University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

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History of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology


The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) is the center for the study of animal diversity on campus, focusing on the evolutionary origins of the planet’s animal species, the genetic information they contain and the communities and ecosystems they help form. Now an integral part of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), the UMMZ houses world-class collections that span almost 200 years of regional and global biodiversity studies and that support a multi-faceted Departmental research and teaching program. The following is a brief history compiled from available records and from discussions with senior Curators, including Emeriti.

Beginnings 1837-1913

The UMMZ’s collections date to the foundation of the state of Michigan. During the 1837 initial session of the Michigan legislature, a State Geological Survey was authorized, designed to include information not only about the geological features of the region, but also an inventory of its flora, fauna, and fossils. To house the inventoried specimens, the establishment of a Cabinet of Natural History in the University of Michigan (UM) was authorized. The university had been founded in Detroit in 1817, but moved to Ann Arbor in 1837.

Dr. Abram Sager headed the Botanical and Zoological Departments of the State Geological Survey and in 1839 he authored a segment of the 2nd Geological Survey report entitled: A Systematic Catalogue of the Animals of the State, so far as Observed listing the various species of animals encountered, especially birds. Sager’s specimens formed the initial nucleus of the UMMZ’s collections and the museum retains 22 of his birds specimens, many of them in good condition, e.g., see the Buteo lagopos (Rough-Legged Hawk) specimen and associated label in Fig. 1.

In 1837, when the UM was in the process of relocating to Ann Arbor, Asa Gray was appointed Professor of Botany and Zoology. He was initially engaged in a book-buying tour of Europe for the future University Library and spent relatively little time in Ann Arbor prior to resigning to take a position at Harvard in 1842, where he enjoyed a distinguished botanical career, including active collaboration with Charles Darwin. Dr. Abram Sager was appointed as Gray’s replacement (Professor of Zoology and Botany) in 1842 and continued in this role until transferring to the newly organized UM Medical Department in 1850.

From the very beginning, the natural history cabinet specimens, located in Mason Hall, played a central instructional role on the Ann Arbor campus. The first classes in Zoology consisted of lectures supplemented with demonstrations of cabinet specimens, many collected by Sager himself. A taxidermist was hired, on a piecework basis, to take care of the specimens and by 1850 the cabinet consisted of up to 5,000 Michigan geological, zoological and botanical specimens. In 1855, Alexander Winchell was appointed Professor of Geology, Zoology, and Botany and he led an expansion of the scope of the zoological curriculum and of the associated teaching collection, extending it well beyond the Michigan fauna, e.g., the acquisition of the Trowbridge Collection of Pacific Coast species from the Smithsonian Institution in 1858. Transforming the ‘cabinet” into the Museum of Natural History, Winchell hired Carl Rominger, M.D., as Assistant Curator, paleontologist and taxidermist in 1863. By 1867, the zoological collection had up to 16,000 specimens. Winchell resigned in 1873 and had two short-term replacements in Eugene Hilgard (1873-75) and Mark Harrington (1875-76).

Figure 2. Joseph Beal Steere, seated front-center, with his team of collectors. (Image courtesy of U-M's Bentley Historical Library)

Prior to the 1870s, the natural history collections at the University of Michigan were primarily national in scope. This changed dramatically when the University hired Joseph Beal Steere to lead a 5-year circumglobal expedition (1870-1875) to collect materials in the natural and human sciences for the Museum. Upon his return, Steere was appointed Assistant Professor of Paleontology and Curator of the Museum in 1876, serving in the latter capacity until 1894. The Steere Zoological Collection alone totaled 60,000 specimens, including 25,000 insects, 1,500 mollusks and 8,000 birds. Steere was particularly interested in birds and made historically important collections in the Amazon, Peru, Malaysia, Taiwan, Celebes, and the Philippines. He was the first naturalist to collect in many of these places, especially the Philippines, and his bird collections contained more than 50 species new to science.

The flood of new collection material resulted in a severe space crunch that led to many collection specimens being housed in less than ideal locations such as attics. This was recognized as a major issue by the UM administration: the 1878 President’s report noted the unacceptable fire risk posed to “our rare and extensive scientific collections”. It spurred the funding and construction of a new purpose-built University Museum Building (Fig. 3) in 1879-80. The natural history collections migrated to their new home in the fall of 1880.

In 1879, Zoology was separated from both botany and paleontology, Steere becoming a Professor of Zoology and Curator of the Museum. Coincident with the museum building construction, the Board of Regents approved a new set of operating rules stating that professors in charge of instruction in the various fields of natural history be “the curators of the corresponding collections in the Museum of Natural History”. One long-term problem with this decentralized arrangement was the uneven development of the collections, reflecting the individual interests of faculty, the Zoological collections outpacing the others in growth. Jacob Reighard joined the faculty in 1886 and instruction in Zoology was partitioned into General Zoology, taught by Steere, and Animal Morphology given by Reighard. This was followed by the formal redesignation of Steere as Professor of Systematic Zoology and Reighard as Professor of Animal Morphology. Steere resigned in 1894, and Jacob Reighard was appointed Professor of Zoology and Director of the Zoological Laboratory and Museum.

