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Natural History In the Lab

SUITLAND, Md., Aug. 4, 2016 – You’d be surprised at what a long-dead nematode can tell you. Not only does it relate the obvious information about its own physical characteristics, it also contains a record of the habitat in which it once lived.

“It’s like a window into the history of an environment,” said Maj. Ashleigh Smythe, assistant professor of biology. “For example, a polluted habitat will have a different species composition compared to a healthy habitat, with different nematodes found in differing abundances, so biological collections can give you that historical perspective.”

Brody Stofflet ’17 and Grant Morgan ’19 joined Smythe this summer to organize, stabilize, and preserve some of the vast collection of marine nematodes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Museum Support Center in Maryland – just a few miles outside Washington, D.C.

In their work, funded by the center’s Department of Invertebrate Biology, they faced the challenge of transferring thousands of specimens – along with the information associated with each specimen– from temporary storage desiccators to more appropriate permanent containers.

That process involved many hours of precise work at the microscope, removing each of the tiny nematodes from the desiccators and repackaging them in an alcohol and glycerin solution.

“It’s been interesting,” said Stofflet. “At times it can be a little tedious, but it’s nice to learn techniques that professionals in the field are using to take care of and preserve specimens like they do here at the Smithsonian.”

With the collection permanently preserved, scientists of the future will be able to compare their findings with specimens housed in the museum.

“I feel like a real citizen of society,” said Morgan. “I get to contribute to something where possibly one day someone will go back, look at these nematodes and make a great discovery.”

The free-living marine nematodes that the group is preserving represent the most diverse and abundant type of nematodes, and a strong collection, such as that housed at the Smithsonian, holds clues about how their habitats have changed over time.

“If you had good collections from particular habitats over time you could also look at the change in geographic distribution of a species,” said Smythe. “Maybe back in the 1800s it only was found this far north, but starting around 1900 we start to collect it at some localities further north.”

The collections of species housed in the museum also serve as a taxonomic authority, with slide-mounted specimens exemplifying the key characteristics of each species housed in the museum.

“It’s a really important repository for species descriptions, so anytime anyone describes a species, they need to deposit specimens in a museum that will be cared for long after they are gone,” said Smythe.

Future researchers can then compare what they think might be a new species with those housed at the museum to ensure the uniqueness of their species.

Smythe noted that without participation from cadets, much of the work accomplished this summer would have remained incomplete.

“I was originally going to do this work before I got my job at VMI and it was going to be a year solid with just me,” said Smythe. “There’s just not enough time during the summer, so I literally could not have done it without cadet helpers.”

Working with scientists and as a scientist over the summer has given Stofflet, who is considering graduate school, insight into possible career opportunities.

“This is definitely a big help,” said Stofflet. “Knowing that I’ll possibly be able to have the best of both worlds – working in the field and in the lab – is reassuring going into my final year at VMI.”

The experience impressed on Morgan the depth of knowledge that scientists have in their areas of expertise. Morgan and Stofflet met scientists working at the downtown Washington, D.C., Smithsonian facility, many of whom are leaders in their fields.

“There are so many people down there who know everything about any organism you could ever imagine,” said Morgan. “It’s interesting to see that if you pursue your studies beyond college and grad school, how much knowledge you can attain on what seems such a fine subject.”

– John Robertson IV


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