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Biological Survey Unit,
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Photo of National Museum of Natural History,  Smithsonian Institution

Robert D. Fisher

USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center,
National Museum of Natural History
Washington, D.C. 20560

Photo of Tray of Birds by Mercedes S. Foster, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Biological Survey Unit, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

History and Organization

The Biological Survey Unit (BSU) has had several affiliations within the Department of Interior (DOI) because of Bureau reorganizations since 1982 (Fisher, 1982) when its history and structure was last summarized. Among these were removal from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to the National Biological Survey (NBS) and thence to the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS). This update of Fisher (1982) reviews the history of the unit and summarizes its current composition, responsibilities, and activities.

The United States Government has a long history of involvement in research on wildlife and in the building, maintenance, and use of museum collections. The BSU traces its roots back to 1885 and the formation of the Section of Economic Ornithology in the Department of Agriculture. This Section, originally proposed by the American Ornithologists' Union and the Smithsonian Institution, was established by Congress to investigate food habits and migration of birds in relation to insects and plants. The section, under the leadership of C. Hart Merriam, was expanded in 1886 to include mammals, and was elevated to division status as the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy. Its general function was to provide information on pests to the rapidly expanding farm industry, and for the first few years studies of food habits were emphasized. Merriam, however, was more interested in plant and animal distributions and in the physical and climatic factors that influence them than he was in crop pests and feeding habits. As a result, the Division began conducting general surveys of bird, mammal, and other biotic community distributions, plotted the results and used them to construct life zone maps. Merriam perceived this information to be of value to agriculture, and he established several series of publications for the transmission of this information to farmers and other interested parties.

Biological Survey Photo, 1891 from Biological Survey Archives, Smithsonian Institution
(Click on photo for larger image)
Biological Survey Photo, Office from Biological Survey Archives, Smithsonian Institution
(Click on photo for larger image)

Biological Survey members in the field at Lone Pine, Owens Valley, California, 13 June1891.  Left to right: V.O. Bailey, C.H. Merriam, T.S. Palmer, and A.K. Fisher.

Bureau of Biological Survey members working at the U.S. National Museum at the turn of the century.  From left to right: A.K. Fisher, E.W. Nelson, W.H. Osgood, and V.O. Bailey.

Although the Division continued to give advice to farmers, by the early 1890's the primary focus was on faunal surveys. To publish the results of this work, the Division created a new publication series called North American Fauna. Merriam's surveys of the San Francisco Mountains in Arizona and of Death Valley in California were the first of many published results. In 1896, the name of the division was changed to the Division of Biological Survey to reflect more accurately the work being done. Employees of the Division including Edward W. Nelson, Edward A. Goldman, Vernon Bailey, Theodore S. Palmer, Harry C. Oberholser, Wilfred H. Osgood, and Albert K. Fisher continued to conduct faunal surveys for the next several years. Gradually, however, as commercial agriculture continued to expand, Division personnel were compelled to spend more time on the "economic" aspects of birds and mammals. Using information gained through survey work, the Division addressed many questions of economic importance and provided sound advice concerning the management of injurious as well as desirable species of wildlife. Although survey work did not stop, application of the knowledge gained from earlier surveys dominated the Division’s work. Passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, which made interstate shipment of game taken in violation of state laws a federal offense and imposed federal restrictions on importation of exotic wildlife, added further responsibilities, and in 1905 the Division became a bureau within the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The new Bureau of Biological Survey continued to grow and assumed additional responsibilities, and by 1929 it contained five divisions: 1) Biological Investigations, 2) Economic Investigations, 3) Food Habits Research, 4) Fur Resources, and 5) Game and Bird Conservation.

In 1934 the Bureau was reorganized and several of its divisions were united to form the Division of Wildlife Research. The responsibilities of the Division of Biological Investigations were assumed by a Section of Mammalogy in the Division of Wildlife Research. The responsibilities of the new Section included studies of life history, taxonomy and distribution of wildlife, game management planning surveys, cooperative research in wildlife, investigations of wildlife resources in Alaska, and research on forest wildlife. Although the responsibilities remained essentially the same, in 1936 the Section of Mammalogy became known as the Section of Wildlife Surveys, with Hartley H. T. Jackson in charge.

