By Alice Doolittle, Cataloging Intern, Field Book Project
When I began cataloging field books in the Division of Fishes at the National Museum of Natural History a few weeks ago, one of the first books I pulled off the shelf was a record book of tin tag numbers used on a cruise of the research vessel Albatross in the early 1900s. This kind of log book is really no different from any other field catalog of specimens; it contains a list of unique numbers assigned to individual specimens in the field as they are collected. The catalog usually includes basic collection information, as well, such as where and when the specimen was collected. I was not, however, familiar with tin tags, or their textile counterparts, linen tags and silk tags. In fact, I realized that I didn’t know much about the whole process of collecting and preparing fish specimens, and I wanted to know more.
By now I’ve looked through enough field books to have learned that there are many ways that fish are collected—trawling, seining, hook-and-line fishing, and spearfishing, to name a few. But what happens after that? Dr. Jeff Williams, Division of Fishes Collection Manager, gave me an insider’s view on collecting fish in the field. Jeff described a typical scene on a research vessel: scores of fish on the deck of a ship, having just been brought on board in a trawl net. The fish are sorted into species right there on deck. They get tagged—Jeff uses paper tags and a fish tagging gun, like a price tag gun you might see in a clothing store. In the past, collectors tied tin, silk, or linen tags to the fish with string.
Along the way, Jeff photographs the fish in a portable tank. It is important to take a photograph when the fish is still fresh, as its colors will start to fade fairly quickly. This would explain why field books I’ve worked with—many of which pre-date portable cameras—sometimes contain colorful sketches of collected fish, or include detailed “color notes” describing the patterns and colors of collected fish. (See “When Are Drawings Field Notes?” for more on this topic.)
The fish are preserved with formaldehyde and shipped in batches to the museum, where they are further processed before becoming fully-fledged museum specimens. The fish then are preserved in alcohol for long-term storage.
The alcohol preservation is done in stages, in an effort to minimize the shrinking that the alcohol causes. Another insight into field notes! Ichthyologists often record fish lengths in their notes, sometimes taking several other size measurements, as well. Now that I know the museum specimen will be a bit smaller than the fish in the wild, I can understand why a collector might want to take field measurements while the fish is still fresh.
Museum Specialist Kris Murphy took me on a tour of the Smithsonian’s fish collection so that I could see the fruits of all this collecting labor. Like the fish themselves, the jars that house them come in all different shapes and sizes—even canning jars, complete with “Le Parfait” raised lettering on the side. For me, the best part of touring the collection was being able to track down fish whose tin tag numbers I saw while cataloging field books—some collected more than a hundred years ago. Now when I look at a tin tag record book, I don’t just see a list of numbers, but the fish themselves, residing on shelf after shelf in the Smithsonian’s incredible library of biodiversity.