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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is Biosystematics and why is it important?

A: Biosystematics is the scientific study of the diversity and history of life. It is the single-most unifying science of life, encompassing all biological parameters and employing the most modern, cutting-edge technologies. It is not subservient to any other discipline. While it is sometimes portrayed as the mere classification of organisms, in fact its range and challenge are among the greatest in biology. At the present time we do not even know, to the nearest order of magnitude, how many species there are in the world. Because of the largely unknown nature of biodiversity, biosystematics remains a fountainhead of discoveries and new ideas in biology. Biosystematics deserves more cultivation and the attention of our brightest minds. It is in a position to yield increasing returns to scale, with a variety of benefits for both science and society.

Q: What is ichthyology and why study it?

A: Ichthyology is the study of the biology of fishes in all its ramifications, including but not confined to the sub-disciplines of form, function, and development; taxonomy, systematics, and biodiversity; migration, geographic distribution, and zoogeography; behavior and ecology; habitat loss, commercial exploitation, and conservation. With well over 29,000 recognized species, fishes make up more than half of the world's 48,000 species of vertebrates.

Along with this remarkable taxonomic diversity comes an equally impressive habitat diversity. Today, and in the past, fishes have occupied all aquatic habitats, from lakes and polar oceans that are ice-covered throughout much of the year, to tropical swamps, temporary ponds, intertidal pools, the greatest of ocean depths, and all the more benign environments that lie within and between these various extremes. To live and thrive in such a variety of environments, fishes have undergone obvious and striking anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and ecological adaptations. Fishes thus provide excellent models for understanding all life's processes, exemplifying the intimate relationship between form and function, and between habitat and biological adaptation.

Striped Seaperch
Embiotoca lateralis, Striped Seaperch
R. Lauth

Q: What are natural history collections and why do we need them?

A: Natural history collections are repositories of the half-billion-year-old history of life on earth maintained on an archival basis. Well documented and computerized, they provide the essential tools for research in systematics. Without systematic research we can't hope to understand the natural world upon which we and all life are so dependent. The worldwide deterioration of natural environments is causing the extinction of species at a rate considered by many ecologists to be without precedent in the history of the Earth. Much of this destruction will continue, despite the pleas of environmentalists. Thus, it is essential, as never before, that programs to analyze organic diversity be strengthened, and that organisms be collected, identified, classified, and preserved. Systematic collections of today, properly maintained, documented, and conserved for long-term use, will be the jewels of scientific research in the 21st century and beyond. The more quickly we acknowledge and act on that, the more secure these treasures will be in serving the needs of science and society today and tomorrow.

Yellowtail Rockfish
Sebastes flavidus, Yellowtail Rockfish
R. Lauth

Q: What is the UW Fish Collection and why keep so many dead fishes?

A: The UW Fish Collection is one of the very few, and by far the largest, repository of ichthyological materials from the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. It provides the essential tools for systematic research on fishes in this part of the world, but more generally, it is used by researchers throughout the world, who either visit or request information or loans of material. They might be studying taxonomy, systematics, comparative anatomy, food habits, reproductive biology, distribution, ecology, conservation, art, archaeology, or any one of a variety of other subjects. Many dozens of telephone calls and emails are received each year requesting data from preserved specimens, identification of material, or advice and information on any ichthyological matter. Enquiries are received from scientists, students, members of the general public, local authorities, public health officers, law enforcement agencies, anthropologists, archaeologists, seafood companies, restaurant owners, artists, and many others. The Fish Collection functions like a reference library that allows us to respond intelligently to these queries.

Q: How does the UW Fish Collection compare to other similar collections?

A: Based on a survey of North American fish collections, conducted by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (see S. G. Poss and B. B. Collette, 1995, "Second survey of fish collections in the United States and Canada," Copeia, 1995(1): 48-70), the UW collection is ranked 20th among 118 North American ichthyological resource centers and 5th among all regional ichthyological resource centers in North America. We are listed 12th among all ranked collections in species diversity, 9th in federal support dollars received for collection upgrade and maintenance, 5th among all ranked collections in exchange activity, and 3rd in holdings of early life history stages (roughly tied with the American Museum of Natural History in New York). We are awaiting the results of a similar survey conducted in 2006.

Q: What educational opportunities are provided by the UW Fish Collection?

A: Tied closely with research functions, the UW Fish Collection is the primary basis for graduate and undergraduate education in ichthyology and fisheries biology at the UW and, for that matter, in the whole of the Pacific Northwest. Enrolled in formal courses, such as "Marine Biology," "Biology of Fishes," and "Systematics, Zoogeography, and Evolution of Fishes," thousands of students have used the resources of the Fish Collection in the last 30 years as part of their degree programs. Informal mentoring of undergraduates is provided as well--at any one time, there are as many as four undergraduates in the Collection, either working or conducting research under the supervision of the Curator, the Fish Collection Manager, or a graduate student in ichthyology.

At the graduate level, the Fish Collection provides the basis for Master's and Doctoral research of all kinds, from dietary studies of a single species of freshwater sculpin confined to a single watershed in Washington State to world-wide phylogenetic studies on deep-sea beryciform fishes. In the past 30 years, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences has granted 37 graduate degrees for collection-based research in ichthyology, 26 Master's degrees and 11 Doctoral degrees.

The Fish Collection also serves as the basis for an active and popular School Outreach Program. Tours are provided year round for students in grades 3-12. Tours can also be arranged for members of the general public. Contact the Collection Manager to schedule a tour.


Q: Why should I support the UW Fish Collection?

A: The UW Fish Collection provides the essential tools for education and research in biodiversity and conservation of freshwater and marine fishes of the Pacific Northwest. Thus, sharing in the long-term maintenance and support of the collection must and should be a primary goal of the local and regional community. Proper maintenance of a large natural history collection such as ours is expensive. The University does its best to provide adequate financial support, but the salaries of student helpers and the cost of supplies (such as alcohol, glassware, and label paper) more than absorb our annual budget. To continue to serve the scientific research community and, at the same time, provide opportunities for students and to the community at large, we depend on your donations. Whether a small amount to help defray the cost of supplies or something larger that would allow a student to complete his or her research, any donation would be used well and be greatly appreciated.

Copper Rockfish
Sebastes caurinus, Copper Rockfish
R. Lauth