquitoes and embark on their own short adulthood.

Smith has come a long way from his early days at UMass, when he served as manager of all the collections, which were curated by the late David Klingener. Smith did basic taxidermy then; he still has the first specimen he ever stuffed (a robin) and recalls the stuffed moose, bought from Ward Specimens, that would mysteriously appear on the elevator, sending people running with a cry that a moose was on the loose.

"Usually, we got things off the road," he says. "Somebody brought in a skunk once, and I had it in the old dissecting pit. We had a hood, but it ventilated back into the building. I severed the gland, and phew! Everybody was yelling."

His interest in invertebrates which make up 90 percent of animals grew out of his avocation as a fisherman: "I wouldn't catch any fish, and at the end of the day, I looked at the bait and thought, `Geez this is interesting.' So a collection was born." The collection now numbers approximately 25,000 specimens, many from central New England, such as specimens of the Margaritiferidae family of molluscs, which Smith has been studying since he first saw one in Cushman brook in the 1970s. "When I first started looking at them, it was little known that they're phenomenal indicators of water quality," says Smith. "Since people started studying them, all freshwater molluscs have become the canary in the mine for freshwater quality."


Entomology professor Adam Porter, interim curator of the entomology collection, likes his students to understand the labor behind great, old repositories of biological materials: for example, those that fill the dozens of cabinets lining a wall in Fernald Hall. He opens one at random and pulls out one of its eleven wooden drawers. There, under glass, are a dozen beetles that look like ants, an adaptive mimicry that makes them less likely to be eaten. (The sour taste of ants is relished by few who are not anteaters.) Accompanying each beetle is a very small label that classifies it down to species, and gives the date and location of the collection as well as the collector's name. "Each bug is a minimum of fifteen minutes of work," says Porter. A tiny vial next to a specimen means that dissection was done, adding hours of work. A specimen may show signs of someone's painstaking repair work. A capsule in a corner of the drawer is evidence of efforts to deter carpet beetles, who like dead bugs,

or cockroaches, who like the oil in wood.

There are almost thirty cabinets of beetles alone, to say nothing of the cabinets of flies, moths, dragonflies, and butterflies that turn the corner of the hall and keep going. The collection for which Porter is caring until a replacement is found for Professor Mike Peters, who retired last year, numbers about 300,000 specimens, representing about 15,000 species from New England and farther flung locales.

With the help of the microscope "Imagine blowing them up to the size of a dog," offers Porter systematics biologists can see striking differences between the anatomies of species of insects. As a population geneticist, which places him "right in the middle" between molecular biologists and systematic and other organismal biologists, Porter is also enthusiastic about the collection's usefulness to molecular scientists. "In the same way we compare the anatomy, we can compare the construction of the DNA," says the soft-spoken and lightly bearded butterfly specialist, whose quiet presence makes it easy to imagine him surprising a winged creature on a leaf. "From relationships between DNA strands, we can infer relationships between organisms."

Porter notes that most of UMass's specimens date from 1900 to 1940, and are thus increasing in value. "There've been a whole lot of ecological changes since then," he says. "Seeing the biodiversity of then versus now, we can get a handle on the changes that occur as we cut forests, drain swamps, let forests grow back, and so on.

"The DNA in these specimens is old, as well. The collection is a repository of genes that you don't have since insecticides started to be used. This gives us a chance to study how resistance to insecticides develops."

Herbarium curator and lecturer Karen Searcy `84G is "not a super-active collector," she says. Focusing her explorations on rare plants and unusual plant communities, she confines her additions to some twenty-odd specimens a year. And when she's not wandering a Berkshires bog or the barrens of the Holyoke Range, the specimens come to her, here in 401 Morrill.

This long room, with its tall, closed metal cabinets and light from the wallful of windows, houses the largest state herbarium in New England. About 250,000 specimens are here.

Tufts University, having no place to keep its herbarium, recently sent its entire contents roughly 20,000 specimens, from coastal New England to New Zealand. The University of Connecticut sent 130 plant specimens collected on campus in 1900 by Massachusetts Agricultural College student A. B. Cook. Recently arrived "voucher collections" from the Westover and Edwards Air Force bases and Fort Devens represent everything that was growing in a particular area at a particular time.

