Research Magazine 2006

Reptilian research

Center houses more than 100,000 specimens for study

Texas Horned Lizard specimen
The endangered Texas Horned Lizard.

Try to find the official state reptile—the Texas Horned Lizard—in a park or field in your North Texas neighborhood, and you may be out of luck.

Once abundant, the creature commonly called the “horny toad” is now practically extinct from Dallas and Tarrant counties and many other parts of Texas. Habitat loss to shopping centers, housing developments and office space has taken its toll.   

“If you wanted to learn about horny toads from Tarrant County, we have three jars worth of knowledge. That’s it,” said Carl Franklin, biological curator and collections manager for UT Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. “That’s why collections like this are paramount for conservation.”

The center was established in 1956 by Professor William Pyburn and the Department of Biology as a teaching resource to support classroom and field instruction. It has grown into an internationally recognized research facility, housing 60,000 amphibians and 55,000 reptiles, including the world’s largest assemblage of reptiles and amphibians from Guatemala.

“On average, specimens from the collection are used for a scientific journal publication once every week,” said Jonathan Campbell, the center’s director, who, along with his students, has brought back significant species from Texas, Bolivia, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, Honduras and Mexico.

Serving the needs of UT Arlington faculty and students as well as national and international scholars, the center contains more than 150 type specimens—individuals designated as the scientific name bearer in the original description. It is also home to an extensive cartographic collection and one of the country’s largest herpetological reprint collections. 

Unlike a typical public display museum, these specimens are stored in jars of ethanol and kept in cool, dark spaces. The collection varies from salamanders and venomous snakes, to tadpoles, to King Cobras and Mediterranean geckos (which you might find living on your patio), to a new species of Glass Frog. The center is also home to a Komodo Dragon, courtesy of the San Diego Zoo. 

Every specimen is arranged taxonomically, by order or by family, then from family to genus and species, then to country and state (or department or province). Before the specimen is cataloged, a sample of its muscle or liver tissue may be extracted and placed in a “super freezer,” set at 80 degrees below centigrade.  

“This is a newer aspect of the collection that we are building rapidly,” Dr. Campbell said. “It will help provide material for DNA research for decades to come. We’re collecting far more than we can ever personally use.”

In an effort to share the center’s findings, specimens are often loaned to scholars and researchers around the globe.

“Think of it as an organic library,” added Franklin, who says this library even contains roadkill. “After all, they are a valid voucher for an organism from a given locality.”

— Susan M. Slupecki