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    About the MSB Division of Fishes



    History of the MSB Division of Fishes, University of New Mexico

     William J. Koster (1910-1993) came to New Mexico in 1938 after receiving his Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University. He became the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) first instructor of vertebrate zoology. In this capacity, he and his students collected New Mexico vertebrates for study in the labs and classes. In recognition of the unique fauna represented in these teaching collections, Koster began to document and catalogue the specimens.

     UNM student viewing fishes c. 1940sIn 1952, he moved these jars of fishes along with the dry collections from the basement of the Department of Biology, protecting the collections from recurring flooding problems. Once the Department hired curators for the Divisions of Mammals, and Amphibians and Reptiles, Koster was able to devote more time to his research on the life histories of some New Mexico fishes while expanding the collection’s holdings. He also completed a layperson’s Guide to the Fishes of New Mexico in 1959 and had hoped to follow this with a more technical volume on the ichthyofauna of New Mexico. Unfortunately, a serious accident in 1960 dramatically curtailed his ability to perform field work for the rest of his career. By the time William J. Koster retired in 1975, the “UNM Collection of Vertebrates” had grown and collectively became the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB). Despite this formal recognition, Koster understood the tenuous quality of university support for natural history collections and realized he needed to secure the future of the fish collection at the University of New Mexico. Therefore, he warned the University that unless a curator of fishes was hired to replace him, he would send the collection of 250,000 New Mexico fish specimens to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The University administration complied with his wishes and maintained a faculty position that would include part-time curatorial duties. In 1975, Manuel C. Molles, Ph.D. whose research included reef fishes, invertebrate community structure, and changes in global climate was hired to assume these duties and continued to do so until 1998 when he became Curator of Arthropods.

    S.P. Platania, MSB Division of Fishes, 1991 In 1986, Steven P. Platania came to New Mexico to study the distribution of native New Mexico fishes and assumed curatorial duties as an Associate Curator in the MSB Division of Fishes. He established an Ichthyofaunal Studies Program, which continues today, employing students in both the museum and biological fields. Under his direction, the collection underwent a phase of rapid growth. It has served as the primary repository for not only his collections, but also large collections received from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Resource Office in Albuquerque, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

    In 1992, Platania hired a full time Collections Manager to keep pace with the increasing curatorial demands and to establish a protocol for the care and maintenance of the specimens. By 1995, the collection was fully captured in an electronic catalogue. In 2000 a full-time Data Manager was hired to manage the large (and ever increasing) data set for the large San Juan River collections. These data have been integrated into the main collection catalog.

    Undergraduate student working with MSB fishesThomas F. Turner assumed the position of Curator of Fishes in 1998 and the collection entered a new phase of growth in terms of its genomic holdings for rare and extirpated species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow and the Gila trout. Turner has focused his research on the fishes of the American southwest, studying the ecological and biogeographic determinants of population structure and the molecular systematics of these fishes. Through these research activities, Turner and his graduate students are able to add more to the information on the conservation biology of desert fishes.  

      In January 2001, the MSB Division of Fishes moved to a newly renovated building across from the UNM Department of Biology, Castetter Hall. By the time the collections were moved, the numbers of jars of MSB fishes greatly exceeded the stationary shelving space available in the old basement facility (84.5 m2) of Castetter Hall. Approximately 30% of the catalogued lots of fishes were stored in boxes and plastic 8- and 15-gallon barrels. Collections were also stored at the Fisheries Resource Office (USFWS-FRO) in Albuquerque and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) in Santa Fe. All collections are integrated and stored on mobile shelving units (compactors) in a 473 m2 room maintained at 18 oC and dark when not in use. The move and associated curation of the collection was funded by an award from the National Science Foundation [NSF-BRC9987509 Improvements to the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB) Fish Collection, Phase I: Relocation and Reorganization (excerpts here)]

    Future research on the fishes in New Mexico will be linked more than ever to the issues of the dwindling water resources in the State. The collections and data will always serve to document the history of New Mexico’s water systems and availability of water for fishes and consequently, humans.

    For further information, see the following:

    1. Platania, S.P. 1997. The building of the University of New Mexico fish collection: case study of a small university collection. In Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, T.W. Pietsch and W.D. Anderson, Eds. ASIH (pdf)

    2. Platania, S.P. 1993. William J. Koster, 13 March 1910-22 Feb 1993. Copeia (3):925-27 (pdf)

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    Updated: 31 March 2008 / Trevor J. Krabbenhoft