LSU professors in the Department of Biological Sciences believe they inherited a goldmine last month.
The gold, as they see it, are the 100,000-plus dead reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds, some of which are extinct, that are stored in a dark, abandoned dormitory on the top floor of Hatcher Hall behind Tiger Stadium.
The dolphin skeleton tucked into a metal drawer, the stuffed remains of old world fruit bats, and various types of snakes floating in alcohol-filled jars were a gift from the Tulane Museum of Natural History.
The biological scientists at LSU benefited from Tulane wanting to focus on its vast collection of fishes, another way of saying different species of fish.
So, last month when roughly 30 volunteers hauled about five dozen, 400-pound cabinets from New Orleans to Baton Rouge over eight days, LSU became the beneficiary of the largest mammal and herpetology — amphibian and reptile — assortment in the region.
Many of the specimens were collected in areas that have since been destroyed by coastal erosion, said Mark Hafner, a mammal curator at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.
Other animals, like the inaccurately named flying lemur, which actually glides rather than flies and isn’t a lemur, originated in far-off places like the Philippines. LSU researchers also got their hands on hard-to-get marsupials from the south Pacific Ocean near New Guinea and Australia, which currently have moratoriums on exporting them, Hafner said.
But the true value of the Tulane collection, according to Hafner, an alumni professor, is the glimpse into history the animal specimens give to researchers.
Some of the animal specimens date back to the 1800s, Hafner said, and through DNA samples researchers can learn how different animal populations evolved over time in changing environments and in changing climates.
By slicing off tiny pieces of tissue — about one-quarter the size of a pea — researchers can extract DNA samples and determine how different animal populations expand and contract over time, he said.
LSU researchers are especially interested in looking at how different animal species reacted to being exposed to chemicals from the 2010 BP oil disaster. They will study how the diets of different species may have changed, and whether fish, for example, have a higher or lower tolerance for salt water versus fresh water as a consequence of their exposure.
One day this week, Prosanta Chakrabarty, an assistant professor at LSU and the museum’s curator of fishes, walked into an old dorm room lined with shelves containing thousands of amphibians preserved in jelly-type jars filled with ethyl alcohol. There are plastic bags filled with donut-sized turtles.
Chakrabarty reached into one jar and pulled out a tiger salamander roughly 6 inches long.
The specimen was “neotenic,” meaning it was an adult that had retained some of its juvenile traits, he explained.
The salamander had a webbed tail for swimming and gills on the side of its head. The significance, Chakrabarty continued, is that researchers don’t know why some tiger salamander adults “choose” to live on land, while others, maybe even siblings, live underwater.
They’re interesting, he said, because of “what they can tell us about evolution.”
The next step for the department is to take up the meticulous task of transcribing the date, location and circumstances under which the specimens were collected, and then entering them into a digital database, Chakrabarty said.
“It will take years,” he said. “We’re just cataloging life on earth.”