fb logo

Research Areas

Archaeology is the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, analysis, and interpretation of material remains. In North America, archaeology is one of the sub-disciplines of the field of Anthropology. Archaeologists study a wide range of materials including fossil hominids that help us examine the human evolutionary line, the places where people lived in the past, artifacts such as pottery, stone tools and food remains, and environmental data to help us understand why people live where they do and how humans impact the environment. VMNH holds a variety of Native American artifacts from the eastern United States, prehistoric material from Saltville, Virginia, and historic material from Martinsville.

Geology is the study of the solid earth and the processes that form and affect it. This includes studies of minerals, rocks, volcanoes, earthquakes, and many other earth materials and processes. VMNH houses a large collection of rock samples, most of which have been collected and studied by our Curators and Research Associates. The rocks include 70,000 feet of rock core drilled through an inactive fault in Pittsylvania County. This core provides the only detailed documentation of a major fault system that formed when the Atlantic Ocean opened 200 million years ago. Our mineral collection, largely built through donations, is relatively small, but growing. Thanks to a recent donation, VMNH has just added over 500 mineral specimens, many of them from Virginia, to our collections.

Mammalogy is the study of non-human mammals, which are some of the animals (dogs, cats, squirrels) that are most familiar to us. Mammals are animals that have backbones and hair, and female mammals feed milk to their young. Mammals are typically preserved as skins plus skeletons. They are also sometimes preserved in fluids such as alcohol. The skeletons are particularly important for scientific research, because they are the most important evidence for determining relationships among living species and their fossil relatives.

VMNH houses the largest collection (about 17,000 specimens) of mammals from Virginia. Another 2000 specimens are from other parts of North America. This collection includes substantial holdings (more than 1500 individuals) from the Virginia barrier islands. Additionally, VMNH has large numbers of eastern gray squirrels and eastern fox squirrels from throughout their natural ranges in the eastern United States, making this one of the largest collections of tree squirrels in North America.

Paleontology is the study of ancient organisms preserved as fossils. While many people immediately think of dinosaurs, paleontology includes the entire range of ancient life, including plants and animals, and traces they leave behind such as tracks and coprolites. The VMNH houses a large fossil collection in a variety of areas including Cenozoic mollusks from the eastern United States, Miocene whales and other marine vertebrates from Virginia, Triassic insects, plants, reptiles, and tracks from Virginia and North Carolina, Triassic reptiles from Britain, Carboniferous plants from Virginia and West Virginia, Ice Age bones and teeth from Saltville, Virginia, Jurassic dinosaurs from Wyoming, and Cretaceous dinosaurs and other animals from Montana.

Recent Invertebrates Ninety percent of all living things are animals without backbones, so pervasive and abundant they have been called "The little things that make the world go ‘round." Such groups as insects, arachnids, crustaceans, worms, echinoderms, protozoans, and mollusks are all invertebrates. Even the largest museums do not attempt to collect and study them all, and VMNH has to be selective in its research priorities. The fauna of Virginia logically takes first place, for despite its rank among the most biodiverse states in the country, the study of our invertebrates has been very deficient and current emphasis must be placed on such basic procedures as inventories simply to discover what species occur in Virginia. We emphasize freshwater insects and mollusks, as their habitats are the most jeopardized, and the faunas of forest litter (beetles, myriapods, spiders, isopods, and ants), which are important in the formation of new organic soil. The diversity and distribution of ants and wasps worldwide is another area of interest. VMNH houses the largest collection of arthropods, and other invertebrates, from Virginia and is among the largest invertebrate collections in the eastern U.S. The collection fuels ongoing in-house research, and is consulted by investigators from the United States and many foreign countries. Dissemination of new knowledge is accomplished by publication in many international journals as well as in two museum series, "The Insects of Virginia" and "Jeffersoniana."

Marine Biology is the study of the animals and plants that live in the ocean. Marine biological research includes research on the ecology of marine communities and ecosystems, as well as the biology and relationships of the many groups of organisms that live in the sea. Museum marine biologists focus on the ecology, biology, and taxonomy of one group of marine organisms. They study the organisms alive at field stations or underwater. They also make collections to use in their research at the museum. Our marine collections include about 5,000 specimens of bryozoans primarily from the coasts of the United States, the Western Atlantic, and Caribbean, and the Antarctic. Some specimens from other areas are included in the bryozoan reference collection. Bryozoans are a phylum of colonial invertebrates that are found almost everywhere in the oceans from the intertidal to the deep sea. A few species live in rivers, lakes and ponds. So far eight of them have been found in Virginia.