Understanding the Circle of Life
Colorado Plateau Biodiversity Center Catalogs Plant & Animal Life
By Jessica Lawless, MA, 2012
Most university undergraduates can only dream about studying a collection as diverse and awe-inspiring as NAU'S Colorado Plateau Biodiversity Center (CPBC). The CPBC is dedicated to the documentation and conservation of all species native to the Colorado Plateau through research and education. It also holds collections of whole specimens, genetic material, and digital archives in trust for the scientific research community, the general public, and for future generations.
Stefan Sommer, CPBC director and assistant research professor in biology, said students benefit from these on-campus resources—and the collections benefit from the students' involvement. "We support 37 different classes," Sommer said. "In some cases, they're adding to the collections." In addition to NAU students, researchers from around the country and the globe use the CPBC's specimens to advance the life sciences. For example, comparing past animal species from the vertebrate collection to current populations allows scientists to determine whether that species has migrated over time or become extinct in the area.
The CPBC collections are decentralized individual holdings. Although they aren't housed together—their locations range from the Biological Sciences building to the Bilby Research Center—the collections' contents all contribute to the university's strong life-sciences research community. The collections include:
- Deaver Herbarium botanical. The herbarium houses nearly 100,000 specimens of dried plants, including ferns and conifers, from the Colorado Plateau and nearby deserts.
- Environmental Genomics and Genetics Lab (EnGGen). With approximately 2,500 specimens, this collection stores tissue and DNA samples from other research projects, including those in other divisions. It also serves as a resource for molecular genetic analyses.
- Fungal. This 2,000-speciment collection includes wet tissue and DNA samples.
- Insect and arachnid. Insects, including the rugose darkling beetle and striped scorpion, comprise the largest portion of this collection, which has more than 250,000 specimens.
- Marine invertebrate and mollusks. This collection includes approximately 18,000 specimens, both from the Colorado Plateau region and from around the globe.
- Quaternary Science Program Lab of Paleoecology. The Lab of Paleoecology studies pollen, plant fossils, and sediment from the Quaternary period of Earth's history—the last 2.6 million years. It uses this interdisciplinary research to predict future environmental and climate changes. This collection has approximately 3,500 specimens.
- Vertebrate. More than 9,000 mammal, fish, bird, and reptile specimens from both the Southwest and other parts of the world—including the Wupatki pocket mouse—make up the vertebrate collection.
CPBC Outreach: From Documentaries to Traveling Shows
The CPBC is not only a passive collection. To support its educational mission, the center also takes its resources to the public. "We're doing a lot of different kinds of outreach programs," Sommer said. The CPBC's outreach includes documentaries such as A River Reborn, which describes the restoration of Fossil Creek; exhibits at the Arboretum at Flagstaff; and presentations, such as the Traveling Arthropod Show, which brings both preserved and live arthropods—insects—to parks, classrooms, and other educational venues.
One of the Collections Up Close: The Deaver Herbarium
Its location on the third floor of NAU's Biological Sciences building might make it seem as though the CPBC's Deaver Herbarium is just a student facility. A peek at the sign-in book at the front counter of the herbarium reveals otherwise. Tina Ayers, assistant biology professor and Deaver Herbarium curator for 22 years, explains that the collection supports both students and researchers—from the U.S. Forest Service to professional botanists and private consultants—by providing historical and contemporary samples to study. During a two-week period in April 2012, for example, the Herbarium received six visits: four from the Landsward Institute's Seeds of Success program to complete labels for specimens collected, and two from the U.S. Geological Survey to consult reference materials. In 2011, there were 210 visitors to the facility.
The Herbarium's appearance is as misleading as its location. The quiet room's orderly, tall metal filing cabinets and black-topped lab tables are, at first glance, incongruous with the idea of a plant repository. But inside the cabinets, dried plants and flowers are carefully labeled with salient information, such as the date the specimen was gathered and the name of the person who gathered it, allowing future scientists to have as much information as possible about the specimens they study.
A Resource for Everyone
In addition to a catalog of dried flowers, the Deaver Herbarium staff can help with plant identification. "If anyone is interested in plants and studying diversity, this is the place to do it," Ayers said. "Anybody can walk in here and ask, ‘What's this?' and we will help them."
For example, scientists can compare individual plants from the same species found in different geographic areas and examine possible morphological variances or they can study many different species of plants to determine how they are related. Student theses involving plants also get a boost from the Herbarium's extensive collection.
In addition, the Herbarium contributes to research conducted in distant locations. Scientists who can't come to NAU can access the Southwest Environmental Information Network website, which catalogs environmental information from Arizona and beyond. The Herbarium's contributions to the site serve as quick and easy resources for amateur and professional botanists, to, among other things, double-check the identity of the plants they've gathered.