Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington
Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Ichthyology at the Burke Museum

The Burke Museum Ichthyology Collection maintains a large archival collection of more than 12 million preserved fish specimens from around the world, but primarily from the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea and from freshwater habitats of the Pacific Northwest.

Our primary mission is to promote teaching and research in the areas of ichthyology, fisheries biology, aquatic biology, biodiversity and conservation, and to provide a source of ichthyological information for the public. While we maintain a large and diverse collection of ichthyological materials primarily for research, we also make material readily available to visitors to the collection and through a program of gifts, loans and exchanges.

The Ichthyology Collection, its staff, students and resources play an important role in undergraduate and graduate education across campus, more specifically within the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Beyond the University of Washington campus, our school outreach program is very popular. We also provide a variety of tours for other interested parties, and field many inquiries from the press and public concerning mysterious fishes and other ichthyological matters.

Search the Collections

We are committed to providing open access to the biodiversity data we manage and roughly 98% of the Ichthyology Collection is cataloged, databased and available to search via our databases.

Ichthyology Database

Otolith Database

Collection Highlights

The Burke’s Ichthyology Collection includes more than 11 million specimens, including adults, juveniles, larvae, eggs, skeletons, tissues, otoliths and scales. It is by far the largest, and one of the very few, repositories of ichthyological materials from the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Some of the notable highlights include:

— By far the largest fish collection in North America (by number of specimens)
— Only fish collection of any size in Washington state
— One of the largest, if not the largest, collections of fish eggs and larvae in the world
— One of the largest, if not the largest, collections of fish otoliths in the world

There are approximately 400,000 specimens in 55,000 lots, representing some 4,100 species in 1,390 genera and 330 families. About 15% of the lots are freshwater fishes, mainly from the states of Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

The remaining 85% are marine fishes collected primarily from the eastern North Pacific, the Aleutian Islands to Baja California, the western tropical Pacific, Christmas Island to Guam and the Philippines.

The collection also includes smaller numbers of lots from many other locations around the world. All specimens are stored in glass jars or stainless steel tanks containing 70% ethanol.

The early life history (ELH) collection continues to grow rapidly. There are approximately 115,000 lots, representing 53 families, 130 genera, and 181 species, including 35 identified only to "type.” Most lots were taken in the eastern North Pacific Ocean, primarily from the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the U.S. Pacific Northwest Coast.

Approximately 90% of the lots were collected from 1965 through 2006 by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service, with additional material transferred to us annually. Significant material has also come to us from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Vancouver Public Aquarium. The habitats represented range from the nearshore intertidal zone to offshore oceanic waters.

The eggs are stored in glass vials of 3% buffered formalin. Specimens of different species taken together in a haul are frequently stored in the same vial, so the egg collection is arranged by year, cruise, station, haul, etc. The larvae are stored in 70% ethanol. All species from a haul are stored in separate vials and the collection is arranged phylogenetically. The entire ELH collection is housed in cardboard trays and wooden drawers within air-tight, light-proof cabinets.

Approximately 9,000 tissue samples in 5,800 lots, representing 815 species, are available to researchers. This collection is rapidly growing as we encourage more routine tissue sampling in the field.

Tissues are initially preserved in 95% ethanol before being placed in our -86 C freezer for long-term storage. Almost all tissue samples have voucher specimens deposited in the collection. This ensures that identifications can be confirmed when contradictory molecular results occur.

In 2012, a National Science Foundation grant allowed for the transfer and integration of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) Otolith Collection.

This collection is comprised of roughly 2.4 million pairs of fish otoliths, representing 83 species in 41 genera and 17 families, collected by AFSC personnel over the past 40 years in conjunction with North Pacific Groundfish Observer programs and annual shelf and slope surveys along the West Coast of the U.S., from California to Alaska, and from the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Pacific sector of the Arctic Ocean.

Requests to borrow otoliths are welcome. All loan requests will be reviewed with AFSC personnel.

The Skeleton Collection contains approximately 950 lots, representing 150 species in 50 families. Many are disarticulated specimens in boxes, but there is a large collection of Columbia River fish skeletons displayed partially embedded in clay in petri dishes. This preparation allows for easy comparisons of bone shape and size between species.

The Skeleton Collection continues to grow. Most of it has been donated by local archaeologists wanting to make their reference collections available to the public. The prepared specimens are the result of an avian predation study on the Columbia River that allowed SAFS researchers to identify the species of fishes present in bird stomachs.

Approximately 350 lots, representing 210 species in 63 families, are stored in full strength glycerin and maintained separately from the main collection.

These skeletal preparations are augmented by an extensive library of X-rays of North Pacific fishes. Begun in 1981, this library now includes some 765 X-rays, including representatives of 135 species in 66 families.

