The Department of Ichthyology houses one of the largest and most important research collections of its kind in the world. There are nearly 200,000 cataloged lots (jars) containing roughly 1.2 million specimens, with many thousands of backlogged specimens still to be processed. There are representatives of nearly 11,000 nominal species of fishes in the collection, representing more than a third of those known to science. The strengths of our holdings lie principally in marine fishes of the western and central Pacific, California, and freshwater fishes from South America and southeastern Asia. Our older historic collections from North America and the large number of type specimens are of particular importance to the ichthyological community.
Although the initial preservation is done in formaldehyde, the specimens are stored in alcohol. The bulk of the collection is in 75% ethanol, while our large vats are filled with 55% isopropanol. Cleared and stained specimens (above, center) are stored in glycerine, while skeletal preparations (above, right) are stored dry.
The collection can best be thought of as a library. Instead of books there are jars of fishes. As with any library, people come to browse and select what interests them. Just as libraries loan books, the collection loans specimens. We process an average of 170 loans per year, involving roughly 6000 specimens, which are shipped to ichthyologists the world over.
The library analogy is a good one, but it breaks down in one important area. Envision a usual library where the book titles change and you have the situation in a research collection such as this. Scientific names often change as we increase our knowledge of existing species and their relationships.