June 9, 2009

Biology Department Secures Natural History Collection

A 2,000-pound stuffed buffalo is one of the nearly 300 specimens the Valdosta State University Biology Department acquired when the state of Georgia began distributing items once displayed in the Georgia Capital Museum. Dr. Leslie S. Jones, associate professor of science education and equine reproductive physiology, said the extensive collections of fish, birds, reptiles and mushrooms will bring curriculum to life for students enrolled in science courses at VSU. When not being used in class, the specimens will be displayed in educational dioramas within the Hugh C. Bailey Science Center.

“This is a bona fide treasure for the biology department, and we are ecstatic about how these specimens will improve classroom instruction and up the educational value of the display cases,” said Jones, who traveled in early June to retrieve the collection with Dr. Colleen McDonough, professor of animal behavior, and Dr. Mitch Lockhart, professor of parasitological and wildlife disease. “Faculty members have been coming in to look at the collection, drooling at the educational possibilities.”

Jones said the study of fungi, for instance, is a challenge to teach because students often observe a limited collection of specimens that look like “pickles in a jar.” The addition of 45 colorful wax mushroom and fungi representations will enable students studying mycology to examine lifelike subject matter rather than picturing the species from images in textbooks.

Senior biology major Holly Dekle, who has been helping to unload and catalog the collection, said she is impressed with the nearly 130 stuffed birds in lifelike poses as well as the array of animals, reptiles and amphibians - including a sperm whale, bald eagle and alligator.

“Being able to handle and view animals and birds in natural states is going to be such an asset for students studying zoology and ornithology (the study of birds). There is just something about being able to get up close to an animal when you are studying it to truly take it in,” said Dekle. “The lab is covered with specimens right now as we unpack, and the faculty are bouncing off the walls like excited little kids.”

McDonough, who helped pack items into the 15-foot passenger van, attached trailer and truck, said the team of professors had predicted specimens would be in questionable shape after 20 years of storage. The state capital boxed up natural history items during renovations in the early 1990s, and specimens remained in storage when the state decided not to restore the exhibits after remodeling.

“We use scientific specimens in a number of our classes, but students observe from a distance. We thought these items would be in relatively poor shape so that students could handle them freely, giving students another dimension to the learning process,” said McDonough. “However, the specimens are much nicer than we imagined, so we are going to be extra careful and choosey about what and how items are handled. It is unbelievable how well they have been preserved.”

The various shells, corals plants and other items not used in classroom instruction will be displayed in educational dioramas throughout Bailey Science Center. Jones said many of the 39 fish - including an 8-foot sailfish - are wall mounts, which lend themselves to expansive sea displays. The giant American buffalo will be displayed on the second floor near windows overlooking the pedestrian walkway.

Jones and McDonough plan to dedicate two displays to biology faculty members who died recently. Dr. Linda Chamberlin, associate professor of biology, who died in 2005 after a long battle with cancer, loved the beach. Jones said the department will create an educational setting of shorebirds to honor their friend and colleague. They are also developing a display to showcase wetland birds in honor of the passionate biology professor Dr. David O’Drobinak - more commonly known as “Dr. O” - who died in November 2006.

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