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Early cataloging activities of the SOSC

A readily accessible storehouse of antarctic records

Specimen distribution

An archive for photos and slides

Present-day activities: Building on past accomplishments

Borrowing unstudied polar specimens

Past, present, and future


The National Museum of Natural History

William E. Moser and Jennifer C. Nicol, Department of Invertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) shares a 34-year history of cooperative studies in the natural history of polar environments with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Collaboration began in 1963 when the then recently formed Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center (SOSC) received a grant from the NSF Office of Polar Programs to serve as a national archiving and distribution center for natural history specimens and associated data collected by researchers working in Antarctica under the United States Antarctic Research Program [USARP (now USAP, United States Antarctic Program)] (Landrum and Sandved 1969). Beginning in 1973, specimens and data from the Arctic were included as well (Landrum 1975). In May, 1992, the SOSC was abolished as a separate unit and administrative oversight of SOSC activities was delegated to NMNH Department of Invertebrate Zoology. Under a new cooperative agreement with NSF in August 1995, the NMNH will continue the original SOSC polar mission.

To encourage cooperation and dissemination of information, NSF-sponsored investigators working in polar regions are expected by NSF to deposit natural history specimens and associated data at the NMNH at the conclusion of their studies.

Early cataloging activities of the SOSC

The SOSC sorted, identified, and curated bulk polar specimen collections. Arriving in crates, drums, and barrels, the specimens had been collected during antarctic cruises of the USNS Eltanin, R/V Hero, Polar Duke, Islas Orcadas, USCGC Glacier, and others and from island stations in the Arctic Ocean. Since 1963, more than 40 million specimens have been processed by SOSC or NMNH staff. Initial rough sorting of specimens to phylum or group at the SOSC was followed by careful fine sorting to the lowest practical taxonomical level (usually order or family). Some groups such as the Copepoda and macroscopic Algae were classified to the genus level.

The contributions SOSC's taxonomic work made to the scientific community were broad and far-reaching:

  • During the early years of the SOSC's participation in USAP, SOSC staff developed a variety of innovative collection processing and sorting techniques, particularly those needed for efficient processing of enormous volumes of microorganisms.
  • The SOSC staff prepared numerous taxonomic keys for specialists and identification guides for general use.
  • The NSF Office of Summer Education Programs funds were awarded to the SOSC to provide basic taxonomic training to high-school and university students (Wallen, Fehlmann, and Stoertz 1968; Anonymous 1969).
  • Research in collection-management procedures such as archival glassware, relaxing agents, fixatives/post-fixatives, and preservatives (including those that maintained color, as well as fungal- and bacterial-inhibiting compounds) also was conducted (Anonymous 1969).
  • The SOSC staff frequently participated in field studies in polar regions and were often consulted for their expertise in specimen collection and fixation/preservation techniques.
  • After demonstrating success using a centralized location to process large numbers of specimens and associated data from large collection expeditions, the SOSC was used as a model to establish several oceanographic sorting centers throughout the world (Wallen et al. 1968).

A readily accessible storehouse of antarctic records

The SOSC also functioned as a data-management center and data clearinghouse for information related to the natural history of polar marine environments. In 1963, with funds from the NSF Office of Polar Programs, the SOSC created the Antarctic Records Program (SOSC-ARP) (Fehlmann 1966). The SOSC-ARP summarized and recorded collection data that accompanied the bulk natural history specimens sent to SOSC and maintained a file of antarctic collecting permits. Unified data standards were established by the SOSC-ARP to institute consistent documentation of data.

Initially, data were recorded on standardized specimen labels and taxonomic cards. In 1967, SOSC-ARP record keeping was automated and consolidated using two SCM Typetronic units (Wallen et al. 1968). These machines could print multiple copies of specimen labels and taxonomic cards and store information that could be fed into a mainframe database, which served as a record of all material processed at the SOSC. Using a Cal-Comp plotter, geographic plots of certain taxa and station data were prepared from this database (Landrum 1980). Vessel and cruise logs also were entered into the computer and summary logs were printed for general use. Relatively rapid storage and retrieval of data were possible.

To speed processing and to ensure standardization of collected data, SOSC staff frequently participated in ship-based antarctic expeditions. Initially, data collection was recorded manually, but later, shipboard computers were used for field entry of collection data (Landrum 1972). Recently, specific information about collection sites-information that could be easily incorporated into NMNH data standards-has been derived by shipboard data technicians using computerized navigational systems.

Specimen distribution

Another vital function of the SOSC was to ensure that natural history specimens were readily and widely available for study by qualified researchers. To guarantee the dissemination of material, the SOSC formed eight advisory committees (Landrum and Sandved 1969) covering the following disciplines:

  • algae,
  • arthropods,
  • higher invertebrates,
  • lower invertebrates,
  • meiobenthos,
  • mollusks,
  • vertebrates, and
  • worms.

Each committee was composed of five scientists, each having recognized expertise in his or her discipline. The committees advised the SOSC on the most appropriate distribution of material in their assigned taxa.

To encourage research in "orphan" polar taxa, the SOSC offered the Cooperative Systematics Program, which provided NSF subcontracts to researchers interested in the systematics of lesser known organisms (Landrum 1975, 1981). The results of these studies were published in the Antarctic Research Series and scientific journals.

