TMCC Natural History Museum: Admiring Biodiversity

Drs. Megan Lahti and Cecilia Vigil stand beside students holding exhibits from the TMCC Natural History Museum.
Jared Libby

As citizens of Nevada, we’re no strangers to the rich environmental and wildlife specimens that call this patch of mountainous desert land their home. Plants and animals surrounding us are unique to this region, and their ability to survive in such conditions is proof of nature’s adaptability. There may be no better place to view such evolutionary growth than the TMCC Natural History Museum, cataloging the numerous biodiverse organisms we coexist with thanks to the steadfast efforts of faculty and student research within our Biology Department.

This resource can make a tremendous difference in biology students' education! Once enrolled, this museum invites you to enter a world of relics standing the test of time. It is truly fascinating how far we have come as a species, and the collections we preserve display our admiration for the ecosystem and a desire to understand it as we learn how to become better caretakers of our planet.

Perfect Specimens for an Exacting Science

What stories do these organisms tell us about their life in this territory we both call home? Within the museum, over 5,000 flora and fauna exhibits are frozen in time, each with a message of how they survived our world inscribed into their very flesh and bones. They have a singularly distinct tale to tell and one worth listening to. If we can’t appreciate the beings that came before us, how will we circulate the innate knowledge they possess for the future? Some people gladly spend the entirety of their careers analyzing the connections between the variety of habitats and humans, still unsure of this symbiotic relationship or why it works. A trip to witness these artifacts up close certainly helps to educate an enthusiastic mind.

Dr. Cecilia Vigil, Biology Professor and Co-Director of the TMCC Natural History Museum, discussed its inception alongside her fellow founders, the wide range of specimens available for students to examine within their respective scientific and empirical disciplines, and her role as a curator of the prized possessions kept safe within their hallowed library of antiques.

“Dr. Megan Lahti started the museum. The idea came to her after discovering some teaching specimens and plants pressed into the lab areas. She worked with Dr. Meeghan Gray and me, and with the support of our dean, Dr. Julie Ellsworth Baker, began the process of accumulating, housing and getting as much data as possible,” said Vigil.

“Now students, especially those in the wildlife certificate program, gather botany, entomology, and organismal biology samples. We teach them to collect, preserve, and curate plants and insects. Bird and mammal specimens are sometimes taxidermied and housed in Red Mountain Building 410 for use by many fields at TMCC: art, anthropology, veterinary nursing, geology, and history, to name a few,” continued Vigil.

One of the latest additions to this spectacle of historic pieces includes a genuine grizzly bear hide dating back to 1888! These vigilant beasts once roamed the Bay Area in droves alongside wolves, antelopes, and even jaguars, but our presence has altered and influenced the landscape in irreversible ways. The California State Flag is a gesture of goodwill for their kind, representing strength and independence and symbolizing the once proud and abundant mammals. Scientists have estimated that around 10,000 bears resided in the state before the 1848 Gold Rush. Fewer than 100 authentic skins and skeletons remain today, making the one TMCC possesses a priceless artifact of a bygone era!

Within this compilation of vegetation, invertebrates, fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals, you’ll discover the extraordinary diversity of thriving life, representatives of the many biospheres native to Nevada. From avians like the Barn Owl, ghostly pale soarers of the night skies, to the Western Painted Turtle, aquatic reptiles who bask in cooling waters with their olive green shells, the TMCC Natural History Museum covers a vast amount of animal families of which we reside in harmony with.

As you sift through the myriad specimens gracefully curated and preserved, remember the final gift these animals bestow upon their deaths: the examination of their lives. Dissecting a frog in high school requires you to gaze upon its anatomy. Comprehending the bodily processes these cold-blooded creatures sustain themselves with is relevant knowledge to retain as a young learner. But with the freedom an exhibit grants, you can appreciate the stories of evolution throughout billions of years. Each account holds original clues relating to their species' narrative, and that's an adventure you won't find wrist-deep in an amphibian's belly.

“Less than 50 community colleges have natural history museums in the U.S., so our students have a rare opportunity to learn and experience it. Also, because we display our specimens virtually [by uploading our data to ARCTOS], and internationally, scientists from all over the world can take advantage of our collections, borrowing for their scientific studies if necessary,” said Vigil.

Let’s not forget the greenery encompassing our mountains and valleys, imparting us wonders such as Lake Tahoe! Locations that steal away any words to describe how majestic and tranquil it is, resting upon its shores with bliss beyond compare. Of course, we have the rough and tumble of sagebrush flinging itself around naturally in our streets, its gray and yellow leaves finding solace in our front and backyards. More than 2,000 strains of wildflowers are visible after the spring rains, the cascading drops sprinkling across the soil with life in their embrace. The beauty of Nevada is all around us, and its natural resources are treasured heirlooms helping us fathom the curiosities of our planet.

“We strive to have an area at Dandini, as we have the art displays. Many of our collections are delicate, so teaching students how to handle them appropriately is required. Hopefully, in a manner that is museum-quality, creative, and that teaches. We hope to work with the TMCC Foundation to find donations for this endeavor!” said Vigil.

The TMCC Natural History Museum is a fountain of wisdom, highlighting the abundance of wildlife and botanical jewels that call Nevada their home. Nature is to be explored, with fresh air whisking around us and coarse desert sand beneath our feet. Our destination doesn’t matter, but our goal is to drink in the stillness of the Earth, if only for a minute, and listen closely to the gentle sounds in the distance. The chirps, coos, and howls remind us that we’ve always shared this land, our fates intertwined. These exhibitions reflect their chronicles, and respect for their existence will aid us in protecting their futures!

For more information, please visit the TMCC Natural History Museum website.