Ssnake Sspecimenss Make Hissstory

01/01/2024
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    Collections manager Greg Schneider holds a jar containing snake specimens at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (AP/Mike Householder)
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    Jars filled with older snake specimens sit on shelves inside the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. They were recently joined by a donation of reptile and amphibian specimens from Oregon State University. (AP/Mike Householder)
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    Greg Schneider holds a jar containing salamander specimens. (AP/Mike Householder)
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    Greg Schneider reaches into a jar of snake specimens. Would you do that?! (AP/Mike Householder)
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    The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology collection of snake specimens may be the largest held by any research institution in the world. (AP/Mike Householder)
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Rows of alcohol-filled glass jars hold coiled specimens. The jars’ unusual contents? More than 400,000 preserved reptiles and amphibians.

The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) recently acquired about 45,000 new reptile and amphibian specimens to add to its science museum. The donation allowed UMMZ to slither into the record book. The department is now home to what may be the world’s largest research collection of snakes—about 70,000 in all.

The word collection may sound like dry library research. But a UMMZ video calls the museum “an active, vibrant place.” Researchers there ask “all sorts of big questions about life on Earth.”

As Creator, God glories in “big questions.” He wants humans to consider the work of His hands and in so doing, see Him. (Psalm 8:3-9)

In the fall, boxes of jarred water snakes, garter snakes, woodland salamanders, dusky salamanders, and many other species arrived at UMMZ. The donations represent the lifetime work of two retired Oregon State professors, Lynne Houck and Stevan Arnold.

Oregon professor David Maddison helped with transferring the acquisition. His school could no longer maintain the collection. He calls UMMZ “the only one that had the resources—space and staff—to absorb [it].” Further, he says, UMMZ’s “track record at making museum specimens and associated data available to other researchers” made the school the perfect choice.

Greg Schneider is collections manager for UMMZ’s reptile and amphibian division. He estimates the donation contains around 30,000 snakes alone. That makes UMMZ’s serpent total larger than collections at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Schneider admits the title of “largest snake collection” is nice. But he says the real benefit is greater research opportunities.

For example, he suggests that the way amphibians breathe—partly through their smooth, moist skin—could make some of their physical defects a kind of “early warning” system for humans about the effects of habitat changes. Being able to observe 50 years of samples is extraordinary.

The Oregon State donation also includes about 30,000 frozen tissue samples. The samples will allow further research into inherited traits. That research could have “huge applications in medicine,” according to biologist Hernán López-Fernández.

A number of the jars contain both snakes and newborn litters. Michigan professor Dan Rabosky calls it “very, very rare” and “incredibly powerful for research, because it lets researchers ask questions about genetics” and seek answers from the samples.

The task of organizing and merging massive collections is daunting. But UMMZ’s staff appears eager to sssstart ressssearching.

Why? Observing many animals over time has scientific value. It helps researchers understand how habitat changes affect creation and its creatures.

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