Reighard continued as head of the Department of Zoology until 1925. During this time, the biological sciences faculty at the UM underwent major expansion and differentiation, associated in part with 1913 vote of the state legislature funding the construction of the present Natural Science Building (Kraus). In 1915, the Zoology Department moved into the new building where it occupied approximately one-fourth of the space. A large number of new zoology faculty were recruited, spanning many emerging fields of research and teaching, including evolution, ecology, genetics, physiology and development. This recruiting pulse also impacted the Museum in the form of three hires: Herbert Sargent (1898), Charles C. Adams (1903) who was recruited to be Curator in charge of the Museum by Reighard, and Alexander G. Ruthven (1906). These museum positions initially lacked teaching duties, but Adams and Ruthven sought and obtained instructorship in the Department and both individuals were instrumental in thedevelopment and flourishing of the future UMMZ.

C.C. Adams

C.C. Adams was a pioneering natural historian and field ecologist who initiated a series of extensive faunal and ecological surveys of the state that emphasized the importance of large sample sizes and detailed field data to addressing scientific questions. Ruthven was Adam’s Ph.D. student and became deeply interested in ecology and geographic distribution and adaptation, particularly of reptiles. In 1906, upon his graduation, Ruthven became Adam’s successor as Curator of the University Museum, a position of leadership he held for 23 years.

1913-1956 Independence, Relocation & Development


Alexander Ruthven

To Ruthven, museum collections and data were one of the essential tools for understanding evolution as well as for constructing meaningful systematic relationships and taxonomies. A visionary scientist and administrator, he was of the opinion that museums should push in new directions to reflect changes in biological disciplines. He was given that opportunity in 1913 when the disproportionate growth of the zoological collections prompted the Regents to formally recognize the Museum of Zoology as a separate administration with Ruthven as Director. From 1913-1956, the UMMZ reported to either the Board of Regents or the President of the University through its director or a museums operating committee.

In addition to Ruthven, the full time scientific staff of the newly recognized UMMZ included A. Wood, Curator of Birds, Crystal Thompson, Scientific Assistant in Charge of Fish and Invertebrates, and Helen Thompson, Scientific Assistant in Charge of Amphibians and Reptiles. Over the next 8 years, Ruthven supervised the complete transformation of the museum. The Section of Botany was transferred to the newly formed University Herbarium and a dynamic and far-reaching recruitment process formed the UMMZ into six major divisions, each with at least one full-time curator: Mammals (Lee Dice), Birds (A. Wood), Reptiles and Amphibians (Ruthven, Helen Gaige), Fishes (Carl Hubbs), Insects (Frederick Gaige) and Mollusks (Mina Winslow). From a modern perspective, it is notable that >100 years ago two of the seven UMMZ curators were female.

Ruthven was also highly adept at outreach and under his leadership the Museum of Zoology attracted a large and active group of influential amateur naturalists. Informally known as the Detroit Naturalists Club grouping, they participated in multiple aspects of the Museum program. Some members, such as Bryant Walker, E. B. Williamson, and William W. Newcomb, became nationally recognized authorities for specific taxonomic groups as well as honorary curators of the museum. A number were significant benefactors of the Museum of Zoology, supporting the establishment of the UMMZ publications series (Occasional Papers & Miscellaneous Publications), financing numerous national (especially regional) and international (especially Neotropical) expeditions, and purchasing or donating important collections (e.g., B. Walker’s donation of his 100,000-lot private mollusk collection and 1,500-volume library). Indeed, a number of the UMMZ’s most important extant endowments (e.g., the Ammermann, Fargo and Swales funds) stem from the generosity of long departed Detroit Naturalists Club members.

Old museum building, 1918

Construction on the new museum building, 1926

The museum as it appears today

The net effect of all this new activity was rapid expansion of the UMMZ’s collections and of the program’s academic output. The intensive investigation of Michigan's fauna initiated under C.C. Adams continued with more emphasis on ecological relationships and biogeography. Targeted field expeditions were mounted all across the U.S. as well as into South America, Central America and Mexico. By 1920, the old Museum Building was outgrown and an overflow into the Natural Science Building (for fishes, Hubbs was a very prolific collector), the Old Medical Building and a succession of frame houses acquired by the University. In 1925, the legislature appropriated funds for a University Museums Building. It was designed by the famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn, but Ruthven was centrally involved in the planning process. Finished in 1928 (Fig. 5), the new building was an innovative and exemplary early 20th century research university museum complex. It included space for the University Herbarium, the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Paleontology, and a Section of Exhibits, as well as for the Museum of Zoology.

Frederick Gaige

Carl L. Hubbs

The new building brought administrative changes: Ruthven was appointed to the newly created post of Director of University Museums and Frederick Gaige was made Assistant Director of the Museum of Zoology. Ruthven’s appointment was short lived, being recruited in 1929 to the presidency of the University with Gaige becoming Director, a position he held until 1945. Another important development from this time period was the gifting of the Edwin S. George Reserve to the University in 1930. Situated just 25km from Ann Arbor, this tractable venue for ecological research and teaching was placed under UMMZ administration (see Appendix I on p. 17-18 for a brief ESGR history).