In 1939 the Bureau of Biological Survey was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior (DOI) where it was combined with the Bureau of Fisheries, formerly of the Department of Commerce, to form a new agency within DOI called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1941 the name of the Section of Wildlife Surveys was changed to Section of Biological Surveys to indicate the continuation of the earlier programs in the fields of systematics and faunal research of the original Bureau of Biological Survey. The staff of the section remained the same with Hartley H. T. Jackson in charge. He, Harry C. Oberholser, Edward A. Goldman, and Stanley P. Young were stationed in Washington, D. C., with Victor B. Scheffer, Olaus J. Murie, Charles H. Rause, Frank B. McMurrey, Lawrence J. Palmer, and William H. Marshall working at field stations around the country. Responsibilities of the staff included expanding, curating, and studying the Biological Survey’s bird and mammal specimens; performing systematic research on birds and mammals; carrying on biological surveys of states with particular reference to distribution, abundance, and ecology of the wildlife of those areas; and serving as authorities on the identification of birds and mammals for the FWS, other government agencies, private organizations, and the public.

Photo of Drawers of Birds by Mercedes S. Foster, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

In 1947, responsibility for systematic investigations and curation of birds was removed from the Section of Biological Surveys and placed in the Section of Distribution and Migration of Birds, which included responsibilities for bird banding and bird population studies. John W. Aldrich was head of the Section. In 1949, Stanley P. Young became Chief of the Section of Biological Surveys whose responsibilities by now had been reduced to work on systematics and curation of mammals. In 1951, the two sections were united again to form the Section of Distribution of Birds and Mammals. Then, in 1957, as a result of yet another reorganization within the FWS, responsibilities for bird banding, bird distribution records, and bird population studies were transferred to other units. The Section of Distribution of Birds and Mammals retained responsibility for systematic investigations, identification services, curation, and operation of a bat banding program. In 1958, this unit, still headed by Stanley P. Young, became known as the Bird and Mammal Laboratories (BML).

The BML originally contained two units, a Bird Section with Thomas D. Burleigh as Chief, and a Mammal Section with Richard H. Manville as Chief. Organizationally, the BML remained relatively constant over the next 15 or so years with change occurring primarily in leadership. Section Chiefs in Birds following Burleigh were Lester L. Short, Richard C. Banks, John S. Weske, and Marshall H. Howe; in Mammals following Manville were Arthur H. Greenhall, Clyde Jones, and Don E. Wilson; Directors following Young were Richard H. Manville, Richard C. Banks, and Clyde Jones.

In 1972 a Section of Herpetology was added (R. Bruce Bury was the first Chief followed by Roy W. McDiarmid) and in 1973 the name of the laboratory was changed to the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory (NFWL). By the end of the 1970's, a significantly larger NFWL had been reorganized into three Sections: Ecology, Marine Mammals, and Museum, with Clyde Jones Director. In 1981 Jones moved to Denver, Colorado, to become Director of the Denver Wildlife Research Center (DWRC) and the three Sections became operational units thereof. Don E. Wilson became the head of the Museum Section.

In 1985, the Museum Section was renamed the Biological Survey Section to reflect its origins in this, the 100th anniversary year of its creation. Two years later, 1987, the DWRC was removed from the FWS and became part of the Department of Agriculture. However, the units that had transferred to DWRC as NFWL, including the Biological Survey Section, were removed from DWRC and combined with the Western Energy and Land Use Team to create the National Ecology Research Center (NERC), headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, thereby remaining part of FWS. A year later the Section Chief, Wilson, transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and was replaced by Thomas H. Fritts.

A major reorganization within DOI in 1993 removed the biological research functions from all bureaus and consolidated them to form a new bureau, the National Biological Survey (NBS). As part of this reorganization, the Biological Survey Section was removed from NERC and placed administratively with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC), Laurel, Maryland, within NBS. In 1996 the NBS, whose name was changed to National Biological Service in 1995, lost its bureau status and became the Biological Resources Division (BRD) of USGS, therein consolidating all DOI research functions in one bureau. Along with these changes the Section became known as the Biological Survey Unit (BSU) and its current alignment is PWRC, BRD, USGS, DOI. Fritts transferred to the Midcontinent Ecology Science Center (formerly NERC) in 1998 and Robert P. Reynolds became Unit Chief.

Collections and Research

The earliest Biological Survey collections of birds and mammals, dating back to the Merriam era, were housed in offices of the USDA until 1889. At that time an agreement between USDA and the Smithsonian Institution provided for the transfer of the Biological Survey collections to the U. S. National Museum, where they would be maintained separately from those of the U. S. National Museum. The staff, however, continued to be housed at USDA. Upon completion of the new Natural History building of the Smithsonian in 1910, the now extensive Biological Survey collections and personnel were reunited under one roof. Biological Survey specimens of birds and mammals were catalogued in separate Museum catalogues using specific blocks of USNM numbers, a practice that continues today. These collections continued to be maintained apart from those of the National Museum until 1946 for birds and 1953 for mammals, when it became obvious that separation was no longer feasible or desirable. The Biological Survey holdings, consisting primarily of specimens collected north of the Panamanian-Colombian border, are now integrated with those of the National Museum. Biological Survey Unit personnel have curatorial responsibility for North American (north of the Panama/Colombia boarder) material in the integrated collections.

