- Associated Press - Saturday, October 20, 2018

BELLE CHASSE, La. (AP) - Justin Mann dreams about fish.

In one particularly terrifying dream he sees row after row of metallic shelving, stacked with glass jars filled with fish specimens, topple over like mammoth dominoes.

The nightmare strikes a little close to reality for Mann, who has for the past five years been in charge of organizing, cataloguing and upkeeping 7 million fish specimens.

He’s the collection manager of Tulane University’s Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the world’s largest collection of post-larval stage fish. The collection also remains “one of the best kept secrets, even among Tulane people,” according to the collection curator Hank Bart.

Part of the reason is its location.

Mann makes a daily trek to a hidden bend of the Mississippi River just north of Belle Chasse, to a 500-acre property Tulane University has owned since the 1980s. A paved road into the property diverts into a narrower gravel road that precariously winds its way past 27 concrete bunkers once used to store artillery for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Many of the bunkers have been choked out by tall grass and trees left to grow wild on their rooftops.

Since 1968, bunkers two and three have been home to millions of preserved fish. They’re stored in glass jars stacked floor to ceiling, in temperature and light-controlled rooms in the concrete bunkers.

This is where Mann and Bart have continued the work of ichthyologist Royal D. Suttkus who started the collection in the 1950s. Today the collection is used by researchers across the globe to study the biodiversity of fish populations in the Gulf-South region.

According to rumor, Suttkus’ collection, which was originally stored in the top floor of a building on Tulane’ s main campus, got so big it started bowing the floor underneath it, Mann said. By that point in 1964, Tulane had taken over the lease on the 500-acre property.

“Most collections like ours are relegated to basements in academic buildings - we have a glut of space,” Mann said, referring to the 15,000 square foot concrete bunker.

The collection today has approximately 204,000 glass containers, or lots, used to preserve specimens of the same species that were collected together, he explained. Most of the fish were collected from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River and even from Mexico and Central America.

Bart explained that by having access to the actual specimens, scientists can study the fishes’ stomach contents to learn about their diets, or research their breeding patterns and how fish populations change over time.

“Each jar here takes us back to a moment in history. These specimens are a record of that time,” he said.

The best example of each species is stored in a bomb and weather proof space called the Type Room. Here, Mann pulled out a jar showing a tiny minnow collected in 1838, the oldest fish in the collection. A rare, tiny pocket shark, “the star of the collection” Mann said, is only the second of its kind ever discovered. He held up the jar containing the five-and-a-half-inch shark and explained how it was named not for its size but because of the twin pockets located behind its front fins.

Bunker 2 houses the large fish specimens. Mann removed the lid off of a large metal container while warning it’s best not to peer inside immediately because of the pungent smell of the alcohol used to preserve the collection’s largest specimen, an eight-foot Bramble Shark. It lay in the tank alongside an alligator Gar, a prehistoric looking beast with a thick shell of scales protecting its sides

Smaller specimens are also stored here. Whip Eels caught off of the coast Florida in 1959 and 2002 sit preserved in acetone, side by side in twin jars on a shelf.

“Sometimes I feel like a glorified librarian,” Mann joked.

He remains the lone full-time employee at the collection, spending his days applying for grants and trying to keep up with the extensive work involved in cataloguing and maintaining thousands of jars.

While the university is supportive of maintaining the collection, funding is tight which requires Mann to devote time to applying for grants to support additional part-time staffers. Many institutions have been forced to operate with smaller budgets and significant numbers of research grants have shifted their focus to genetic research, which is better funded than traditional taxonomic approaches (science of defining and naming of biological organisms based on shared characteristics), he said.

Last year they were able to hire another staffer for the length of a grant when they acquired 85,000 new specimens from the fish collection at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. The school had been given only 48 hours to unload its collection, which included 6 million preserved fish and 500,000 plant specimens.

“I really saw this rash of collections either being abandoned or consolidated. This is happening all around the country,” Mann said. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the business.”

Tulane’s natural history collection went through its own consolidation in 2011.

The Suttkus collection used to be part of the Tulane Museum of Natural History, which included research collections of mammals, birds, amphibians, fossils, and reptiles. A lack of active curators forced the university to donate many of these collections to other institutions, including Lousiana State University Museum of Natural Science.

“These collections take up a lot of space and you are constantly in the place of having to justify funding for it, just like you would any library,” said Robb Brumfield, the director of LSU’s Museum of Natural Science.

Researchers use these collections to understand the differences and similarities between species and to catalogue changes in biodiversity.

“The world is changing rapidly - we are catalogouing a record of that change,” said Brumfield.

The Royal D. Suttkus fish collection will remain in its bunker home, although Mann and Bart said that there have been rumors that Tulane University was looking for potential buyers for the property. Bart said there has even been discussion of moving the collection to a space owned by Tulane University on the wharf, near where Mardi Gras World is located, in an effort to create a River Coastal Research Center.

A Tulane University spokesperson said that while there may have been discussions in the past, there no current plans to the sell the property.

The public isn’t allowed inside the property making it hard to get the word out about the collection’s existence.

“Right now, the public can’t access us. Something like this would bring us across the river, so more people would be able to know about us,” Bart said.

It’s a trade-off, however.

The property is a place shrouded in mystery, even among people in nearby Belle Chasse, Mann said.

He recently brought his 5-year-old son Jonathan out to the bunker to watch the Perseid meteor shower because the place is far enough away from any light pollution.

Jonathan loves where his dad works, although Mann is wary of bringing him around so many glass jars.

Sometimes he asks his son if he knows what his dad does for a living.

“He tells me, ‘Dead fish,’ so I think he at least has some idea,” Mann said.


Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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