Although Gaige’s directorship coincided with the Great Depression and World War II, the UMMZ’s collections and academic program continued its growth and development, with a high-quality training program that in many cases produced the next generation of curators both at the UMMZ itself and at peer museums across the country. Hubbs, in particular, proved to be a research and curatorial dynamo. He was interested in systematics, zoogeography, development and the importance of hybridization in fish evolution. By the time he left the UMMZ in 1944, it had become the leading ichthyological center in North America, training >40 Ph.D.s and growing the collection from 5,000 to almost 2,100,000 specimens. Hubbs was succeeded by his former student Reeve Bailey (in 1944). Josselyn Van Tyne was appointed Curator of Birds in 1931 and initiated an era of tremendous growth both in the collections and in ornithology program. He and his students concentrated on life history and anatomical studies of birds and he negotiated the acquisition of major private collections and the establishment of an outstanding ornithological library. In the Mammal Division, Lee Dice specialized in mammalian genetics but in 1934 became Director of the Laboratory of Vertebrate Genetics, relinquishing his curatorship in 1938. William Burt, a behavioral ecologist, became Curator of Mammals in 1938 and was joined that year by Assistant Curator Emmett Hooper, a specialist in Mexican mammal diversity. Once Ruthven became President, Helen Gaige assumed effective day-to-day responsibility for the Division of Herpetology. The UMMZ research and training program in reptiles and amphibians had become highly regarded, attracting many leading students including some who would subsequently be recruited as Divisional curators, e.g., Norman Hartweg in 1934 and Charles Walker in 1947. Mina Winslow was Curator of Mollusks and engaged in regional and international (including South Africa) collecting trips prior to her resignation in 1929. She was replaced by one of the honorary mollusk curators, Calvin Goodrich, a specialist in North American pleurocerid snails who sampled extensively in southern U.S. drainages prior to their 1930’s industrialization. In 1934, UMMZ graduate Henry van der Schalie was made Assistant Curator, becoming Curator upon Goodrich's retirement in 1944. Van der Schalie established a prominent research and teaching program in snail-borne diseases and in mollusk biodiversity. Frederick Gaige’s research specialization concerned Neotropical ants, but his research output was impacted by Directorial demands. Insect Division functioning was significantly enhanced during this period by the activities of multiple honorary curators who took on responsibility for major insect groups and added significantly to the collection. Two of these honorary curators, J. Speed Rodgers (Diptera) and T.H. Hubbell (Orthoptera), were UMMZ graduates who had obtained positions at the University of Florida.

At the cessation of World War II, the UMMZ experienced an abrupt and significant loss of personnel. Frederick Gaige retired from the Directorship and from his Curatorship of Insects and his spouse Helen Gage retired from her Curatorship of Herpetology. These two individuals had played very significant roles in the UMMZ program for many years and their loss was keenly felt. The UMMZ turned toward its former students to fill these and other gaps. J. Speed Rogers was appointed Museum Director and T.H. Hubbell as the Curator of Insects. This pattern of predominantly hiring former UMMZ students continued during the ten years of Rodgers’ Directorship, e.g., Charles Walker as Curator of Herpetology in 1947 and Robert Miller as Curator of Fishes in 1948. Exceptions were the hiring in 1947 of William Gosline, an ichthyologist from Stanford University, and of Robert Storer in 1948, an ornithologist from U.C. Berkeley. During this time, the UMMZ collections continued to grow significantly in scope, as did the graduate training program.

1956-2011 No longer an Island

T.H. Hubbell

Rodgers died unexpectedly in 1955 and was succeeded in the UMMZ Directorship by T.H. Hubbell, who served in this role until his retirement in 1968. The Hubbell Directorship involved very significant UMMZ reorganization and development. Teaching and research programs were broadened, ties with the zoology department were strengthened, systematic biology came to prominence in the curriculum, and a research wing was added to the museum with monies from the National Science Foundation.

A long-standing issue faced by the UMMZ and its sister museums concerned teaching participation. Since 1928, these were essentially ad-hoc voluntary associations with salient teaching departments (the Zoology Department in the case of the UMMZ). In practice, teaching participation varied widely among the museums and even among individual curators with specific museums. To regularize this situation, the UMMZ, was redesignated as a department of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, i.e., reporting to the Dean of LSA, not to the UM President or Regents. UMMZ curators, in addition to retaining their research and curatorial functions in the Museum, entered into a greatly expanded role in the undergraduate and graduate teaching program. Starting at this time, half of the academic-year (9-month) appointments of the curators, evaluations of teaching effort, and (most saliently) the designation of tenure were transferred to the Department of Zoology. Partial independence of the UMMZ was maintained by the retention of and 0.5 positions as well as a separate budget and director. However, the long-term fate and direction of the UMMZ was now inextricably tied to its academic Department.

