Oceanic Afterlife

Underwater libraries continue to yield scientific discoveries.

Ocean fish specimens in clear jars.

Far from the bright San Diego sun, in a windowless room at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, more than two million fish are stacked, suspended in their own little sea of alcohol, a mausoleum of 140,000 jars representing more than 6,000 different marine fish species from all over the world. They are curiosities of the deep, meticulously preserved, labeled and cataloged. And yet, this is not their end. It’s only the beginning.

The Marine Vertebrate Collection is one of four that comprise the Oceanographic Collections at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, along with the Benthic and Pelagic Invertebrate Collections—named for the oceanic zones where the specimens were found—as well as the Geological Collections, housing a vast amount of sediment cores, coral specimens and rocks from all kinds of tectonic features.

“The word ‘collections’ sounds old, dusty, static, something shoved away,” says Mark Ohman, curator of the Pelagic Invertebrate Collection. “It doesn’t show the dynamic side of the collections: the teaching, research, education and marine resource management to which we contribute.”

Scripps’ Oceanographic Collection is the largest of such to be based at a university, and its presence on campus is a crucial part of its educational mission. Students learn about biodiversity and collection science and use the specimens and samples in their research. “There’s an exciting story to be told,” says Ohman. “Not just from times spent collecting the specimens, but what they continue to tell us.”

For instance, specimens can allow researchers to understand how factors of marine population, growth and behavior have changed over time and how they might continue to change in a warming world. By referencing where specimens were collected in the past to where the same species are seen now, scientists can lay the framework for conservation and management amid a changing environment.

The research applications are not limited to our campus, either. These unique collections are truly a library, with specimens often loaned out to other institutions and the overall scientific community.

So while the vast majority might be hidden in refrigerated rooms, behind heavy doors in a basement or on shelves out of sight, the specimens are a vital part of scientific discovery, whether they make their way to classroom desks, laboratory benches or newspaper headlines, or spark wonder in wide-eyed children at Birch Aquarium. “Collections like these are inspiring,” says Phil Hastings, curator of the Marine Vertebrate Collection. “They generate new ideas about species, about ecology. They make you think about evolution and how things have come to be how they are.”

Learn more about the Collections at: scripps.ucsd.edu/collections