THERE'S A NEW AND unwieldy addition to HSU's vertebrate collection: the complete skeleton of a young gray whale. Thor Holmes, the collection manager, is working with two student volunteers to find the best way to store it. And as they grapple with the great streamlined skull and pack away the vertebral discs—wide as dinner plates—the students are doing more than an interesting project related to their area of study. They're carrying on a longstanding Humboldt tradition.

The Timothy E. Lawlor Mammal Collection contains many rare and exotic specimens, including: (clockwise from top left) a duck-billed platypus, a hollow-faced bat, a feather-tailed glider, a tarsier, an echidna and a golden lion tamarin.

TOP: Anna Ulch holds the tiny skeleton of a marsh shrew. Ulch meticulously rearticulated the skeleton as part of her work with the collection. MIDDLE: Timothy Lawlor managed HSU's vertebrate museum for 32 years. BOTTOM: Zoology students Kylie Washer and Anna Ulch inspect a piece of the lower jaw of Hubb's beaked whale.

Humboldt State's impressive vertebrate collection—dominated by mammals, though a significant number of samples are from reptiles or amphibians—has been built over these many years through the efforts of students. It's a unique culture of collecting and curating specimens that was started by Tim Lawlor, a professor who oversaw the university's collection for 32 years. Among his many students was Holmes.

Under Lawlor's long leadership, the vertebrate collection grew into a major asset, expanding from fewer than 800 holdings to more than 8,000. Today the collection contains more than 15,000 specimens.

The secret was Lawlor's uncanny ability to recruit student assistants who possessed just the right stuff—who had a fascination with natural history that made the work of cleaning bones a thrill, and who considered the stink of rotting carcasses irrelevant.

Lawlor passed away last April, and this year the collection was renamed the Timothy E. Lawlor Mammal Collection in his honor.

During his time on the HSU faculty (1969–2001), Lawlor gave students the opportunity to manage the Humboldt mammal collection themselves, under his exacting direction. Many have gone on to become professional biologists and collection managers at prominent museums and universities. Among them: Jim Dines, now at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History; Bob Jones, now retired from UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; Paula Guthrie, curator at the University of Wisconsin's museum; and Bill Gannon, collection manager at the Museum of Southwestern Biology, at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.

Holmes, who now manages the collection, recalls arriving at HSU as a mammal-obsessed but otherwise aimless graduate student in the 1970s. Then he met Lawlor, the man he affectionately calls "coach," whose influence transformed his life.

"The coach demanded excellence, and he drew it out of us," Holmes says.

After his intense, hands-on experiences working on the HSU collection, Holmes went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Kansas. He spent most of his career there managing the mammal collection, which is one of the most extensive in the world. After he retired he came back to Humboldt as a part-time faculty member. He says the chance to shepherd the collection that had launched his career, and to teach in what had once been Lawlor's mammalogy course, was one he couldn't turn down.

Bill Stanley went straight from his master's work at Humboldt to the position of collection manager for mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, a job he still enjoys more than 20 years later.

Stanley recalls the way Lawlor's student crew rescued him from despair during his undergraduate days in the 1980s. He had grown up in Kenya and had dreams of working with big game animals, but the standard wildlife management coursework left him wanting more. He was walking past the Science C building one afternoon when he saw a group of students cleaning a whale skull and asked if he could help. Once all the flesh had been scraped from the skull, Stanley asked what else he could do. Bill Gannon, then a graduate student acting as collection manager, pointed him toward a line of 55-gallon drums, each of which held a rotting seal carcass, and suggested he clean the meat off the bones.

"I was enthralled," Stanley says, "because I was able to produce a clean skull or skeleton out of decaying goop. I was enthralled that the data we were gathering would contribute to our understanding of the pinnipeds of the world. And I was enthralled mostly because of the band of misfit geeks that hung out at the museum and encouraged me to do all this."

