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#4200-6270 University Blvd.
Vancouver, BC

Functional morphologist and evolutionary biologist


Building Ontogenetic Series III: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Vikram Baliga

In my ongoing quest to obtain specimens for my dissertation research, I managed to find my way to the world's largest collection of fishes: the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The Division of Fishes works tirelessly to collect and catalogue marine & freshwater fishes from around the world. Their collection contains over 24,000 of the roughly 32,000 recognized species of fish worldwide. This collection is so large, that only 35% of the estimated 6.2 million individual specimens have been computer cataloged. Fortunately for me, their efforts are currently focused on obtaining and cataloging Caribbean and Indo-Pacific fishes. These geographic areas are home to the many wrasses, gobies, (marine) angelfishes, and damselfishes that I am analyzing for my dissertation work. As I fortuitously found myself on the East Coast thanks to a good friend's wedding, I decided to visit the NMNH during the same trip. In this visit, I was able to fill in many of the gaps in my current collection (which consists of specimens borrowed from the Cal Academy and the LACM, bought (and euthanized) from the pet trade, and generously donated by Dr. Peter Wainwright).

The Division of Fishes does not reside in Washington D.C. (where the NMNH is), but is actually located a short train-ride away in Suitland, Maryland. The collection is housed in the Museum Support Center, pictured below.

The Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center, located in Suitland, Maryland

Walking around in here made me want to play Mirror's Edge.

Similar to how things are set up at the CAS and LACM, the Division of Fishes' collection is set up like an academic library, with rows of specimens organized by family.

At least four of the rows pictured here are dedicated to wrasses (Family: Labridae).

Just a few hundred jars of specimens. No big deal.

The friendly staff of the Division of Fishes were kind enough to set me up in my own office, dedicated to visiting researchers. I gathered that the Division hosts about 150 visitors per year, which probably keeps them quite busy, so I appreciated their hospitality.

My workstation for the day. Comfy chair!

No Escort Required.

Some of these jars date back to the late 1800s. The fish inside smelled quite lovely...

It's easy to see the drastic changes in coloration over ontogeny in Labroides bicolor, the bicolor (cleaner) wrasse. The juvenile form (L) presents with a dark lateral stripe; the adult (R) develops darker coloration over the anterior half of its body. Does anything else change? I'll be able to answer that question in a few months.

Labroides bicolor: juvenile (L) and adult (R)
We see another obvious transition in Thalassoma lutescens (the yellow-brown wrasse): there's a huge distinction in coloration between juveniles (L) and terminal adult males (R). This species cleans predominately as juveniles, and shifts to eating crabs, molluscs, and shrimps as adults. Are these transitions in color pattern and diet accompanied by transitions in musculoskeletal morphology?
Thalassoma lutescens: juveniles (L), terminal adult male (R)

More pictures, you say? Sure, why not?

I always have fun photographing Gomphosus varius, the bird wrasse.

More Thalassoma lutescens

Just the right sizes of Halichoeres argus to borrow for my work.

I'm quite happy with what I gained from this visit -- the specimens I have requested to use for my work should be shipped to me within a few months. I'll be able to make a lot progress over this summer and gather valuable data for my proposal defense, which I'm planning to hold in the fall. I had a blast talking with the staff of the Division of Fishes, and I am grateful for their support of my research. I always enjoy making visits to museum collections, and this one was no exception.

Totally unrelated -- just wanted to throw this in, too