An archive for photos and slides

In accordance with its NSF polar archiving and distribution initiative, the SOSC managed a collection of 20,300 black-and-white frames of bottom photographs from the southern oceans and subantarctic ocean regions (figure 1) from 1,064 camera stations taken on the USNS Eltanin, R/V Hero, and USCGC Glacier cruises that circumscribed three-fourths of the antarctic continent (Simmons and Landrum 1973). The actual area observed from the stations is approximately equivalent to 12 football fields (Simmons and Landrum 1973). Color transparencies from 143 camera stations were also archived. Accompanying data (e.g., direction, position, and station) were stored in a computer mainframe database to allow for relatively rapid retrieval of information.

Figure 1. Photograph from a depth of 594 meters, half-square-meter area of fine grain
sediment of the Ross Sea floor from cruise 32 of the USNS Eltanin (camera station 21,
78°29'S 164°57'W to 78°31'S 164°24'W), showing a diversity of invertebrate life.

These photographs of relatively unexplored areas of polar seafloor are invaluable to marine geologists, biologists, and physical oceanographers. Over 60,000 copies of photographs and their accompanying data have been shipped to researchers for use in more than 30 publications (Simmons and Landrum 1973).

Present-day activities: Building on past accomplishments

The NMNH maintains a large collection of polar natural history specimens, including 200,000 lots of unidentified and uncataloged invertebrates and approximately 31,115 lots of identified, cataloged invertebrates of which 2,049 lots are types. Approximately 19,763 lots of polar specimens are currently on loan to scientists in 191 institutions. Acquisition and collection data for the specimens are readily accessible in several computerized databases and files. Polar station data, a shelf inventory of all uncataloged material, and records of all loaned material are also accessible in computerized databases.

The NSF provides funding for three full-time collection/data technicians and one part-time data manager. Current project activities include curating and archiving collections of

  • antarctic bryozoans (approximately 10,000 lots identified by Judith Winston, Virginia Museum of Natural History),
  • sponges (approximately 4,800 lots and spicule preparations identified by Vladimir Koltun, Russia Zoological Institute), and
  • mollusks (approximately 2,000 lots identified by Richard Dell, Dominion Museum, New Zealand) for permanent deposition at NMNH.

Figure 2. GIS map of the USAP marine collection sites, including and below 50°S.

Polar material of various taxa, such as octocorals (identified by Ted Bayer, NMNH), and polychaetes also are being curated and retrospectively cataloged into the main NMNH collections computer database. Additional projects include the development of a database of all types of polar invertebrates archived at NMNH and various Geographic Information System (GIS) maps from the database of USAP program stations (figure 2).

A World Wide Web page with links to a searchable polar station data file, images, and other related data, scheduled to be loaded on the Smithsonian Institutions's gopher server, is currently under construction. The address is

Other services provided by the staff include lending polar specimens for study by qualified researchers, providing access to polar station data, and preparing of custom GIS maps showing the ecological distribution of polar taxa.

Borrowing unstudied polar specimens

The NMNH has extensive archived unidentified holdings of plankton and a variety of invertebrate groups (figure 3). At present, the most numerous unstudied holdings include the amphipods, polychaetes, and bivalves. Upon request, the NMNH polar specimen holdings may be lent to qualified researchers in the United States and abroad. Loans are not made to graduate students, but permanent university faculty may borrow specimens for graduate student use. Written or e-mail requests for loans should be directed to either the Chairman of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology or the USAP program manager. To protect the integrity of the specimens, loans are typically made with the following conditions:

  • The loan is granted to the researcher's institution and not directly to the researcher.
  • The initial loan period may not exceed 6 months for type specimens and 12 months for nontypes. On written request, most loans may be renewed for an additional 6- or 12-month period.
  • Permission to dissect; to make scanning electron microscope, transmission electron microscope, or histological preparations; or to make any other physical alteration of the specimens must be requested in writing before such specimen manipulations are allowed. All preparations made must be returned to NMNH when the loan is returned.
  • The NMNH reserves the right to grant or deny any loan requests.

Figure 3. Partial specimen holdings of uncataloged and unidentified
polar invertebrates.

Past, present, and future

As research support needs have changed in recent years, the USAP program at the NMNH has evolved from a predominantly sorting and processing activity to a program charged with managing the massive collection of polar invertebrates and their associated data. The ultimate goal is to make the specimens and related data more accessible to polar scientists worldwide. In 1997, we expect to initiate an awards program that will help fund systematic research projects based on our polar collections.

The NMNH will continue to function as a national archiving and distribution center for polar natural history specimens and associated data. The NMNH looks forward to another 30 years of cooperative polar research with NSF.

The authors gratefully acknowledge Valorie Barnes, Cheryl Bright, David Clayton, and Angie Cotton for their technical support and assistance; Dan Cole for assistance in the preparation of GIS maps; and Don Gourley and NMNH Collections Program for the World Wide Web assistance. This program is funded by National Science Foundation cooperative agreement OPP 95-09761.


Anonymous. 1969. The Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center. The Science Teacher, 36(3), 29­31.

Fehlmann, H.A. 1966. Recording of data for specimens collected under the U.S. Antarctic Research Program. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 1(5), 225.

Landrum, B.J. 1972. Antarctic information services at the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 7(5), 212­213.

Landrum, B.J. 1975. Technical support for systematic biology. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 10(1), 313­315.

Landrum, B.J. 1980. Support of biological studies. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 15(5), 226.

Landrum, B.J. 1981. Antarctic biological collections. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 16(5), 231.

Landrum, B.J., and K.G. Sandved. 1969. An operational data processing system for natural history specimens. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 4(6), 278­284.

Simmons, K.L., and B.J. Landrum. 1973. Sea floor photographs. Antarctic Journal of the U.S., 8(3), 128­133.

Wallen, I.E., H.A. Fehlmann, and C. Stoertz. 1968. The Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 58, 191­200.