Examples of fish specimen in a collection. Image from https://www.burkemuseum.org/collections-and-research/biology/ichthyology .

For the discussion concerning preventive conservation, I am choosing to consider the different ways you might preserve a fireweed plant collecting in a Southcentral field vs. a northern pike collected in a local lake. Stabilizing and preserving each presents a set of different challenges. One challenge that they both face is that they are usually collected “in the field”. This means that the person collecting the specimen must either have come prepared with the necessary tools to preserve the specimen or in some other way mitigate the agents of deterioration that the specimen will immediately begin facing after collection.


The major differences in how you would go about preserving each of these specimens is that plants and animals require very different methods because each face their own set of specific agents of deterioration. The fireweed will need to be identified and then pressed (so that it is even and dry) and mounted. It can then be labelled and stored. The fireweed will then need to be frozen for several days to kill any insects or other pests that might be present. Pests are an important agent of deterioration to consider when collecting plants (especially in the tropics) because they pose a risk to the specimen before, immediately after, and during collection. When collecting in the field, methods like using formaldehyde/ethanol, powdered DDT, or mercuric chloride can be used to immediately kill any pests present. If certain methods like mercuric chloride are used, these will need to be indicated on the specimen during storage due to the potential off-gassing of the chemicals. Storage of the fireweed specimen involves a temperature and humidity-monitored (20°C and 50% relative humidity) environment. Special care must be taken to avoid pest infestation.


The northern pike will need to be handled a bit differently. The first thing to take into consideration when collecting animal species are the state-specific laws that are in place to protect against harmful practices. The next thing to consider is what part of the animal is the collector interested in collecting? Are they collecting the entire animal, the skin, the skeleton, or perhaps just the internal organs? For the northern pike, the easiest method if the collector has adequate space to do so is probably to take the entire animal and dissect into parts later if necessary. Depending on the size of the fish, it can either be stored directly in a jar with formalin or formaldehyde or if it is larger it could probably be stored on ice for a short period of time until it can be dissected for the relevant parts. In either case, formalin will need to be used for fixation purposes. For long-term storage the fish specimen will need to be rinsed and transferred to a 70% ethanol or sometimes 50% isopropyl alcohol solution. Once transferred and well-labelled/catalogued, the jar or other receptacle can be stored in a collection. The northern pike will take up much more space than the fireweed specimen. It is still important to monitor temperature, relative humidity, and light in order to best preserve the specimen. They will also need to be monitored to make sure the labels are replaced if degraded and alcohol is replenished if evaporated.


Q: Have you ever had a formative experience concerning a collection? Personally, and I think I’ve mentioned before, the community college I attended before UAF had a great biological collection. When I first started learning more about wildlife, especially aquatic wildlife, I would spend ages looking through their collection of jars filled with all sorts of interesting looking aquatic animals.

2 Thoughts to “Preventive Care Discussion”

  1. Angela Linn

    Thanks for your post Tony – excellent description of the potential risks to both types of collections. Physical forces are another really potentially damaging agent for both collections – if you don’t handle those plant sheets properly I’d imagine the pressed plants will snap and fall off their glued/sewn on mounting. And clearly if you preserve a fish in a jar of ethanol, physical forces causing that jar to smash onto the ground would be devastating! I often wonder if wet collections that go through earthquakes are able to be salvaged just by rinsing the fish off and re-preparing them in new jars, as long as the data is still associated with the specimen? Might be an argument for finding a way to physically attach the paper that goes into the jar directly to the specimen?
    One of my formative experiences in museums was at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry where I saw, at a very young age, displays of people and animals sliced up and mounted in glass. Cool but slightly traumatizing… https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/11369

  2. Barbara Long

    Good Afternoon,

    In response to your question: I had a smiliar experience with my community college as well. Lots of jars with preserved specimens. I was a Zoology major and spent so much time observing and looking up specimens.They had a lot of eggs preserved, embryonic stages of every critter you could imagine and awful looking eels. I do not remember any fish. If, there were eels, they must have fish. I know there was sea urchins, starfish, rays, sea cucumbers and crabs. Thanks for sharing.

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