Illustration of a snake in a jar.
Illustration by Haylee Bohm.

This fall, the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology received a ‘hiss-toric’ delivery: approximately 30,000 jarred snake specimens from Oregon State University for research purposes. The new addition has almost doubled the size of the University’s snake collection, making it the largest in the world, with a total of about 70,000 specimens.

The new specimens have been collected by Stevan J. Arnold and Lynne Houck, professors emeriti of integrative biology at Oregon State University, over the past several years. Arnold, former curator of amphibians and reptiles at Oregon State, received his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1972 and wrote about his experience studying at the Museum of Zoology in a chapter of Letters from Michigan Herpetology, an anthology published by the museum about herpetological research in 2021.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Greg Schneider, the collection manager of reptiles and amphibians at the zoology museum, said the University’s 153,375 square foot Research Museums Center provides a perfect home for the snake collection and makes it possible for the University to accept such a massive donation of biological material.

“The University of Michigan has invested very heavily in their natural history collections and built this great facility out here on Varsity Drive,” Schneider said. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility, built with the long term in mind … to safeguard the specimens and also have room for expansion and growing the collections … Our collections here, they’ve been amassing for close to 150 years, and they are snapshots in time and space.”

Daniel Rabosky, U-M ecology and evolutionary biology professor and a curator at the museum, said having the “largest snake collection” is an achievement for not only the University, but also the scientific community at large.

“It’s very much a community science project,” Rabosky said. “Our mission is to supercharge research potential for the global community of researchers … There are lots of questions that can only be answered through natural history collections like ours.”

Snake specimens are used in research about evolution, biodiversity, ecology, human-driven climate change and emerging infectious diseases, according to Rabosky. As new research technology is developed, Rabosky said, researchers can learn more information about the specimens they have collected, leading to new biological breakthroughs.

“One of the most exciting things to think about as a curator and a biodiversity scientist is the lessons (from) over a hundred years of collections,” Rabosky said. “We’re always coming up with new questions to ask about those old collections.”

Rackham student Matheus Januario helps to organize the museum’s samples. He said in his research, he has seen firsthand how the expansion of the collection can provide new avenues for investigation.“Museums are like libraries, and every single specimen is like a book,” Januario said. “The number of pages only increases as we gather more and more new technology. You can use every specimen in ways that no one could have dreamed when it was collected.”

Januario said the University’s position as one of the largest public research institutions in the world means that the campus community has constant access to unique research opportunities. He said having the largest snake collection in the world is just one way the University continues to demonstrate a commitment to research across all fields.

“The experience I’m getting is absolutely priceless,” Januario said. “Some schools don’t put that much emphasis on their natural sciences departments, but (the University) definitely does … working with the collections (at the zoology museum), you feel connected to history.”

Daily News Contributor Hailey Nichols can be reached at