Heart of Louisiana: Fish Collection

A group of little-known world war two ammunition bunkers in Belle Chase house the largest collection of fish in the world.
Published: Feb. 12, 2023 at 4:26 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2023 at 6:30 AM CST

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A group of little-known world war two ammunition bunkers in belle chase house the largest collection of fish in the world. The millions of fish preserved in glass jars are part of a Tulane University research institute.

These ceiling-high shelves are packed with jars of fish. Some of the species are quite common.

“I know that these are all minnows, catfishes are here,” Henry Bart said.

But some are more unusual, like a batfish that walks on the water bottom.

“These because they extend back towards the back of the fish it uses to walk,” Bart said.

Dr. Henry Bart, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University, takes care of this giant fish collection, the largest in the world. Last time you counted how many fish are in these jars here?

“There’s 8 million specimens total. We have pretty exact numbers because every jar has a number of specimens written on it.,” Bart said.

The oldest fish here is this minnow.

“This specimen was collected in 1846,” Bart said.

This rare one-of-a-kind fish called the pocket shark was just discovered in the Gulf of Mexico within the last decade.

“Pretty big teeth for a shark. This is small on both the upper and lower jaw,” Bart said.

Bart carefully removes this small minnow-like fish from a jar. This fish was once commonly found in rivers like the Mississippi, but not anymore.

“You know, early in the 20th century, they disappeared,” Bart said.

What’s also unusual is the location of this giant fish collection. It’s in one of 30 buildings and World War ll ammunition, bunkers in bell chase that Tulane acquired from the navy in the 1980s. So you’ve replaced millions of pounds of artillery shells with millions of jars of fish.

“That’s exactly right. So, you know these bunkers are actually ideal for storing specimens like this. You know if you drove up on them, you noticed there’s a big earthen berm around the sides, and actually, the way that they were designed, there were two feet of dirt that covered the roofs,” Bart said.

The fish are part of the Royal D SUttkus fish collection named after the Tulane biologist who started gathering and researching fish in the 1950s.

“There’s about 35 to 40,000 species of fish that we think exist. About 25,000 of them are named here. In this collection, we probably have around 2,500 species,” Bart said.

The fish, like these shark suckers or the puffer-like birr fish, are kept here for researchers to borrow and examine.

“Most of what we know about fish is determined through the study of specimens like these,” Bart said.

Biologists can see how fish adapt to a changing environment and how some don’t. The fish are part of a food chain that starts with tiny organisms in the gulf and rivers and eventually ends up on our dinner plates.

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