Stanley fondly remembers walking into the collection room to find Gannon working. "I couldn't believe he could be so off the wall, and at the same time be taking such good care of this important collection. It was then relatively small, with regard to numbers of specimens, but already held one of the best existing collections of marine mammal skeletons, and of Great Basin mammals."

Lawlor's students enjoyed what they were doing, sometimes in eccentric ways, but all were driven to do serious work studying or curating mammals. Because so many biologists Lawlor mentored went on to work as museum professionals, he was able to trade specimens and build up an unusually diverse teaching collection. Mammalogy students at Humboldt can hold the skulls and skeletons of rare creatures from around the world—including platypus, tree sloth, lemur and wombat.

Students often joined Lawlor on field trips to trap and collect small mammals. He used his specimens to chart the rise and fall of different animals as habitats shifted through time, and to understand the modern impacts of logging and climate change. The collection room in Science C holds thousands of skins of mice, shrews, chipmunks and squirrels, carefully labeled with the animals' physical details and location.

"Some people see this as a room full of bad karma," Holmes says. "But these specimens are priceless, in the sense that they represent a slice of time to which we can never return. They are vouchers for the existence of that creature in that moment, in that place. They're not only key to our understanding of how animal populations change through space and time, they hold the answers to questions we haven't even thought of yet."

Stanley, who uses techniques he learned from Lawlor to study small mammal populations in the mountains of Tanzania, agrees. New tools, like analyses of DNA and isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from stored bones or skins, can now reveal ecological change at a level of detail that became possible only recently. "I'll pick up dead squirrels by the roadside on my way to work," he says. "People ask, when will you have enough squirrels? The answer is never, because it takes large samples to test hypotheses about the ways populations change."

LEFT: Student Anna Ulch and the skeleton of a Risso's dolphin that she and other students assembled. The process of rearticulation, as it is known, was for a comparative anatomy project. RIGHT: Large collections of a single species, in this case California sea lion skulls, can reveal variations that appear in populations over time.

Anna Ulch, who graduated last fall with honors in zoology, is a prime example of the kind of student drawn to work with the collection. She first glimpsed some of the specimens when her mammalogy class took a tour.

"That day I got my hands on a lion skull," she remembers, "and I knew I wanted to do this." Her first task as a volunteer was to label clean chipmunk bones (using her tiniest handwriting), and she soon worked her way up to preparing newly dead specimens. The delicate skeleton of a shrew is one of Ulch's contributions.

Ulch displays the skull of a young beaked whale, a rarity that she helped to collect. The youngster had a row of vestigial teeth, fascinating because beaked whales gulp their food—usually squid—whole. In this species, teeth are just for show, a way for males to attract mates.

Her work with such specimens has given Ulch new direction. She always knew she was interested in animals, but her experiences with the collection have given her a strong focus on understanding the lives of marine mammals. She'll be going out into the job market with some unusual skills, including an ability to necropsy dead seals and whales.

Perhaps most memorable for Ulch was the trip she and another student made with Holmes to document the carcass of a blue whale that washed up on the Mendocino coast in October of 2009. They waded through surf to reach the whale, and found that it had died of wounds suffered in a collision with a ship. They collected blubber samples and made measurements. Ulch climbed onto the whale's flukes, then walked the length of its great body. Holmes recalls watching his two mesmerized students exploring the giant carcass as one of the high points of his teaching career. Says Ulch, "I never thought I'd get this chance." .

"These specimens are not only key to our understanding of how animal populations change through time, they hold the answers to questions we haven't even thought of yet."

  1. Javeolna (also called peccary)
  2. Ermine
  3. Aardvark
  4. Bat-eared Fox
  5. Mountain olon
  6. Capybara
  7. Golden olon Tamarin
  8. Mountain Beaver
  9. Jamaican Fruit Bat
  10. Spotted Hyaena
  11. Steenbok
  12. Black-tail Jackrabbit
  13. Short-tailed Shrew