Most people are familiar with the game animals in British Columbia, but not with the vast majority of BC’s marine, freshwater, and terrestrial vertebrates that are not exploited for human use. Non-game organisms form the foundation for ecological communities, and these organisms cannot be ignored if we hope to understand population dynamics in British Columbia. The Royal BC Museum’s collection contains over 101,861 vertebrate specimens, in a wide range of life-history stages from eggs, eggshells, preserved embryos, tadpoles and newly hatched or neonate animals to fully adult individuals. About 34 amphibian and 31 reptile taxa are represented in this collection, with more added every time researchers get out to survey new areas.
Most amphibians and reptiles are housed in jars ranging from 125 ml up to 2 litres volume; large wet specimens such as sea turtles and snapping turtles are housed in vats. The collection also includes a limited amount of skeletal material. Each jar in the collection may only house one specimen, or in other cases, the jar may be packed with a number of specimens caught at a particular place and time. Each specimen, whether in a jar or a plastic Durphy box, has a label with some collection data and catalogue number, and specimens are ordered in the collection according to a rough pattern of evolutionary relationships.
This collection contains a type specimen of the Columbian tailed frog, a species recognized based on genetic and geographic data. Type specimens are the best examples of a species at the time a particular species was described. Better specimens may be found years later, but the type specimen designation stays with the original material used to describe a species. There are provisions for designating new types specimens if the originals are lost, but this is the exception rather than common practice.
Type specimens are held in separate cabinets away from the main part of the research material. Type specimens do not go on loan to other institutions, and therefore, researchers must come here to examine these high-priority items.
Most vertebrates in the collection are from British Columbia, but a small portion of the collection comes from outside our borders, and serve as examples of organisms that may arrive here in the future (e.g., western fence lizard) or are examples of closely related organisms for comparison. There are also several exotic species in this collection in order to document the continued presence of species introduced by humans from the pet trade or as accidental introductions. The collection does contain a small proportion of other exotic organisms that today would be rejected since they are not representative of British Columbia (e.g., reticulated python, common boa, western fox snake).
The vertebrate collection likely was the first to be established by Jack Fannin when the museum was created to stem the flow of artifacts out of province. Our oldest herpetile specimen is a European adder from 1834. This specimen is an exception to the modern collection plan focused on British Columbia’s nature history. Dozens of new specimens are added each year, including sea turtles and the eggs of the exotic red-eared slider recently discovered near Elk/Beaver Lake. The collection grows from research specimens, donations, and from specimens transferred from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Environment, regional Natural Resources Officers, and a wide range of other sources.
Fortunately, there is no backlog to the herpetology collection.