Most people are familiar with the game fish in British Columbia, but not the vast majority of British Columbia’s marine and freshwater vertebrates that are not exploited for human use. Non-game fishes form the foundation for ecological communities, and these organisms cannot be ignored if we hope to understand population dynamics in British Columbia. The Royal BC Museum’s collection contains over 101,861 vertebrate specimens, in a wide range of life-history stages from eggs and newly hatched or neonate animals to fully adult individuals. About 647 species of fishes are represented in the collection, with more added every time researchers get out to survey new areas.
Most fishes are housed in jars ranging from 125 ml up to 2 litres volume; large wet specimens such as sharks and sturgeon are housed in vats. The wet collection also includes cleared and stained fishes which are available for study of skeletal structure. Jars in the collection may house only one specimen, or may be packed with a number of specimens caught at a particular place and time. Each specimen has a label with some collection data and a catalogue number, and specimens are ordered in the collection according to a rough pattern of evolutionary relationships.
This collection contains some type specimens. Type specimens are the best examples of a species at the time a particular species was described. Better specimens may be found years later, but the type specimen designation stays with the original material used to describe a species. There are provisions for designating new types specimens if the originals are lost, but this is the exception rather than common practice.
Type specimens are held in separate cabinets away from the main part of the research material. They do not go on loan to other institutions, and therefore, researchers must come here to examine these high-priority items.
Most vertebrates in the RBCM collection are from British Columbia, but a small number of specimens comes from outside our borders, and serves to exemplify organisms that may arrive here in the future or represent closely-related organisms for comparison. There are also several exotic species in this collection to document the continued presence of species introduced by humans for angling, hunting, farming or from the pet trade. The collection does contain a small proportion of other exotic organisms that today would be rejected since they are not representative of British Columbia (e.g., European minnows). Some specimens not from British Columbia have been offered to other institutions (e.g., mosquitofish from the southern USA).
The vertebrate collection likely was the first established by Jack Fannin when the museum was created to stem the flow of artifacts out of province. Hundreds of new specimens are added each year, including the latest exotic fish species to be found in British Columbia, the weather loach. Additions to the collection come in the form of research specimens, donations and specimens transferred from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Environment, regional natural resources officers and a wide range of other sources.
Fortunately, there is no backlog to the fish collection save perhaps 30 jars of mixed fishes from samples taken in 2007 and 10 tubs of larger fishes from the deep-water Tanner Crab surveys, most of which are already identified and need only be bottled and added to the collection.