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Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates - About Us

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What can a salamander’s spots tell us about local pollution levels? Where are the best places to discover new species of fishes? Scientists use specimens in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates (CUMV) to find answers to these and many other questions. By studying vertebrates—animals with backbones such as fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals—researchers can provide valuable information about the health of an ecosystem or the evolutionary family tree of species. They can even trace roughly how many and where species existed across the span of continents, decades, and millennia. Each specimen has countless stories to tell, and much like a library, CUMV lends specimens to scientists who bring those stories to light.

Who uses the collection and why?

The museum is a tremendous resource for scientists, conservationists, students, and educators. Scientists may borrow specimens to study physical traits, such as the bones, feathers, and muscles that some birds called Manakins use to make courtship sounds with their wings. They can examine population-level patterns as well, like the effects that differences in altitude may have on the presence or absence of a certain species of frog.

Or they may take an even closer look, analyzing for example DNA or environmental contaminants deposited in the skin of animals. Some species that appear identical show vital differences at the genetic level—differences that help us to draw more accurate family trees. Tissues are very important in conservation efforts as well, as when heavy metal levels in recent fish samples can be compared to those in fish collected decades ago.

These specimens also provide many Cornell courses with concrete examples for lessons on anatomy, taxonomy, and evolutionary processes. Even artists illustrating field guides use specimens to help them perfect their representations of body proportions, or patterns and exact color hue of the animals. Finally, although CUMV is not open to the public, it does grant educational tours to local high school and college groups, and a few of its specimens are exhibited in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology visitor center, and the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY.

What specimens can be found in the museum, and where are they from?

The Museum of Vertebrates is organized into four groups of specimens: fishes (the Ichthyology Collection), amphibians and reptiles (the Herpetology Collection), birds (the Ornithology Collection), and mammals (the Mammalogy Collection). The museum’s North American holdings are strong across all classes of vertebrate, and Cornell faculty, staff, and students have collected thousands of specimens on research expeditions all over the world. All together, that makes 1.5 million specimens, including:

  • More than 50,000 bird specimens representing half of all known bird species, from skins and skeletons to eggs, nests, and frozen tissue samples
  • An astounding 1.2 million fish specimens in 90,000 jars, including an especially strong representation of North American and African freshwater fishes
  • Over 27,000 mammal specimens, hailing from every continent except Antarctica
  • A growing collection of 30,000 amphibian and reptile specimens from North America, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, and Africa

Who takes care of the collections?

The Museum of Vertebrates is administered by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Working with such a large collection is labor-intensive.  In addition to making sure that old specimens are properly conserved and safe from pests and other physical threats, the collections are continuously growing, and the museum staff responds to constant requests for loans and data. The university employs a full-time Collections Manager as well as two “Curators-in-Charge,” PhD-level scientists who spend half of their time managing the collections, and the other half conducting original research based on information in the collections. There are also several Faculty Curators, Cornell professors who specialize in a certain type of vertebrates and serve as liaisons between the Museum and the University. Finally, the museum benefits enormously from student and community volunteer help with tasks such as cataloguing, identifying fishes, and preparing new specimens of birds and mammals. To learn more, contact the museum at 


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Last modified 2014-04-09 13:59