Student Voices

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish: An insider’s look into the UW Fish Collections

Cleared and stained fish specimen. Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum

Many visitors to the University of Washington Seattle campus are completely unaware of a gem that’s hiding in plain sight amidst the facilities on lower campus. It’s one of the largest fish museum collections in the world, and it’s right under our very feet!

Located in the basement of the Fisheries Teaching and Research building, the Ichthyology Collection – part of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture – houses more than 12 million fish specimens, representing over 4,100 species or almost 15% of all described extant fishes! The collection possesses a wide range of sample types, including eggs and larvae, juveniles and adults (my favorite!), dry skeletons, otoliths (fish ear bones), fish scales, and even frozen tissue samples held in a -86 C freezer.


Dr. Luke Tornabene, Curator of Fishes. Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum

Starting in 1919, the UW School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences – formerly the School of Fisheries – began collecting and housing specimens for use in a teaching collection. At the time, professors and students would gather specimens in the field and return to campus to preserve and keep them for further study. Now part of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Ichthyology Collection is considered the largest fish collection on this continent, and the only fish collection of any size within the state of Washington.

  • A close-up view of a salmonid scale. Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum

    5 million pairs of otoliths

  • 800,000 salmon scales
  • 400,000 juvenile/adult specimens
  • 9 million eggs and larvae
  • 10,000 tissue samples

It’s almost hard to believe that such a large and world-renowned museum collection is housed right on our very own campus – and even harder to believe that most students aren’t even aware of its presence!

“Our primary mission is to promote teaching and research in the areas of ichthyology, fisheries biology, aquatic biology, biodiversity and conservation, and to provide a source of ichthyological information for the public.” – Burke Museum


Preserved adult and juvenile fishes from the collection. Photo by Katlyn Fuentes

Despite its relative obscurity to most on campus, the Burke’s Ichthyology Collection has been instrumental in furthering research of fishes and our natural environment. From 2010 to 2014 alone, approximately 122 papers were published by national and international researchers who utilized the collections for their work. In addition to making the specimens in the collection available to scientists from other institutions, many staff and volunteers utilize these fishes to conduct their own research projects.

But it’s not all about research – the staff also participates in environmental outreach and education by offering tours for local grade school students and hosting events like Girls in Science, a hands-on science program for middle and high school girls.


A recent grant from the National Science Foundation has enabled the Burke Museum to start collaborating with other institutions to CT scan specimens to create a digital, 3D encyclopedia of all known vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and yes – fishes. Over the next four years, researchers will scan approximately one quarter of the known 70,000 vertebrate species – including animals from more than 80% of extant vertebrate genera! The University of Washington and its resident fish collection have already made considerable contributions to this project, through the #ScanAllFishes effort at Friday Harbor Laboratories.


Larvae from the collections. Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum

As a current undergraduate Research Assistant at the collection, an ichthyologist-in-training, and just an all-around crazy-fish-person, I could wax poetic about fishes all day long. But you don’t have to be a scientist or a fellow fish-lover to realize the importance of this collection – or any other museum collection for that matter. Museums, such as the Burke, are integral to scientific communication, as they help foster new relationships between scientists and the public. In an age where nearly everything is digital and answers to questions are found within seconds, we often forget the importance of physical record-keeping. The very people who collect the information of which we are so quick to access by means of a “Google” search, are often forgotten in our haste to speedily retrieve answers.

When asked about the role that natural history museums play in society, Dr. Luke Tornabene, curator of the Ichthyology Collections had some wise words to say…

“In a time when museums and schools are losing natural history collections and giving up due to costs, we are recognizing the information held in these specimens is only getting more valuable.”

“We have to change our mentality of how we think about natural history collections from being a burden to administrators and universities and start thinking of them as an incredibly brilliant economic investment, let alone research investment.”

Dr. Luke Tornabene, Curator of Fishes

And after hearing Dr. Loren McClenachan’s talk last week about her use of historical photographs of trophy fish found in a Florida library to document changes in the reef fish community, I can’t help but feel amazed at the magnitude of potential new research findings based on museum collections!

Whether you’re a scientist or an artist, an all-around fish-enthusiast (like me!) or someone who only appreciates fishes when they’re on your dinner plate, the Ichthyology Collection, as part of the Washington State Museum is, in a way, your collection. Dr. Tornabene says that “the collection is the people’s collection and the research that comes out of the collection is mainly to benefit the people themselves.” And thanks to its staff, volunteers, benefactors, and yes – community members, the Ichthyology Collections at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture will remain an invaluable resource to both scientific and public communities for many years to come.




  1. Rachel Manning

    Love, love, love! Such an eloquent post and so happy to have a post about our collection! Awesome job, Katlyn!

    • Katlyn Fuentes

      Thank you so much, Rachel! And thank YOU for all of the work you do for the collection!

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