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What we can learn from 3.5 million dead fish

Here in Michigan, we have the world’s largest collection of dead fish. At least, the world’s largest collection that’s based at a university.

There are about 3.5 million fish in this collection. It belongs to the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan.

Bill Fink is the director of the Museum of Zoology and Curator of Fishes.

He’s offered to take me on a guided tour. We take the elevator to the basement... where there’s row after row of shelves full of glass jars... full of fish.

“These specimens are from Japan and they were collected in 1920s – we have specimens that are well over a hundred years old now and they look fine.”

Bill Fink says these fish have been collected from all over the world, sometimes at great risk to the scientists. He points out the box of jars from Vietnam.

“They were collecting during war, the Mekong River Survey. They were shot at and captured and escaped and there were lots of adventures.”

Bill Fink is not just the curator here... he also goes out in the field. He says some of the fish themselves are dangerous for the collectors.

“We also have a huge collection of piranhas right here...I’ve been there when people have been bitten but I personally have not been bitten. I’m really careful.”

Fink shows me some amazing fish... like the tiny anglerfish with its appendage that glows in the dark at the bottom of the ocean.

And there’s a special sort of vault here.

Bill Fink unlocks a door and swings it open.

“This room contains what are called type specimens. When a new species is described, a single specimen is taken to be the name bearer – so there’s never any question about what that name applies to.”

So these fish are especially valuable.

Bill Fink holds up a jar with a red label. It’s a sucker from Arkansas collected in the 1890's. This species is now extinct. So Fink says he couldn’t dissect the fish specimen to study it. He took this very special fish to the University of Texas to use their CT scanner to study the fish’s skeleton.

“I hand carried it with me to Texas, before the days they stopped you and frisked you – RW: ‘That’s more than three fluid ounces...’ – It is! Probably I wouldn’t be allowed on the plane with it.”

A number of these fish represent species that are extinct. Fink says that makes the collection irreplaceable. And, in fact, it’s a lending library. Scientists around the world can literally check out fish – or their tissues – and use them to ask questions about genetics... evolution... climate change.

“The fact we have these materials, we have them archived, we have them documented, means we can go back and apply new technologies to ask new questions we couldn’t even have imagined when the specimens were being collected. It’s really cool.”

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.