Appreciating Preserved Wildlife at the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Conservation

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Photo by Harrison Wayne | Staff Photographer

Hannah Maerowitz
Staff Writer

Algae, raptors, and bears are only three of the many specimens that eventually find their way to collections of The Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Conservation (CCBER).

Inside some cabinets reminiscent of airtight library shelves lie hundreds of organisms, including insects, pressed plants, and stuffed birds. A stuffed bear lies on top of one of the cabinets in a collection that focuses on mammals.

CCBER is an organization that engages the public in environmental education, restores and maintains ecosystems, and maintains one of the largest natural history collections in the UC system, with an emphasis on teaching undergraduate students conservation skills and involving them in the mission of the center.

“Undergraduate students are very valuable to us,” said Katja Seltmann, the director of CCBER, in an interview with The Bottom Line. “The center has three main missions: maintaining campus open spaces, K-12 environmental education, and … the collections so that they can be used for research. A lot of enthusiastic students come to us and get involved with the work we’re doing and that keeps us running,” said Seltmann.

Although CCBER is granted space to operate by UCSB, the center’s work is entirely funded by donations and grants, which Seltmann says is indicative of the value that people place on the collections.

“The collections are rich sources of study and people recognize that. We have specimens that are from the late 1800s, even before UCSB was founded. By collecting specimens over time, we can track how populations change and from that, ask questions about how changes in the area may affect those populations. There used to be a species of bee in Isla Vista that was catalogued in 1954, but is now endangered and rarely found in the area,” said Seltmann.

Faculty, students, and other researchers all have access to CCBER’s archives through online databases, since the center photographs specimens in addition to preserving them for in-house research.

CCBER has evolved alongside technology, transitioning to formatting their labels on computers and using sophisticated photo-imaging technology to photograph specimens. However, the center still maintains a focus on its roots educating the public about the natural world and contributing to research.

As scientists have developed new techniques for inquiry, there is increasingly more and more data that can be discerned from specimens. For instance, even though DNA analysis didn’t exist until recently, DNA can be collected from a violet that is 150 years old if the violet is well preserved.

“There’s so little we know about a lot of the natural world, which makes keeping detailed records of what’s found in an area very important. There could be techniques that don’t exist yet which we can use to find out information later on. Not to mention that there’s so many specimens that haven’t been collected yet,” said Seltmann, who is an entomologist in addition to serving as the director of CCBER.

“In the insect world, for example, we know very little. I’ve gone outside Cheadle before to gather bugs with a net and discovered a new species. People think undiscovered species are only in the far reaches of the world, but there’s so much left to learn everywhere,” said Seltmann.

Seltmann also noted that the collections serve as a historical resource with use outside ecological research.

“We’re partnering with the literature program in order to facilitate student research that may have an interdisciplinary or natural history focus,” said Seltmann. “One student I knew traced the history of educating female entomologists through analyzing data from specimen labels and she figured out that many of them were first trained at Midwestern universities.”

The collections are not limited to use by ecologists, botanists, and other scientists. In addition to the center’s decades long legacy of conservation and research, CCBER will most likely continue to spark the curiosity of many researchers from all disciplines in the years to come.