Five new curatorial appointments, including 2 future Directors, were made during Hubbell’s leadership. Their collective addition greatly expanded the types of research questions and approaches used within the UMMZ as well as renewing the teaching and training aspects of the program. They included Insect Curator Thomas Moore (in 1956), a specialist in cicadas, and Bird Curator and former UMMZ student Harrison Tordoff (in 1957). Tordoff studied Fringillidae systematics and crossbill genetics but left in 1970 to join the Bell Museum at the Univesity of Minnesota. Richard Alexander was recruited as Curator of Insects in 1957 and has had a stellar academic career at the UMMZ, receiving numerous prestigious awards including a Daniel Giraud Eliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1971 and being elected to that body in 1974. Alexander has very broad interests in animal behavior and evolution. His early insect research focused on acoustic communication, speciation and life history evolution. His later work addressed many central areas in evolutionary biology and attracted numerous graduate students, many of whom went on to have very successful scientific careers. In 1963, UMMZ graduate John B. Burch was appointed Curator of Mollusks. He developed an international research program on non-marine gastropods with an emphasis on species of medical importance and Pacific Island endemics as well as on karyological and immunotaxonomic characterization. Burch also founded a number of influential mollusk journals, most notably Malacologia, and currently serves as the UMMZ Publications Editor. Two new Herpetology faculty were hired in the mid-1960s. Donald Tinkle was recruited from Texas Tech University in 1965 as a Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles. He was a prominent pioneer in using long-term field experiments to study the life history of reptiles. In 1980, Tinkle was awarded the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America, but died that year from pancreatic cancer. Arnold Kluge was hired as a faculty member in the Department of Zoology in 1965. That year, he was also given a Research Associate position in the UMMZ, this being upgraded to Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles in 1967. Kluge’s interests include phylogenetic inference and, together with UM botanist Herb Wagner and others at the UM, he played an important role in the development of cladistics, being a founding member of the Willi Hennig Society.

Hubbell applied to the National Science Foundation in 1961 for major funding to construct “a national facility for research in animal biosystematics”. Thanks in part to the influential assistance of former curator Carl Hubbs, Hubbell was successful and this enabled the construction of the UMMZ’s “New Wing”, opened in 1964. This development significantly expanded the UMMZ footprint, allowing for significant new lab, live animal facility, office and library space that was soon fully occupied. In 1967, the UMMZ hosted a large international symposium on Systematic Biology, sponsored by the National Research Council. The results were published in a 1969 volume by the National Academy of Sciences. The UMMZ was also active in international outreach. Most notably, Hubbell was instrumental in the 1963 formation of the inter-university Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica with UMMZ curator Hartweg as its first President.

Nelson Hairston served as UMMZ Director from 1968-1975. He was appointed by LSA and differed from his predecessors in that he was a faculty member in the Department of Zoology rather than a UMMZ Curator. Hairston was a well-regarded ecologist who performed much of his fieldwork at the Edwin S. George Reserve, administered by the UMMZ. During his period of leadership, three new curators were recruited. Gerald Smith, a former UMMZ student, was appointed in 1969 as Curator in both the UMMZ (Fishes) and in the UM Museum of Paleontology, and Assistant Professor in the corresponding departments: Zoology and Geology. Smith works with both extant and extinct fishes, especially in Western drainages and is particularly interested in rates of evolution and introgression. Before his retirement, Smith had the unique distinction of serving as director of three UM Museums: Paleontology (1975-1981), Zoology (1998-2002) and Herbarium (1999-2002). Robert Payne was appointed Curator of Birds in 1970 (replacing Tordoff). His primary research interest is bird social behavior and systematics, with an emphasis on brood parasites and their hosts, especially African species. This has involved both fieldwork in Africa and experimental behavior research with captive specimens at the UMMZ and has outlined a new rapid speciation mechanism caused by host switching associated with host song imprinting. Payne added large numbers of bird vocalization recordings as well as specimens to the UMMZ bird collection. Ronald Nussbaum was hired as Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles in 1974 (replacing Walker), bring the number of Herpetology curators to three. Nussbaum researches aspects of the evolution, ecology and systematics of amphibians and reptiles, especially taxa endemic to Africa, Seychelles and Madagascar. Over many years, he has extraordinarily active in documenting Malagasy reptile and amphibian diversity, including many unknown and threatened species. This work is of great conservation import and has added very significantly to the UMMZ herpetological collections.

Donald Tinkle was UMMZ Director from 1975 until his premature death in 1980, at the age of 50. His directorship coincided with an academic high water mark for the UMMZ characterized by the production of a remarkable crop of graduate students under the advisorship of, amongst others, evolutionist Alexander, ecologist Tinkle, theorist Hamilton, bird behaviorist Payne and cladist Kluge and amplified by the presence of three or more curators per Division. In October of 1978, the Museum of Zoology celebrated its 50th year in the Ruthven Museums building by convening a symposium on Natural Selection and Social Behavior, areas to which curators and students had made important contributions. About 700 individuals from all over the United States attended, and 31 formal papers were presented. The results were published in 1981 in a commemorative volume.

Tinkle’s directorship also coincided with the 1975 merger of the Departments of Botany and of Zoology into a unified Division of Biological Sciences, a forerunner of the Department of Biology, with four divisions: Botany, Zoology, Cell and Molecular Biology and Ecology, Evolutionary and Organismal Biology. William Dawson, a prominent animal physiologist, was appointed the first Chair of the new department and served from 1975-1982.

