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 subdisciplines 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.
Invertebrate Paleontology includes the study of such diverse organisms as trilobites, ammonites, crinoids (sea lilies), mollusks and insects, as well as microorganisms such as foraminiferans. The VMNH invertebrate paleontology collections include one of the most extensive collections of Tertiary invertebrates, mostly from the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain. There is also a world-class collection of Triassic insects from Virginia.
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.
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.
Recent Invertebrates Ninety percent of all living things are animals without backbones, so pervasive and abundant they have been called "The little organisms that make the world go ‘round." Such groups as insects, arachnids, crustaceans, worms, starfish, 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), which are important in the formation of new organic soil. The classification and distribution of millipeds worldwide is a second area of interest. The VMNH reference collection, ranked among the ten best in the world, fuels ongoing inhouse 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 "Myriapodologica."
Vertebrate Paleontology collections often include such diverse animals as dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, turtles, mammal-like reptiles like Dimetrodon, mammoths and ancient fishes. Representative fossils include articulated skeletons, isolated bones, eggs, and traces such as trackways and coprolites. VMNH houses rich collections of Triassic vertebrate fossils, including dinosaur tracks. We also have hundreds of dinosaur bones from the famous Morrison Formation of Wyoming and excellent material of Miocene whales from Virginia. Ice Age vertebrate remains from Saltville, southwest Virginia, are also well-represented in the collections. Paleobotany collections might include megafossils such as leaves, wood, and reproductive structures including cones, seeds, and flowers, together with microfossils like pollen and spores. The VMNH collections are largely restricted to megafossils from the Triassic of eastern North America and remains from the Coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia and Illinois.