Photo of Snake by Roy W. McDiarmid, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Research efforts of BSU personnel emphasize faunal investigations, systematic and life history studies, and related research on the geographic and ecological distribution of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Information resulting from such studies provides the basis for sound management decisions by DOI and other state and federal agencies and contributes substantially to general knowledge of the North American fauna. Personnel also cooperate with counterparts in comparable agencies of foreign governments on research projects involving biological surveys, habitat and endangered species inventories, and museum collections and their management. As currently organized, the BSU is divided into four projects: Birds; Mammals; Amphibians and Reptiles; and Curation of North American Terrestrial Vertebrates. Linda M. Wolfe serves as Unit Secretary.

Birds.  The collection of North American birds housed in the National Museum of Natural History is one of outstanding quality. It totals about 370,000 specimens, including approximately 222,000 skins, 31,000 skeletons, 13,000 fluid-preserved, and about 26,500 egg sets and nests. Of the 3,949 specimens in the type collection, 2,120 specimens are holotypes of North American taxa. A major portion of the collection was formed through the activities of the Bureau of Biological Survey which actively collected over much of North America from the 1890's to 1930's and from other early boundary surveys and expeditions seeking railroad and telegraph routes to the west during the 1850's and 1860's. Most areas of North America, particularly the eastern, western, and southwestern Unites States, are well represented. The collections continue to grow with recent emphasis on multiple preparations. Early collections consisted primarily of skins, whereas current preparation techniques may include skeleton, anatomical parts, and tissue samples as well. At this time data are available in electronic form for over 355,000 USNM bird specimens (ca 59% of the total collection). Inventory of the Type, skeleton, fluid, and egg and nest collections is complete. Field catalogues and journals are maintained as well as miscellaneous special reports by early collectors.

Richard C. Banks (Emeritus), Terry Chesser, and Mercedes S. Foster comprise the research personnel of the Bird Project.  Research projects vary in scope and methodology from basic systematic revisions using classical methods to detailed field-based behavioral investigations.  Current projects focus on the ecology and behavior of North American nearctic migrants during migration and in winter; the ecology and behavior of selected species of tropical birds and other migrants that interact with nearctic migrants; social behavior and ecology of neotropical birds with emphasis on lek behavior, frugivory, and seed dispersal; the relationships between birds and the plants whose seeds they disperse; the breeding birds of Virginia; geographic variation and nomenclature of White-fronted Geese; seasonal distribution and biogeography of South American austral migrant flycatchers; phylogeography and movement patterns of Australian waterbirds; systematics, evolution, and biogeography of Ovenbirds; and systematics and biogeography of Australasian birds.

In 1991 the Biological Survey Unit, with Mercedes Foster as series editor, initiated a project whose goal was to produce a series of handbooks detailing standardized field methods for sampling different groups of organisms. The handbooks that have been produced thus far on amphibians, mammals, and fungi have been used in training workshops in the United States and in at least six other countries. A handbook on standard methods for measuring biodiversity of reptiles is currently in progress.

Mammals.  The North American mammal collection contains roughly 300,000 specimens and has grown little over the past 15 years. Geographic representation is excellent for most areas of North and Central America; the arid regions of the southwestern United States are particularly well represented. The standard preparation is the skin and skull of which there are about 190,000 specimens. Other major holdings include 7,000 skeletons, 47,000 fluid specimens, and 3,000 tanned skins. There are 2,051 North American holotypes in the type collection, which totals 3,195 specimens. Ancillary collections of baculae, glandes, brains, karyotype slides, and photographs are small. A North American systematic geographic card file is retained but no longer updated. Instead, a nearly completed electronic database provides specimen records for 100% of the collection, although 20% of the records for fluid-preserved specimens are incomplete. Field catalogues, journals, and special field reports are maintained as well.

Alfred L. Gardner and Neal Woodman comprise the research personnel of the Mammal Project. Current research, as in birds, consists of varied approaches to a wide variety of problems. Among these are revisions of several chapters/sections "Wild Mammals of North America" and the third edition of "Mammals Species of the World"; a collaborative review of the taxonomy, distribution, and ecology of South American Mammals; description of several new species of Central and South American mammals and of postcranial morphology in South American small-eared shrews; and inventory of international biodiversity resources.

