MAVERICK SCIENCE
  The University of Texas at Arlington College of Science Fall 2011  
The collection contains specimens of every hue, such as this brightly colored South American phyllomedusine frog.
 
Exponential growth
     The center grew from modest origins in the 1950s. William F. Pyburn, a noted herpetologist, joined the UT Arlington biology faculty in 1956 and began collecting vertebrate specimens during field trips to Mexico to assist his students in the classroom when unfamiliar aspects of animal anatomy or natural history were being discussed. A variety of mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian specimens were acquired in the ensuing years, and the UT Arlington Collection of Vertebrates also began to serve as a repository for specimens collected from field expeditions, with increasing numbers of reptiles and amphibians.
     "Pyburn traveled to many exotic locations, including the jungles of Mexico and Colombia, and collected some very significant specimens," Campbell said. "Originally, he used them as a teaching tool for his undergraduate students, as we didn't have a master's program yet. It morphed into a research tool in the 1960s as they added more and more specimens."
     The collection continued to grow from contributions made by Pyburn and others. When the Life Sciences Building opened in 1970, the collection was housed in the basement, eventually filling many rooms.
     When Pyburn retired in 1982, there were around 8,000 specimens in the collection. A decade later, the number had climbed to around 30,000. The collection continued to grow at a rapid rate, and by 2000, it included over 80,000 specimens. Its reputation also grew, as researchers from around the country and overseas made ever-increasing numbers of requests for specimens to use in their studies. The sheer size of the collection became an issue, as it outgrew the Life Sciences basement. Another issue was the amount of alcohol – a highly flammable substance – needed for preservation of the specimens. It was decided that moving the collection was the best solution.
Jonathan Campbell holds a Central American Jumping Viper in the basement of the Life Sciences Building, circa 1984. The collection was housed there for years but was moved to a new facility in 2004.
William Pyburn began collecting specimens in the 1950s as a teaching tool for his students. The collection began to grow at a rapid rate in the 1970s and is now an invaluable research tool.

     "We do use ethanol to preserve the samples, so there's probably about the same amount of alcohol there as you'd find in a large liquor store," Campbell said. "Robert Witt, who was president of UTA at that time, really took it on as
a project and worked with the folks in Austin to get funding and get a new facility built." The new building was dedicated in 2004.
     In addition to the specimens, the center has a large collection of rare books and texts from prominent herpetologists and a vast number of copies of journals
and published papers relating to herpetological research. Among the holdings is the library of the late Howard Gloyd, a noted American herpetologist. The number of published works containing research utilizing items from the center is growing at a steady rate every year.
     "Every 7.2 days, on average, a peer reviewed publication comes out that utilizes specimens from our collection," Franklin said.


Field work: Bringing it all back home
     The center is filled with samples of species collected during field trips by researchers and students from UT Arlington, as well as a small number of donations.
The specimens come from all over the world, including Mexico, Central and South America, India, Cameroon, Australia and China, among other countries.
The center's South American collection is particularly noteworthy.
     The research trips are far from luxury vacations; they're often to remote
outposts which take days to reach by plane, car, boat or foot — sometimes by
all of the above. Some of the places the researchers go to hunt for and collect
their samples are in countries with unstable governments or where guerilla warfare
is taking place, and the researchers know their personal safety can never
be fully guaranteed.
     Campbell, while not dismissing the dangers, says they are minimal. While
he says he has been detained by guerrillas and had a brand new vehicle stolen,
he notes that, "We've never lost anybody in all the years we've been doing this,
and we don't intend to. Sometimes just getting to some of these very remote
places is the dangerous part."
     The threat of being bitten by a venomous snake or other critters is everpresent
but minimal for those as used to dealing with reptiles as Campbell and
his fellow researchers. Campbell himself has only been bitten once in his life by
a poisonous snake, and that was in 1973 by a fer-de-lance, a South American pit
viper. That was while transporting it at a zoo in Texas, not in the field. He spent
11 days in intensive care because he was allergic to the antivenin used at the
time. He figures he's been bitten hundreds of times by non-venomous snakes.
     "It pretty much comes with the territory," he jokes.
     Another aspect which often isn't easy for researchers is dealing with the
legal red tape in many countries when it comes to taking samples back with
them. This can, in fact, be the most difficult part of some trips, with detailed
permits required to enter a country, search for specimens, and leave the country
with the specimens.
     "Some of the regulations are very restrictive," Franklin said. "Another thing
we have to contend with is that reptiles and amphibians are big targets of the
exotic pet industry, and of the food industry in some countries. There's lots of
smuggling that goes on. In many of these places, the reptile-amphibian smuggling
trade is the second-most lucrative thing there after the drug trade."
     UT Arlington researchers discover around 10-15 new species of reptiles and
amphibians during field trips every year. In 2007, Smith took a group of students
from UT Arlington and two universities in Mexico into the mountains of the Sierra
Madre del Sur in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Smith was driving in a remote
mid-elevation pine-oak forest with his students and his black Labrador, Chester,
when they saw a small rattlesnake crossing the road.
     "One of my students collected the snake and after careful examination
some days later, we knew it was peculiar," Smith said.
     Upon returning to Arlington, Smith presented the snake to Campbell, who
compared it to other snakes in the same genus and group. Along with a colleague
from Mexico, Oscar Flores-Villela, they decided to describe it as a new species.
     In recent years, advances in genomics and DNA research have made the
work of identifying new species easier, but the job is still a painstaking one. In
order for any new species to be recognized, an article must be written, describing
in painstaking detail what makes the new species different from all others,
including distinguishing characteristics, markings, measurements, habitat and
any other details, which are often discernible only to other herpetologists. The
article must be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal and pass scrutiny
before it is published.
     The snake Smith discovered is now recognized as a new species, and bears
the name Crotalus ericsmithi. The specimen he collected is the holotype for
the species. A holotype is a single specimen designated as the type specimen
for naming a species or subspecies. The Amphibian and Reptile Research Diversity
Center has numerous unique holotype specimens in its collection, which is
one of the reasons the collection is so valuable.


'Like an art museum'
     The center, in addition to providing an invaluable research resource for the
study of reptiles and amphibians, also serves another important function: that
of a storehouse of the biological record, which is being lost at an often alarming
rate.
     "It's a bummer that diversity is being lost. Less and less of nature is available
to people," Franklin said. "Kids nowadays don't connect with nature; many
have never even been out in a real natural environment. This place is important because we're preserving things that in lots of cases will never be seen
again."
     Campbell says the center is an invaluable resource which could never be duplicated today.
     "There's no way you could start something like this from scratch today; it'd be way too difficult," he said. "The center is like an art museum, in that
the materials in it will only continue to accrue value over the years. We try to be good stewards of the specimens so they will be here for future generations
to see and study. We've got something really valuable here, and we want to do everything we can to preserve it so future generations can continue learning
from it.