‘Dead fish library’ at VIMS stores half a million specimens — including rare great white shark

·5 min read

On a weekday morning in December, Eric Hilton reached down to a table covered in piscine paraphernalia: fish skeletons, piles of fish bones, colorfully dyed fish sitting in small, clear tubs of liquid.

He picked up a jar of floating tiny fish, preserved for posterity.

“There are probably at least 500 fish individuals in this jar. As you can see, they’re much easier to keep than those 500,” he said with a grin, gesturing to the rest of the room.

Rows and rows of jars in storage bays stretch nearly from floor to ceiling. Each jar contains at least one dead fish waiting for the day it’ll interest somebody, somewhere in the world.

This nondescript building on the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Gloucester Point campus is home to at least half a million fish. They comprise the Nunnally Ichthyology Collection, known more affectionately to its caretakers as the dead fish library.

“We really function like a library,” said Sarah Huber, curatorial associate and collection manager. “But with dead fish.”

She and her husband, Hilton, the curator of fishes, are in charge of cataloging, loaning and sometimes collecting the fish straight out of the water. The specimens can go to researchers throughout Virginia and beyond. The institute has sent fish as far as Australia and Russia.

Need a tissue sample from a fish in the Blackwater River? Hilton and Huber can help with that. Want to check out a full great white shark? They’ve got that too, which is very rare because of the storage it requires, Huber said.

The Nunnally started as a teaching collection in the 1950s and gradually expanded. VIMS professors and students add fish when doing field research, but the collection also receives specimens from state, federal or local agencies when they do marine surveys, for example. Hilton and Huber even sometimes tag along to obtain certain species.

Over the decades, the institute, which is housed under William & Mary, also absorbed several other marine collections that have since disbanded, such as at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond.

Huber said: “We’re really the last ones standing in the state of Virginia.”

About 340,000 individual fish in the library are cataloged, representing 2,655 species.

Hilton said their specialty is housing fish from the mid-Atlantic, but they have worldwide scope.

He took out a little fish from a jar that came from the Amazon River in Brazil. It came from counterparts there in exchange for a bowfin. The Amazonian bloodsucker slides into the gills of bigger fish to feed.

Rapidly advancing technology also constantly expands the range of the pair’s work.

There’s clearing and staining, a process by which a fish is stained to reveal its internal skeleton, leaving it with a rainbow sheen.

With X-rays and microscopes, Hilton and Huber can peer deep into, well, creatures of the deep.

Hilton pulled out an anglerfish — think “Finding Nemo,” the kind that lures in prey with the dangling light extending from its head. One woman used the specimen to study how small warts on the angler fish produce its bioluminescence, Huber said.

It’s fascinating to be able to instantly send X-rays of a certain fish to a researcher halfway around the world, Hilton said.

The pair is now part of a grant-funded nationwide effort to do a CT scan of all known vertebrate organisms.

They also have more than 3,000 tissue samples stored in a refrigerator set at minus 80 degrees Celsius, and an extensive collection of larval fish — babies that can look or act much differently from the adults they become.

When a new fish comes into the collection, it’s first fixed in formalin to keep the tissue from decaying. It is then stored in 70% ethanol.

The process of obtaining a skeleton is a little more gruesome: A dead fish is left with the collection’s beetle colony. The insects feast on the flesh, leaving the fish librarians with just the skeletal remains.

Hilton and Huber met in graduate school in Massachusetts. He came to the VIMS collection in 2007, while she taught biology at Randolph-Macon College before joining him five years later.

Both are passionate about promoting and expanding the collection. They hold public tours, though most are still on pandemic hold.

The great white shark is a popular attraction. The male shark, a teenager caught off the Eastern Shore in June 2004, is one of a host of larger specimens stored in metal coffins in the “necropsy room” adjoining the jar-filled library.

Once Huber and Hilton remove the coffin’s top — if you can stomach the stench of ethanol — you can catch the shark’s grin peering back. Other larger fish include a sturgeon from the James River and an unsightly creature the couple calls the “water bunny.” (The rabbitfish, formally Chimaera monstrosa, is so named because of its scrunched-up nostrils that look like the animal. It’s closely related to sharks and rays.)

Back in the main room, next to the rows of jarred specimens, the pair keep what has become another hit stop on the tour: a drawer full of shark jaws.

They come in handy when trying to determine, say, what kind of shark bit someone. (A tiger shark’s teeth are scissor-like while a mako’s teeth are more like daggers, Huber shows.)

Having this trove is an important way to chart humans’ interactions with marine life, Hilton said. That includes tracking the decline of native species and the onset of invasive ones, like a snakehead found in James River drainage and added to the collection in 2014.

“This is a time capsule,” Hilton said. It’s “a record of what was living in that environment at that time, which is a pretty cool thing, especially when you get further away from that point in time.”

On a research trip at the Natural History Museum in London, Hilton said he was able to look at a parrotfish collected on one of famed Captain James Cook’s 18th-century expeditions.

“These fish, if taken care of, will be here for hundreds of years,” he said. “We do euthanize the fish. But we give them immortality.”

VIMS Nunnally Ichthyology Collection by the numbers:

  • 340,000: Cataloged individual fish

  • 500,000+: Individual fish including those not yet cataloged

  • 2,655: Species of fish

  • 583: Fish skeletons

  • 3,000+: Fish tissue samples

  • 4,100: “Cleared and stained” fish specimen

Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, katherine.hafner@pilotonline.com

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