Two hires were made under Tinkle. Philip Myers was initially a Visiting Curator of Mammals in 1976, but this became an Assistant Curatorship appointment the following year. Myers has had a dual track career at the UMMZ. One concerns his research program on mammalian evolution and systematics. This has focused on topics such as the evolutionary origins of Andean mammal diversity and on the long-term range dynamics of Michigan mammals associated with regional climate change. The other has involved the origination and development of the highly innovative, award-winning Animal Diversity Web (, a premier source of biodiversity information and science-learning exercises for K-12 and undergraduate students worldwide. William Hamilton joined the UMMZ as Curator of Insects in 1978. He was arguably the most prominent evolutionary theorist of his generation, famous for proposing a genetic basis for kin selection and altruism and winner of many prestigious awards, including while at the UM, foreign honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Science and fellowship in the Royal Society of London. The sociobiological implications of his theoretical work were controversial to some and led to student protests on his arrival in Ann Arbor. In 1984, Hamilton was recruited back to his native United Kingdom to accept a position as Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University.

Upon Tinkle’s death, Robert Storer (Curator of Birds) became the Interim Director from 1980-1982. Two UMMZ curators were appointed during this period. Barry OConnor was hired as a Curator of Insects in 1980. Although he works on insects, OConnor’s main research interest lies in Acari (mites) evolution, systematics and taxonomy. Mites are extremely diverse, but relatively poorly studied. Many form commensal/parasitic associations with specific hosts and the vast majority of species remain undescribed. Over the past three decades, OConnor built, from a very modest base, one of the world’s great mite research collections here in the UMMZ, obtaining NSF support to house his fast-growing microscope slide collection – a remarkable curatorial achievement. He has also described many new species and helped train a new generation of Acarologists. William Fink was appointed Curator of Fishes in 1982 (replacing Reeve Bailey). His research on fish evolution and systematics combines a primary taxonomic focus on piranhas and other Neotropical freshwater fishes, cladistic phylogenetics and morphometric analyses of ontogenies. He was instrumental in organizing the 1988 Michigan Morphometric Workshop that resulted in a UMMZ Special Publication. Fink was an early adopter of museum catalogues computerization, obtaining multiple grants to database, place online and network the UMMZ’s very large fish collection. He also trained the next generation of fish curators at many peer programs and served as UMMZ Director from 2005-2011.

In 1982, William Dawson completed his service as Chair of the Division of Biological Sciences after seven years and was appointed Director of the UMMZ, serving in that role until 1993. This was a period when molecular biology was developing to a point where it could start to be meaningfully applied outside of the discipline of biochemistry to address broader questions in the biological sciences. Dawson presciently foresaw the value of incorporating a molecular perspective into UMMZ research and made the provision of a Laboratory of Molecular Systematics a prerequisite of his appointment. In 1980, Wesley Brown had joined the Biology faculty as a visiting associate professor and when he became a tenured faculty member in 1983, Dawson also appointed him Director of the UMMZ’s new Laboratory of Molecular Systematics. Brown was an early pioneer in the use of mitochondrial DNA and protein sequence variation to address questions of broad evolutionary and phylogenetic significance. He attracted many ambitious post-doctoral researchers to his lab in the Natural Science Building and to the Laboratory of Molecular Systematics in the UMMZ where they collectively tackled a spectrum of high profile evolutionary questions. The use of novel molecular approaches did not meet with unqualified enthusiasm, at least initially, across the broader UMMZ community. However, within a decade, molecular data was being routinely used in UMMZ research projects. In 1986, the Division of Biological Science was transformed into the Department of Biology and Brown became Chair of Biology 1991-1996. This resulted in him and his lab spending less time in the UMMZ and relocating almost completely to the Natural Sciences Building.

During Dawson’s directorship, a number of tenure track Assistant Curators were unsuccessful in obtaining tenure; two of these (sequentially) in the Mollusk Division and one each in the Bird and Mammal Divisions. All three vacant curatorial positions (Mammals, Birds, Mollusks) were eventually filled by candidates who had a significant molecular biology component to their research and who successfully achieved tenure. One of the three, Priscilla Tucker, Curator of Mammals, was appointed during Dawson’s leadership in 1988. Tucker is widely recognized for her evolutionary studies of Y chromosomes and also for her detailed genetic deconstruction of a prominent European hybrid zone involving two closely related house mouse species that provide a model system for studying speciation in mammals. She also significantly enhanced the UMMZ’s collection capabilities by obtaining NSF grant support to install our first cryogenic facility, allowing us to have the capacity for high-quality preservation of specimen biomolecular structure. Dawson’s directorship also coincided with a period of significant NSF infrastructure grant support for collections in several UMMZ divisions, including Fishes, Mammals and Reptiles and Amphibians.