Amphibians and Reptiles.  The Herpetology Project, the most recent addition to the Unit, originated in 1972. Roy W. McDiarmid is the Project Leader. The North American collection of reptiles and amphibians contains about 390,900 specimens. This portion of the National Collection is completely computerized; electronic copies on diskette or compact disks, or hard copy reports can be produced in response to requests for information about holdings. The collection is represented primarily by alcohol-preserved specimens, but also includes an extensive skeleton collection (7,645 specimens) as well as ancillary collections of formalin-preserved amphibian larvae (4,632 specimens), cleared and stained specimens (2,638), and smaller collections of histological microscope slides, tapes of vocalizations, and color transparencies of live animals. The type collection contains 12,407 specimens of which about 62% are from North America. Geographic coverage is excellent, and recent growth has been significant with the addition of the Richard Highton collection of salamanders from the University of Maryland. The latter collection represents the most geographically and taxonomically comprehensive single collection of plethodontid salamanders ever assembled from east of the Mississippi River. Over 170,960 of the specimens have been processed and are now available for study. Staff of the Herpetology Project works closely with other USGS herpetologists concerning collection-related needs and the Project also serves as a center for herpetological reprint distribution for many USGS researchers.

Current staff research efforts focus on the following topics: systematics and zoogeography of selected amphibian and reptile species; systematics, distribution, and ecology of tropical amphibians and reptiles in the lowland and highland forests of Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Belize, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Venezuela; a review and synthesis of the biology of North American amphibian larvae and biology of tadpoles; a taxonomic and geographic reference to the snake species of the world; and compilation of a Catalog of the Type Specimens of turtles and crocodilians in the National Museum of Natural History. Considerable time and effort continues to be devoted to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) as well.

Curation of North American Terrestrial Vertebrates.  This project has curatorial and collection-management responsibility for the more than 1,000,000 North American specimens and associated data in the divisions of Amphibians and Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals located at the National Museum of Natural History and a support facility in Suitland, Maryland. Collection management staff consists of six Museum Specialists: Steve W. Gotte and James A. Poindexter, II in Amphibians and Reptiles; Claudia J. Angle and Roger B. Clapp in Birds; and Robert D. Fisher and Suzanne C. Peurach in Mammals. The Project Leader, Robert P. Reynolds, also works in Amphibians and Reptiles. Activities of the Curatorial Project include collection of specimens for deposit in the museum, identification of specimens, cataloguing and processing incoming specimens (6,915 in 2002), computer capture of specimen data (8,560 records in 2002), processing incoming and outgoing loans of scientific specimens for researchers at other institutions (83 loans involving 1,297 specimens in 2002), handling information and identification requests from Federal, State, and foreign agencies as well as from researchers at other institutions (records for 30,423 specimens provided in response to 169 requests in 2002), and curation of selected segments of the collections (approximately 5,812 specimens in 2002).

Staff also provides research support to the other Projects including assistance with field trips; library work; assembly of data from files, field notes, and catalogues; measurement of specimens; preparation of data for computer entry; and preparation of figures and illustrations for publications.

Photo Employee Recording Field Data by Robert P. Reynolds, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Sources of information used in this article include the following:

Aldrich, J. W. History of the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory. Unpublished manuscript in the files of the Biological Survey, Washington, D.C., 17 pp.

Banks, R. C. 1995. Ornithology at the U. S. National Museum of Natural History. Pp 33-54 in W. E. Davis, Jr. and J. A. Jackson. eds., Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, No. 12, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 501 pp.

Cameron, J. 1929. The Bureau of Biological Survey; its History, Activities and Organization. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, for the Brookings Institution. x + 339 pp.

Fisher, R. D. 1982. Museum Section, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Association of Systematics Collections Newsletter, 10(3):29-31.

Pulliam, H. R. 1998a. The Political Education of a Biologist Part I. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 26(2):199-202.

Pulliam, H. R. 1998b. The Political Education of a Biologist Part II. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 26(3):499-503.

Sterling, K. B. 1977. Last of the Naturalists: the Career of C. Hart Merriam. Arno Press, New York, xii + 472 pp.

Richard Banks, Mercedes Foster, Alfred Gardner, Roy McDiarmid, and Robert Reynolds critically read the original manuscript and provided valuable information and suggestions.

Revised August 1, 2011

Robert D. Fisher
Biological Survey Unit
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
National Museum of Natural History
Washington, D.C. 20560

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