Cataloguing biodiversity: WCU lands grant for biological collections
A collection of 47,000 plants and animals currently tucked away in various rooms of Western Carolina University’s Stillwell building will soon have a new home thanks to a $517,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
“This is a great opportunity for our region, because we don’t have a lot of the museum resources they have in the Research Triangle area like the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. We’re creating that kind of museum resource here,” said Kathy Mathews, principal investigator on the grant.
Mathews has been an associate professor of biology at WCU for the past 16 years, and for 15 of those years she’s curated the university’s herbarium. That collection contains 36,500 plant specimens — and counting — with the university’s collection also including nearly 10,000 arthropods and 500 birds and mammals.
“The Southern Appalachians region is one of the biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Our collections here at Western, believe it or not, some of them are unique,” said Mathews. “Some of them are only found here, or we have the best representatives of certain organisms that no other museums have because we’re right here, and we’ve had faculty at WCU collecting things since the early 1900s.”
While the birds and mammals in the collection are fairly recent arrivals, coinciding with work that co-investigators Barbara Ballentine and Aimee Rockhill have put in over the past decade, the arthropod and especially the plant collections have a lot more history behind them. Most of the arthropods date from the 1980s, when Dr. Fred Coyle started the collection, while the herbarium began in the 1950s.
“We have some specimens that are older than that, that have been gifted to us,” said Mathews. “Some of them are from the late 1800s from the old Biltmore Estate collections, but most of the herbarium specimens actually were collected during the 1970s and 80s by faculty members in botany. Dan Pittillo and Jim Horton were the two who really built the herbarium collection.”
The grant’s co-investigators are Luiz Silveira, assistant professor of insect diversity, ecology and evolution; Ballentine, associate professor of evolution and behavioral ecology; and Rockhill, assistant professor of natural resource conservation and management. The application was submitted nearly a year ago, in October 2019, and Mathews said the team was elated to find out they made the cut. It’s a competitive grant, with only about 45 percent of applications for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Biological Infrastructure grants accepted.
“We’re very excited we got the funding,” Mathews said.
Mia Taylor, an undergraduate studying geosciences and natural resources, prepares a mouse specimen.
The effort was timed to coincide with construction of the $110 million Tom Apodaca Science Building, scheduled for completion in 2021. The three-year project will allow the collections to be organized and curated, with a rotating display prominently featured on the building’s fifth floor.
The first phase of the project will be to organize and label everything for relocation to new cabinetry storage systems designed to protect against degrading forces like mold, fire and insect damage. Four undergraduate students will be hired each year to help with this task, and two graduate students in biology will be hired for a term of two years to help with curation and to oversee the undergrads. The university will work with curators from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh to prepare the birds and mammal skins, said Mathews.
Currently, the herbarium is stored in “beautiful old wooden cabinets” that are aesthetically pleasing but not safe for long-term storage, said Mathews. The arthropods are in “complete disarray,” tucked away uncatalogued in various cardboard boxes and cabinets, and many of the birds and mammals are stored in freezers, not yet having been prepared as museum specimens.
Despite all that still remains to be done, collection curators have already put a substantial amount of effort into safeguarding the collections. Many of the plants were stored in old newspapers, which is a poor method for preservation, because newspaper contains acid. This causes color to leech from the specimens and makes them brittle. Mathews was able to get work-study students to mount the specimens on acid-free paper instead.
“They were a bit degraded, but everything else now is stabilized,” she said. “It’s just that we don’t have any protection in case of a water leak or insect infestation. So far we’ve been able to hold off any of that happening.”
The arthropods are preserved in liquid, but in many of the jars the ethanol had evaporated, causing the specimens to dry out and face degradation. Silveira has been working with students to sort and refill those containers.
Some of the herbarium’s 36,500 specimens are displayed in a print exhibit.
In phase two, the team will create a publicly available website called Catamount Collections that catalogues each specimen, complete with photographs.
“I think the website will be a really good way to start opening that up to people, and then if they want to come see specimens in person we have one area in the new building where we can show people our collections,” said Mathews. “I feel like we’re providing a public outreach service with this project.”
Outreach is indeed a specific goal, with the grant also including funding to develop outreach modules so small teaching collections can be taken to area schools, showing students the various types of plants and animals in the collection.
“We’re hoping to train a cohort of students on this kind of museum studies work so they could go and work for a natural history museum after they graduate,” Mathews said. “It’s to get them interested in biological collections.”
The collections are many, varied and in some cases unique — or close to it. Mathews said some of her favorite parts of the collections are specimens of the plant communities found on high-elevation rock outcrops, relics of a time when glaciation forced typically northern plants and animals to move south. Her favorite insect in the collection is a rare and tiny spider called the spruce fir moss spider.
“It lives in moss mats up in the high elevations, and it’s actually a miniature tarantula,” she said. “It is super rare because its habitat is declining.”
Habitat decline — due both to development and to climate change — is a real threat to many rare species found only in this corner of the world, she said, and it’s important to keep those specimens in good shape so that current and future scientists, as well as the general public, can continue to see and appreciate them.
“We want people to know that we have really special organisms here,” said Mathews.