OSU’s College of Ichthyology

The word ichthyology comes from the Greek work ikhthús, meaning fish, and you guessed it, ichthyology is the study of fish. Oregon State University happens to be home to one of the most impressive collections of fish out there which resides in the basement of Nash Hall. 

Originally established in 1935, the collection houses over 3,000 species of fish which can be viewed for research, or by anyone who is curious. The collection is mainly focused on fish that are found in the Pacific Northwest, but also houses species from around the globe. Brazil, India, Japan, and Iran are just some of the countries from which the collection keeps specimens. The ages of those specimens are fairly wide ranging, the oldest being collected in 1905 and the most recent being harvested just some weeks ago.

The room in which the collection is kept is truly something to behold. The many shelves, which are on tracks, are normally pushed together in the middle of the room, but can be pulled apart revealing row after row of mason jars containing both mundane and exotic looking fish. There are also shelving units that hold massive metal containers for specimens too large to store in the glass jars. For example, I had the pleasure of viewing a shark’s head in one such metal tub. It was intimidating to view the chomping end of the beast, but comforting to know that the head was unable to act on its own. 

I also observed numerous species of anglerfish and came away with a greater understanding of how they live. The carnivorous, toothy anglerfish catches its prey by fishing for it. Like its human counterpart, the anglerfish dangles out a line in order to catch its dinner. One fish that I viewed had the line still protruding from its head, called an “illicium,” with an organ at the tip called an “esca.” In the black ocean depths where the angler fish hunts, the esca becomes luminescent, attracting a potential meal. Other species of anglerfish have the ability to extend their illicium and then retract it back into their head.

As an associate professor at the college and the Curator of Fishes, Brian Sidlauskas’ job is to keep things safe and organized. According to Sidlauskas, there are over a quarter of a million pickled fish currently stored in the massive collection, though if you count larvae, the number is in the millions. You might be wondering, why so many?

“The collection is a foundation of teaching and research,” commented Sidlauskas.

Sidlauskas went on to explain that there are a number of classes about fish biology and identification for which the collection is invaluable. He said it helps students identify fish when answering important questions, like if it is an endangered species, if it can be moved, and how it can best be handled. 

The OSU collection also assists with ichthyology field research. 

“It’s like a library. We lend out species around the country and around the world. At least weekly, species are sent and also received from other collections,” said Sidlauskas.

As we spoke, the College of Ichthyology was naming a new species that had been discovered in 2017. Unfortunately for us, the names of these new species cannot be revealed until the naming process is complete. Sidlauskas told me that it was not unusual to discover a new species of fish, and that several hundred are discovered per year.

The College of Ichthyology is also involved in conservation efforts where the collection comes in handy by providing data for local and international migration patterns of species. They are currently studying populations of sculpins and believe that there are numerous different species throughout the Pacific Northwest; previously they were thought to all be the same.

The coolest part of the ichthyology collection is that it is open to the public, so if you would like to pay it a visit you can email Brian Sidlauskas at brian.sidlauskas@oregonstate.edu. Spend your time learning more about fish in general, or just pop in for the sheer marvelment of seeing a shark’s head. If the thought of seeing wildlife specimens in person makes you a bit squeamish but you are still curious, the collection is also viewable online at http://ichthyology.oregonstate.edu.

By Jonah Anderson