This is a unique historical collection of salmon scales (resulting from the UW High-Seas Salmon Program) containing some 800,000 samples taken from six species of anadromous salmonids from across the North Pacific Ocean over a 55 year period. Both original scale cards and acetate impressions are available.

two women inside a submersible porthole window
Photo: Luke Tornabene/Burke Museum
Photo: Luke Tornabene/Burke Museum

Our Research

Our research, led by Burke Museum Curator of Fishes Luke Tornabene, focuses on the systematics and evolution of bony fishes. This includes the discovery and formal description of new biodiversity, exploring the phylogenetic relationships between groups of fishes, and understanding how genotype, phenotype and ecology work in concert to produce the amazing diversity we observe in the aquatic world around us.  

New and emerging projects in our lab will look to take advantage of the UW Fish Collection's world-class archive of otoliths, eggs, and larvae of fishes of the North Pacific to address relevant questions in systematics, conservation, and fisheries management.

Tornabene Lab

Recent Research Videos

a woman gives a tour of the fish collection to a group of middle school campers
Photo: Burke Museum
Photo: Burke Museum

Visit the Collection

The Ichthyology Collection offers a variety of tours to the public, university community and schools.

a woman looks into a microscope
Photo: Burke Museum
Photo: Burke Museum

UW Courses & Research

The Ichthyology Collection is the primary basis for graduate and undergraduate education in ichthyology and fisheries biology at the UW.

Questions & Answers

We’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions we receive in the Ichthyology Collection. Have another question that you need help with? Contact us.

Our loan policy makes any and all parts of the collection available to qualified investigators and their students in the U.S. and abroad. We lend, donate and exchange material freely. Each request, however, is reviewed to determine if the potential borrower is likely to take proper care of the material and if the material itself is in a condition to withstand shipment. We do not loan more than half of our holdings of a species at one time, so researchers may have to arrange sequential loans.

Loans are invoiced with catalog numbers, species names, locality data and period of the loan (one year with the option to then extend the loan period). The costs of processing and shipping specimens on loan are covered by the Ichthyology Collection, with the expectation that loans will be returned at the borrower's expense.

Individuals interested in obtaining specimens on loan should first search our databases to identify potentially interesting lots, and should then contact the Collections Manager for additional information and/or to request a loan or complete the Specimen Loan Request Form. For more information, please contact us.

Researchers are welcome to visit the collection. We have bench space and dissecting microscopes available for use. Note that the Ichthyology Collection is not physically located at the Burke Museum but is a short distance south of the museum

Please contact us if you have questions or would like to schedule a visit.

Yes, the Ichthyology Collection offers a variety of tours to the public and university community. We can tailor the length and content of a tour to accommodate most interests and age groups. Arrangements should be made at least two weeks in advance; 1-2 months in advance for school groups.

Tours & School Outreach

Members of the public, as well as researchers not trained in the taxonomy of fishes, often encounter interesting fish specimens that they are not able to identify. Such specimens may be collected on fishing trips, found dead on the beach, or taken by other means. 

Some recent examples include a putative Piranha (it wasn't!) collected in a local lake, a Pacific Barracuda (Sphyraena argentea) caught on hook and line in the Duwamish River near downtown Seattle, an Opah (Lampris guttatus) found dead on the beach, and a large (3-m) Sixgill Shark (Hexanchus griseus) found floating in Puget Sound and towed home by a kayaker!

Identification options. If you encounter an interesting or unusual fish that you wish to have identified, you may submit a photo of it in our contact us form and/or bring it to the Ichthyology Collection

If you would like to bring a specimen to the Ichthyology Collection, please contact us first. If possible, you should freeze or preserve the specimen (see "Methods of Preserving Fishes") to keep it from rotting until you are able to bring it to the collection. Please contact us for more information.

Our acquisition policy centers on the cold-water, marine ichthyofauna (juveniles and adults, as well as early life history stages) of the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Pacific sector of the Arctic Ocean. With this as our primary mandate, we are unique among ichthyological collections in the U.S. We also provide a repository for freshwater fishes of the Pacific Northwest.

Under no circumstances will the Burke Museum or the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences accept specimens that were illegally collected or acquired by the donor.

Individuals who wish to donate specimens, but are unfamiliar with standard practices, should consult Methods of Preserving Fishes and contact us.

We encourage exchanges of specimens with other institutions and often make gifts of well-represented species to local schools and other organizations. Please contact us for more information.

We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers! Visit our Volunteer page for more information about Burke Museum volunteer opportunities and to view current openings.

Our Team & Contact

Meet the people within the Burke Museum Ichthyology team.

Our Team

Have a general question?

Contact Us

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
two women peer out of a porthole on a submersible underwater

Support Ichthyology

Your gift makes it possible! We couldn't do what we do without generous donor support for collections care, research and public outreach. 

Photo: Luke Tornabene/Burke Museum
Photo: Luke Tornabene/Burke Museum