Studying the planet’s biodiversity

The Zoology Department is focused on providing a better understanding of the planet’s biodiversity through an active program of scientific research, collections growth, curation, and outreach. Research activities and the scope of the zoology collections span the globe, but the primary focus is on Western North America. Research spans a multitude of disciplines, including evolutionary biology, basic natural history, ecology, morphology, phylogenetics, taxonomy, systematics, biogeography, physiology, parasitology, genomics, and even paleontology.  Major taxonomic groups studied include arachnids, insects, birds, marine invertebrates, and mammals. Staff are also charged with building and enhancing the research collections they oversee to support the broader scientific community and contribute to the public good.

The Zoology Collections consist of nine collections with approximately 1.27 million specimens (including backlog).  Specimen records are currently available online through Arctos or Symbiota, with data published to different portals including GBIF, Ecdysis, iDigBio, GGBN, BISON, Map of LifeVertNet, SEINet, InvertEBase, GLoBI, MorphoSource and GenBank.  

Both vertebrate collections span the last 150 years, with a focus on the Rocky Mountain region (>75%) and associated frozen tissues and parasites. 

  • The largest collections include entomology with ~1.1 million specimens and taxonomic strengths in Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and several families of Coleoptera (beetles), including a globally significant collection of scarab beetles.
  • The arachnology collection (~56,300 vials) is one of the largest in the country and includes specimens from 10 orders.
  • The ornithology collection (~55,000 specimens) is one of the largest in the American West with holotypes, paratypes, extinct taxa, and many species of conservation importance.
  • The marine invertebrate collection (~43,700 lots) covers a worldwide range, with particular strengths in material from the Caribbean, western Mexico, and the Pacific.
  • The mammal collection (~21,000 specimens), which has more than doubled in size over the last decade, covers seven continents, with a particularly strong Colorado focus. 
  • The four smaller collections include the egg and nest collection (~7,300 specimens), the botany collection (~4,500 specimens) representing 240 families, the amphibian and reptile collection (~1,000 specimens), and the parasite collection (~7,500 lots), which grows in parallel with the bird and mammal collections.

Amphibians and Reptiles

The amphibian and reptile collection was formally established in 2015 and consists of approximately 600 specimens, mostly fluid, as well as a small number of dried specimens. There is also a small frozen tissue collection associated with the collection. To date, 100+ specimens (mostly small lizards) have been cataloged and are currently available in Arctos and also through GBIFiDigBioVertNet, and BISON. The geographic focus of this growing collection is primarily western states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah.  Some uncommon species include a Komodo dragon, exotic snakes and turtles, iguanas, and tortoises from the Galapagos Islands, as well as bycatch collected during the pilot years of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) project. Although the bulk of growth has been over the last decade, historically there was an assortment of reptiles from past Museum collecting trips (e.g., 1960 Galapagos Islands, 1969 Botswana), some of which are on display in the wildlife diorama halls or housed behind the scenes. Current collection growth is the result of salvage (e.g., roadkill), from incidental bycatch, or from the acquisition of exotic specimens from the Denver Zoo.


The arachnology collection was established in 1999. It has grown from zero vials to over 40,000 identified and databased vials with another 20,000 vials in the backlog. The data is accessible to the world via the Ecdysis data portal as well as via GBIF. Although worldwide in distribution, the collection’s strength is in spiders and other arachnids found in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains ecoregion. It also holds one of the most important collections of camel spiders (order Solifugae) found in North American arthropod collections.

Research in the arachnology lab focuses on the biodiversity of arachnids in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains region and on the natural history, phylogeny, taxonomy, and behavior of arachnids in the order Solifugae (commonly known as “camel spiders”). Paula Cushing, PhD, her colleagues, and students also do research on the phylogeography of scorpions. The lab supports research and work of students and volunteers. Dr. Cushing is an adjunct professor at various local universities and can mentor graduate students interested in ongoing research projects.

Botany (Herbarium)

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science houses about 4,500 plant specimens (pressed plants mounted on sheets or in books, leaf litter samples, pine cones, seeds, wood samples) of ca. 240 families, collected between the mid-19th century and today. The herbarium contains mostly material from the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains ecoregions, including material representing host plants for insects from the entomology collection and voucher specimens of plants used in the dioramas. The herbarium is mainly an auxiliary resource for nonbotanical projects and exhibits but currently gets integrated in the regional herbaria database consortium SEINET, where the Herbarium forms a part of the Rocky Mountain Regional Consortium. This will raise awareness in the research community about the herbarium’s existence, and we hope it will increase the usage of our specimens.

Eggs and Nests

The specimens in the eggs and nests collection provide an irreplaceable geographic and temporal record of egg diversity and avian reproductive behavior in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains region and abroad.

The eggs and nests collection contains more than 7,000 specimens from around the world (1842 to present), with a focus on the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions of North America and Europe. The collection is worldwide in scope (five out of seven continents represented). Ordinal diversity in the collection is excellent with specimens from 27 of the world’s 46 bird orders represented by at least one specimen. Growth of the collection continues primarily through salvage activities.

