Research at the Virginia Museum of Natural History
The Virginia Museum of Natural History is defined by the scientific research conducted at the museum by its staff of world-renowned curators. Currently, VMNH has active research programs in the areas of archaeology, geology, herpetology, mammalogy, paleontology and recent invertebrates. Find out more about these programs, and the curators who lead them, below.
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.
The museum's archaeology program is led by Dr. Hayden Bassett, Assistant Curator of Archaeology.
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.
The museum's geology program is led by Dr. Jim Beard, Curator Emeritus of Earth Sciences.
Herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles. Although these two groups are not closely related from an evolutionary perspective, they have been historically grouped together by scientists and this grouping continues still today. Virginia is home to an exceptional diversity of amphibians and reptiles, with 25 species and subspecies of turtle, 34 species and subspecies of snake, 9 species of lizard, 28 species of frog and toad, and, most remarkably, over 60 recognized species of salamander. The herpetology collection at VMNH contains over 10,000 specimens with a regional focus on those occurring in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Many amphibians and reptiles are somewhat secretive in nature and occupy small range sizes, so new species––here in Virginia and around the world––are still being discovered. Some species in these groups respond strongly to environmental gradients and are particularly sensitive to habitat degradation. For this reason, we often study them as "indicator species" of ecosystem health. Herpetological studies provide unique perspectives to our understanding of biodiversity––from its origins to its future in a changing world.
The Museum's herpetology program is led by Dr. Arianna Kuhn, Assistant Curator of Herpetology.
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.
The museum's mammalogy program is led by Dr. Nancy Moncrief, Curator of Mammalogy.
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.
The museum's paleontology program is led by Dr. Adam Pritchard, Assistant Curator of Paleontology.
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."
The museum's recent invertebrates program is led by Dr. Kaloyan Ivanov, Associate Curator of Invertebrate Zoology.