Diversity of Species: Biodiversity Collections

Collecting Plants

Jessica Budke with studentJessica Budke’s fascination with plants stems from a family vacation to the Missouri Botanical Gardens when she was in high school. Although she grew up going to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, her visit to Missouri revealed plants on a completely different level and scale than she had ever experienced.

“The diversity is what really amazed me,” says Budke, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “I remember trying to peek in the windows at the researchers to see what they were doing. It looked really interesting, and I told my mom I wanted to run the place. When I look back, I realize that was a very ambitious statement to make as a young high school student.”

While she did not take over the Missouri Botanical Gardens, her passion for plants brought her to Knoxville in 2016 as director of the UT Herbarium. She is excited to expand the scope and research of the herbarium, which is already one of the largest in the Southeast.

“We are part of this really long tradition and history of biodiversity collections,” Budke says. “In order to understand the future of our landscapes, we have to understand what they looked like in the past. The herbarium serves as this record of the past and a resource for the future.”

The herbarium protects and stores more than 600,000 dry-pressed plant specimens from across Tennessee and around the world and serves as a critical resource for documenting the biodiversity of the Appalachians.

“Plants are not just the beautiful green background where the cute, fuzzy creatures live,” Budke says. “They are the foundation of our ecosystem. They are amazing organisms that eat sunlight and make sugars for every animal to eat, including us. Plants are an essential part of all the ecosystems on this planet.”

student putting a plant speciment on a boardThe herbarium also serves as a research and training lab for students and faculty in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Undergraduates have the opportunity for hands-on research and to learn valuable skills, such as plant identification, that give them an edge on the job market. Graduate students gain advanced training in biodiversity research and specimen collection, which prepares them to be the next wave of successful scientists.

“Plants are the classic underdog because not a lot of people know a lot about them,” Budke says. “They are really important for the foundations of our ecosystems and the food we rely on. The science of studying those plants is only going to become more important as we move into the future.”

Collecting Fishes

David Etnier began collecting fish for teaching and research on the fauna of Tennessee and surrounding states in the 1960s. Fifty years later, the UT Etnier Ichthyology Collection is the largest fish collection in the state of Tennessee and the third largest overall in the Southeastern United States.

“We have more than 320 fish species in East Tennessee alone,” says Etnier, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “When I arrived on campus, 25 of those were undescribed. We had names and localities for the fish, but that’s about it, so I decided to write a book.”

Fish specimen in jarsHis book, The Fishes of Tennessee, first published in 1993, is considered an authoritative source on the diversity of freshwater fauna in Tennessee. Throughout his career, Etnier taught graduate students how to identify, collect, and preserve hundreds of fish species.

Two of those students followed in Etnier’s footsteps and are now in charge of the ichthyology collection.

Ben Keck, curator of the collection and lecturer in the Division of Biology, grew up exploring the creeks of Kentucky. He always had a fascination with fish, but never knew someone could become an ichthyologist until he discovered the Etnier Ichthyology Collection.

“This program has an impact on students who may not know about ichthyology and end up loving it,” Keck says. “People come from all around campus to see different fish specimens or use them for class. We also have several people who use the collection for independent research.”

Jennifer Joice, another former student, is the research assistant for the ichthyology collection. She met Etnier on a float trip down the Mississippi River to study regional fauna.

“I admire Professor Etnier and the work he has done over the years to build such an impressive collection of fishes,” Joice says. “We have people going out and bringing us all kinds of fish from unusual places that we add to our collection. One of things I love is showing off the diversity of freshwater fish species.”

The Etnier Ichthyology Collection has more than 500,000 fish specimens from all over the world and serves as a significant resource for the research community. Several specimens in the collection were significant for discovering new species. Other specimens help scientists study the impact of global warming and water quality on aquatic communities. For nearly 40 years, the collection has served as a repository and reference for private and governmental agencies working on the fishes of the Southeastern United States.

“We are building an online presence and expanding our methodologies for examining fish, which we hope will increase the use of our collection for future research,” Keck says.

Outreach is a major component of both the herbarium and ichthyology collections, which are open to the public.

“We host youth campers and school groups and encourage anyone interested in seeing our collection to visit,” Joice says.

Budke thinks of the plants at the herbarium as belonging to the people of East Tennessee.

“We are your state herbarium where lots of exciting discoveries can happen,” Budke says. “You can actively participate in scientific research here, which is a rare opportunity. It is not often that you can just walk into a science lab and get your hands dirty without a PhD.”