Richard Alexander assumed the UMMZ Directorship from 1993-1998. Alexander was deeply committed to the UMMZ and to the role of research museums in LSA academic programs. One of his first duties concerned searches for new Bird and Mollusk Curators. This led to the appointment of Bird Curator David Mindell in 1994 and Mollusk Curator Diarmaid Ó Foighil in 1995, both of whom would eventually become UMMZ Directors. While at the UM, Mindell had an active research program in bird molecular phylogeny, studying both ancient and more recent radiations, and he developed a parallel program in virus evolution. Together with Ó Foighil and others he purchased an ABI automated sequencer that gave UMMZ researchers access to (at the time) cutting edge sequencing capabilities. The sequencer was installed in the Laboratory of Molecular Systematics that was relabeled the Genomic Diversity Lab with Mindell as its Director. He successfully applied for NSF funding to upgrade the bird collection cabinets and subsequently served as UMMZ Director for 3 years. Mindell left the UM in 2008 to become Dean of Science and Research Collections at the California Academy of Sciences. Ó Foighil’s background was in marine mollusk evolution and systematics and his research continued in this vein, but also branched out to work on freshwater and terrestrial taxa, in association with Mollusk Curator John Burch and his students. In particular, he used Burch’s samples of now extirpated partulid tree snail populations to study the evolutionary history, systematics and conservation biology of this endangered Pacific Island radiation. Ó Foighil obtained NSF funding to initiate computerization of the vast UMMZ Mollusk collection. He is currently the UMMZ Director and will next year start a 3-year term as the EEB Chair.

Alexander’s UMMZ directorship unfolded against a background of growing discord within the Department of Biology, some of it aimed towards the associated museum units. This fractiousness was in some respects quite understandable. The Department had ~60 faculty spread across multiple buildings and efficient/meaningful communication was especially difficult between the two main blocks (essentially proto-departments with different cultures): Ecology, Evolution, and Organismic Biology (EEOB) and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB). In addition, Biology as a discipline was undergoing rapid expansion and differentiation with the emergence of many new specialized sub-fields. Departmental tensions were most apparent concerning the prioritization of new hiring opportunities and the composition of search committees. Alexander was of the opinion that a constituency within the Department did not value Museum research and was communicating this negative perspective to the college. He feared that LSA planned to significantly cut the number of UMMZ curatorial lines and authored multiple pointed reports to the Dean (Edie Goldenberg) outlining in considerable detail the value of university research museums in general and of the UMMZ’s program in particular.

Gerald Smith was UMMZ Director from 1998-2002, the last three years also holding Directorship of the Herbarium. This was a momentous period for the Department of Biology, the tenure home for UMMZ curators. Following a 1999 external review, the then LSA Dean Shirley Neuman in 2001 implemented the recommendation that the Department be split into two distinct entities. These became known as the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB). The two associated museum units migrated with the latter. The new EEB Department, led initially (and again subsequently) by Deborah Goldberg was a more cohesive academic environment and had a much better collective appreciation for the importance of museum research. The advanced demographic composition of the UMMZ’s curatorial complement led to three curator retirements during Smith’s directorship: Alexander and Moore (both Insect Division), and Burch (Mollusks). Smith worked assiduously with the College and Department to address these losses and obtained approval from LSA for two searches (that ultimately succeeded in hiring new Insect and Mollusk curators), as well as the appointment of a Manager for the Mollusk Collection – the only major UMMZ collection that lacked this support.

Smith completed his service as UMMZ (and Herbarium) Director in 2002. An external search was approved for a new Director but this proved unsuccessful. David Mindell (Curator of Birds) was appointed Interim Director for one year (2002-2003), then renewed as Director for a subsequent three-year term, of which two were served (2003-2005). The two approved searches led to the appointment of L. Lacey Knowles (Curator of Insects) in 2003 and Thomas Duda (Curator of Mollusks) in 2004. Knowles is a global leader in the development of probabilistic methodologies for phylogenetic and phylogeographic analyses and her main taxonomic focus is Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets). She has established a large, diverse and highly productive research program at the UMMZ that attracts many students and post-docs and produces a steady stream of high quality theoretical and empirical publications. Together with Laura Kobota, she hosted a NSF/UMMZ-funded Species Tree Workshop in January 2009 that attracted 170 participants interested in new approaches for estimating species trees to the UMMZ, and she co-edited the resulting book, Estimating Species Trees: Practical and Theoretical Aspects, published in 2010. Duda is an innovative marine evolutionary biologist who has developed a highly integrative research program involving predatory Conus species: cone snails, one of the largest marine genera with hundreds off species. He studies the Conus radiation on many levels from a macroevolutionary perspective across the radiation to within-species analyses that link evolution at specific genes (paralyzing conotoxins) to organismal ecological performance, e.g., prey species repertoires. Duda has also assembled a world-class collection of Conus species, that includes conchological, tissue and expressed gene voucher material as well as data on gut contents, genotype and conotoxin repertoires.

Smith (Fishes) and Kluge (Amphibians & Reptiles) retired in 2003, leaving these two Divisions relatively undermanned with a single curator each, respectively Fink and Nussbaum. In 2004, Mindell submitted an ambitious 5-Year Plan as Director of both the UMMZ and Herbarium. It proposed the unification of the UMMZ and Herbarium facilities with those of EEB in a single building or building complex on central campus. It additionally called for the establishment of an Institute for Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity to help integrate the research, training and public outreach activities of both museums and for the hiring of additional curators. This proposal did not meet with a receptive audience, in part because the College’s confidential long-term plans called for the relocation of research collections from central campus. Following review of the 5-Year plans submitted by the department and the museums, LSA decided to reduce the number of curators in the UMMZ from a total of 12 (in 6 FTEs) to 8 (in 4 FTEs) and to formalize the reduction in the Herbarium that had already occurred from a peak of 8 to 4 (in 2 FTEs).