These additions join collections of historical import: the State Cabinet collection; plants collected in Japan by early MAC president William S. Clark; and the Amherst College Herbarium. Plants from what was once the Swift River Watershed and is now the Quabbin Reservoir are preserved, as are about 7,000 specimens collected by Roberta Poland in the Deerfield area. Thanks to Otto Degener and A.C. Smith, there are plants from Hawaii and Fiji, and as a result of Harry Ahles's enthusiastic networking in the 1960s, plants are still coming from countries around the world.

Thanks to past curators' activity and its increasing recognition as a repository, the herbarium is broadly representative, making it great for classroom teaching. Display space, however, is limited to one glass case on Morrill's second floor. This spring, Searcy plans a display of horsetails: specimens collected by Ahles, such as Equisetum arvense, from "the railroad right-of-way, center of Warren, Bristol County, Rhode Island, May 13, 1978," along with fossil horsetails, at least 200 million years old, from the Upper Carboniferous Period.

"Herbaria tend to grow by exchanges," explains Searcy, herself a transplant from Los Angeles, leaning against a table that holds a folder of club mosses and a stack of acid-free 100 percent rag paper alternated with cardboard and topped with bricks. "We still haven't processed all the materials we received in the `60s, and the networks are still operating."


 

Under Spotlights in a corner of the Top of the Campus dining room, about thirty fossil fish arch delicately in pale square limestone beds. Though 2 million years old and quarried from an extinct lake in Wyoming, the specimens, exhibited on slanted platforms and flanked by descriptive placards, don't look out of place at this elegant academic function, held to celebrate "the fossils that Jane bought," as William Bemis, biology professor, director of the zoological collections, and son of the late Jane H. Bemis, puts it.

The crowd of museum supporters and potential supporters gathered before Bemis, who holds center stage in front of the fossil display, includes, among others, Provost Cora Marrett and natural sciences and mathematics Dean Linda Slakey; writer John McPhee, whose story about Bemis's activities at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo appeared in the October 19th New Yorker; Karel Liem, curator of the fish collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who calls Bemis "the envy of other institutions"; members of the 100-plus-ear-old Amherst Tuesday Ladies Club, to which Jane Bemis belonged; and some of the curators and managers of the UMass zoological collections, who've replaced their jeans, hip waders, and, in Richmond's case, motorcycle jacket, with suits or skirts for the occasion.

With his relaxed bulk and longish brown hair giving the impression, fittingly for a fish scientist, of a bear of small stature in a shirt and tie, Bemis talks about his mother, who died last summer and whose gifts to the museum endowment allowed the purchase of these astonishing fishes. "She went out to Wyoming with us," he says, pointing out a photograph of Jane Bemis perched on a dusty slab at the Green River site, displayed next to three possible models for the hoped-for natural history museum. "She was interested in the Green River fossils and also in how they could leverage a museum into being." Jane Bemis's assistance to the UMass zoological collections ranged from mayonnaise jars for specimens to be kept in to the bequest of her old station wagon as "museum vehicle." However, Bemis says, her biggest contribution was the way she brought up her children: "My mother raised us to pick up anything we saw and drag it home."

Jane Bemis's last gift - a $700,000 donation made shortly before she died - helped bring to $1.3 million the endowment funds that Bemis and the other curators have raised in the last three years to support the collections. It is the first time funds have been directed exclusively to purposes previously financed out of strained departments budgets and faculty members' wallets. Bemis is hoping for another $10 million in contributions for the collections and specimen-based research, and has also set himself the formidable goal of raising $25 million to build a museum.

Beverly Wood '77, '92G, associate chancellor for campus planning and space management, chaired a committee to create three models for specimen-based biology, but they differ in the amount of exhibit space (read: tourist draw) they include. Though she doesn't pretend to know the outcome of this venture, se says, "When you have a champion like Willy, you have a to go with it. Projects like these happen when someone has a passion. Look at the Conte polymer building. No one would've envisioned that. it took ten or twelve years to come to fruition. Now people say, 'Of course.'"

Bemis knows it's a long haul to the moment the ribbon rests between the scissor-blades under the entrance marked University of Massachusetts Museum of Natural History. "We're still at the point where we could use a pickup truck," he concedes. He figures on at least ten years. Nevertheless, he says, "We're marching ahead as though we'll find the space and the money. To make sure something happens, we have to assume it's going to happen."