Significant specimens in the collection include eggs from the lava gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus). These specimens were the ones used in the first publication to describe the eggs of the species.

Irreplaceable specimens from extinct taxa include eggs from passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and two intact Elephant bird eggs (Aepyornis maximus).


The entomology collection consists of over 1,080,000 specimens (January 2019). The collection spans 1880 to present. Holdings are worldwide in coverage and comprise all major insect orders, with a particular focus on Coleoptera (86%) and Lepidoptera (12%). The collection also contains the terrestrial (including freshwater) non-arachnid, non-mollusc invertebrates (mainly millipedes, centipedes, and annelids). At its current rate, the collection is expected to grow by an average of 10,000 to 20,000 specimens per year, and the unprepared backlog is processed at a rate of 20,000 to 30,000 specimens per year. About 113,000 specimens of the entomology collection are currently catalogued and databased and can be freely accessed through the Ecdysis portal. In recent years, the collection was supported by three grants from the National Science Foundation.


The mammal collection currently consists of approximately 21,000 specimens, which includes 19,000+ cataloged specimens. The collection spans 1870 to the present, is worldwide in coverage, and includes specimens from the three major extant mammalian lineages (monotremes, marsupials, and placentals) distributed across 21 orders, 266 genera, and 381 species. Specimen records are databased in Arctos and also accessible through GBIFiDigBioVertNetMap of LifeBISONGGBNMorphoSource and GenBank. The collection’s primary strength is its focus on the southern Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Approximately 82% of the collection is from the western United States, with specimens from Colorado (73%) representing the largest percentage. Small mammals, such as shrews, rodents, lagomorphs, and bats, constitute the majority (84%) of specimens in the collection. The composition of the collection is primarily study skins and skeletal material, with a growing wet collection. High-quality specimen data, frozen tissues, and parasites are associated with most of the specimens archived since 2006. Use of the collection through loans and citations (Google Scholar) continues to grow.

Marine Invertebrates

The marine invertebrates collection dates to the early 1900s. It is a diverse collection of worldwide specimens, the largest portion being marine shells. It also has specimens of echinoderms, corals, sponges, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Despite its name, it includes a substantial collection of land and freshwater snail shells. The collection contains nearly 50,000 lots, of which more than half are databased in Arctos with more being added to the database each week. More than half of the databased lots are geolocated, and over 1,000 specimen records have images. 


The specimens in the ornithology collection provide an irreplaceable geographic and temporal record of biodiversity in the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains region and abroad.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science bird collection contains approximately 53,000 specimens from around the world (1842 to the present), with a focus on the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions. The collection is worldwide in scope (six out of seven continents represented) with excellent taxonomic coverage of class Aves (205 out of ~224 families represented). Ordinal representation is excellent; however, more than half of the birds in the collection belong to Passeriformes. The collection includes study skins, skeletal material (~5,000, most with associated skin), taxidermy mounts, frozen tissue samples (~9,000), and associated parasites (ecto- and endoparasites). Growth of the collection continues primarily through salvage activities.

The 7,000 egg sets/nests are curated separately. This collection is also global in scope with a focus on North America and Europe.


The parasite collection was formally established in 2016 and grew out of a concerted effort to survey and collect parasites from vertebrate specimen deposited into the Museum’s amphibian, bird, mammal, and reptile collections. The collection consists of about 10,000 specimens or specimen lots mostly housed in small vials (70%–95% ethanol) and several hundred fleas and lice mounted on slides. Specimen records are available in Arctos and also, through EcdysisGBIFiDigBioBISON, and GenBank. The geographic focus of the collection parallels that of the vertebrate hosts across western North America. Taxonomic coverage includes ectoparasites such as insects (fleas, lice, streblids, and oestrids), arachnids (ticks and mites), and endoparasites, including representation from Nematoda and Cestoda. Many of the sucking lice, fleas, and nematodes have been identified to species-level by experts and are captured in recent peer-reviewed publications (Google Scholar).


John R. Demboski, PhD

Vice President of Science

Paula E. Cushing, PhD

Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology

Frank-Thorsten Krell, PhD

Senior Curator of Entomology

Garth M. Spellman, PhD

Director of Zoology & Health Sciences, Curator of Ornithology

Andrew Doll, MS

Zoology Collections Manager

Cameron Pittman, MS

Assistant Collections Manager of Vertebrate Zoology

Genevieve Anderegg, MS

Assistant Collections Manager of Invertebrate Zoology

Andrea (Andie) Carrillo

Zoology Preparator

Martha MacMillan, MS

Vertebrate Preparator

(Richard) Ryan Jones

Research Assistant

Tiffany Nuessle, MA

Research Manager in the Genetics Lab

Courtney J. Scheskie, MA

Business Support Specialist III

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