Mindell resigned from the UMMZ Directorship in 2005 and William Fink then served in this position from 2005-2011, a particularly eventful six-year period in the Museum’s history. Although many aspects of the program were functioning well – individual research and teaching programs, Knowles’ very successful Species Tree Workshop, networking of online vertebrate collection databases, establishment of the first cryogenic facility, continued success of the Animal Diversity Web – attrition of the curatorial ranks continued with the retirement of Curator of Birds Robert Payne in 2007. This was exacerbated by the departure of the remaining bird curator David Mindell in 2008, leaving one of the major UMMZ collections, with representatives of 2/3rds of the planet’s bird species, without a curator or research and teaching program for the first time. The EEB Department provided critical support in obtaining the College’s approval of two searches during a period of very limited hiring opportunities - one in 2008 for a “Lower Vertebrates” organismal biologist, the other in 2009 for an evolutionary biologist - that held considerable promise for the UMMZ’s program. Unfortunately, neither search proved successful, although during the latter search a formal offer was extended to a highly qualified ornithologist couple.

In 2009, a chronic and long-ignored safety issue regarding the UMMZ’s enormous ethanol-preserved collections, primarily fishes, reptiles and amphibians, finally came to a head. These world-class biodiversity collections were housed in facilities (some dating to the 1920s) that lacked modern fire suppression safety systems. Changing fire codes had put the ethanol-preserved collections in severe violation of new safety standards and the University decided to relocate them to a new collection facility that would meet current safety standards, adjacent to the Herbarium in Varsity Drive. This major initiative represented a very significant investment ($17 million budget) by the UM in the UMMZ research collections, involving the design and construction of new state-of-the-art ethanol collection facilities in Varsity Drive and (on a smaller scale) in Ruthven. The planning and construction phases alone required two years of detailed engagement and oversight by Director Fink, aided by the UMMZ’s impressive team of collection managers.

During 2009-2010, UMMZ Director Fink was involved in a series of LSA-organized and chaperoned discussions with the Chair of EEB Deborah Goldberg and Herbarium Director Paul Berry regarding inter-unit coordination. The College’s clear preference was that both museum units be merged with EEB, citing the need for better programmatic integration and for operational efficiencies. Following a formal joint external review of all three units in 2010, LSA proceeded with the merger, which was completed by July 2011. A detailed set of principles for the merger were mutually agreed on among the three units, including recognition that curatorial care of the collections is a critical function of the department and therefore curator responsibilities should continue to be associated with release from some teaching duties. Curators became 1.0 EEB faculty member and the UMMZ’s 4 FTEs and Herbarium’s 2 FTEs were added to EEB’s total. However, the curator title was retained and it was agreed that the number of faculty curators be maintained at least at the level allocated by the college at the time of the merger (8 in the UMMZ, 4 in the Herbarium). The two museum director positions became EEB associate chairs, reporting to the EEB Chair, but charged with responsibility for oversight of faculty curation, collection staff, and relevant operating budget and endowment funds.

2011-2013 UMMZ and Herbarium merged with EEB

Collection Manager Gregory Schneider checking the placement of newly moved jars of amphibians and reptiles (on right with temporary labels) within the Varsity Drive collection facility during the 2012 move.  Photo by D. Ó Foighil.

Curator William Fink (right) and Collections Manager, Douglas Nelson (left), in the Varsity Drive wet lab showing the Biomedical Engineering Department's Graduate Innovative Design class how puffer fish erect defensive spines by inflating their bodies with water. See More

Diarmaid Ó Foighil was appointed UMMZ Director in July 2011, reporting to EEB Chair Deborah Goldberg. The most pressing immediate task was completing the prolonged planning/construction process for the ethanol-preserved collection move and then implementing the orderly translocation of ~5 million biological specimens from the Ruthven Museums building to the new Varsity Drive location. Construction was largely completed by December 2011 and the first specimens were moved to the new facility in January 2012. Thanks to the meticulously detailed planning process, the move itself went remarkably smoothly with no specimens lost or damaged. This massive project was finished on August 3rd 2012, under budget and 7 weeks early, and the impressive new UMMZ ethanol-preserved collection facility has been fully operational since then. Transportation between the Ruthven and Varsity drive location remains an enduring logistical issue, but this has been ameliorated to some degree by a dedicated taxi service funded by LSA (for UMMZ and Herbarium personnel) and by the use of LSA moving trucks (for large consignments of ethanol-preserved specimens).

A very positive development for the departmental and UMMZ biodiversity program came about in late 2011/early 2012 when an EEB faculty search recruited Daniel Rabosky as a faculty member and UMMZ Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles. Rabosky is an emerging star in macroevolutionary studies. His research addresses fundamental aspects of among-lineage differences in species richness and phenotypic diversity, especially in vertebrates, and his main taxonomic focus is the Australian lizard and snake fauna. During his first year at the UMMZ, Rabosky has won significant external funding, published high profile papers, attracted students, taught innovative classes and added significantly to our reptile collection.

Another important recent development for the EEB museum units involves the significant upgrading of their electronic databases. For the past 3 years, the UMMZ and Herbarium Directors have participated in a LSA Collections Committee, initially led by Associate Dean Rick Francis, engaged in a comprehensive review of current practices for collection management, documentation, and digitization across all LSA museums. The outcome is that LSA has committed to purchase, install and support the KE EMu collection software system for its museums. This represents a significant institutional commitment to the museums and the collections they curate, and marks a radical change from earlier practices in which each museum largely fended for itself.

The most significant development for EEB’s museum units during this time period was the announcement in Fall 2001 by LSA Dean Terence McDonald of a "Transforming Ruthven" initiative. It will relocate the collections and programs of the three Ruthven research museums [Anthropology (UMMA), Paleontology (UMMP) and Zoology (UMMZ)] to Varsity Drive, joining the UMMZ ethanol-preserved collections and the Herbarium and thereby consolidating the UM world-class natural history collections in one location. This initiative is coupled with plans to build a new biology building on central campus for MCDB and EEB faculty and their research programs, although not yet approved by the Regents at the time of this writing. In response to the Dean’s initial announcement, the three Ruthven research museum Directors and the Herbarium Director co-authored a memo that outlined an integrated Varsity Drive plan emphasizing programmatic function needs and possible gains. For instance, with proper planning, the move to Varsity Drive affords the opportunity to integrate our collections much more meaningfully into the undergraduate curriculum that is presently possible in Ruthven. Many elements in that memo were incorporated into the Varsity Drive design and we are now about to complete the planning stage and start construction.

Looking forward, the UMMZ program is projected to have moved to its new Varsity Drive home by 2018, all collections databases will have migrated to KE EMu and the faculty curators are scheduled to be in a new Biology Building with their EEB colleagues for the first time. The EEB program will have received a once-in-a-lifetime investment of 10s of millions of dollars in its infrastructural base. Our collective goal is to have the entire EEB program emerge intact, functional and among the best in the world at the end of this process. The biodiversity programs in the UMMZ and Herbarium have a critical part to play in achieving that desired result, providing that we continue to hire outstanding EEB faculty who can also serve as effective and committed curators.

Appendix I. A Short History of the ESGR


Frederick Gaige, ant specialist and UMMZ Director (1929-1946), at the ESGR. Photo obtained courtesy of Mark O’Brien.

Since 1930, the University of Michigan (UM) has maintained the Edwin S. George Reserve (ESGR) for the purposes of providing research and education opportunities in the natural sciences and preserving the native flora and fauna. The ESGR is a 525-hectare fenced preserve located in Livingston County, Michigan (about 25 km Northwest of Ann Arbor), which was presented to the University as a gift by Edwin S. George in 1930. Before 1927, the area comprised eleven farms with tilled fields, small orchards, wood lots, pastures, and swamplands. In 1927, the tract was purchased and fenced as a game reserve by Colonel Edwin S. George. In 1930, George donated his reserve to the UM, which has maintained it since as a wildlife research area.

The ESGR has been maintained by the University for the purposes of (1) providing research and education opportunities in the natural sciences, and of (2) preserving and demonstrating the native fauna and flora. It is used for natural history studies and other ecological investigations by UM students and staff and by visiting scientists from other institutions.

From 1930-2005, the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) was responsible for administering the ESGR, the last UMMZ Curator to do so was Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles Ronald Nussbaum.

There has been a rich history of long- and short-term biological research studies conducted on the ESGR. There also have been studies in other areas of the natural sciences, e.g., geology and atmospheric sciences. More than 425 research papers have been published on studies carried out wholly or in part on the ESGR (certainly an underestimate), and 77 Ph.D. dissertations and 28 Masters theses have resulted from graduate studies on the ESGR (see the ESGR website: The long-term studies on the ESGR include an ongoing 30-year study of turtle life histories and reproductive success that involves some records of individual turtles over 70 years old, a long-term demographic study of the herd of white-tailed deer, a 50-year (1948-1997) study of successional changes in a 7.7 ha abandoned field, and a 16-year study of the amphibian communities of 37 ponds. Shorter-term studies have addressed a wide range of ecological and evolutionary topics.  For example, recent studies have been conducted on bat echolocation, local and regional processes responsible for community patterns in dragonflies, paternity in white-tailed deer, trait-mediated indirect effects in food webs, melanism in peppered moths, intraguild predation in salamanders, the cost of slavery in ants, gypsy moth defoliation, and phenotypic plasticity in anuran larvae.

In 2005, the administration of the ESGR was transferred to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and EEB Professor Earl Werner served as the ESGR’s Director from 2005-2012. Werner is a prominent ecologist who has studied community composition and dynamics in the Reserve’s ponds for many years, collecting nearly 250,000 ecological specimens (including tadpoles, salamander larvae, fish, insects, mollusks, and crayfish) from 38 ponds between 1996 and 2012. These specimens represent biodiversity vouchers for Werner’s very influential body of published research on E.S. George Reserve pond ecosystems and they have been formally placed in the UMMZ’s collections to ensure their availability for future generations of researchers. Werner retires in December 2013 and the ESGR Directorship has recently passed to Christopher Dick, EBB Associate Professor and Herbarium Curator.