The invertebrate paleontology collection is an amalgamation of collections by museum curators, faculty at the University of Oklahoma School of Geology and Geophysics, and staff of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Invertebrate paleontology is an integral part of the geology degree program at the School of Geology and Geophysics.
The museum was established by the Territorial Legislature in 1899 as a department of geology and natural history, with A.H. Van Vleet, Ph.D., professor of biology of the fledgling University of Oklahoma, as the territorial geologist and curator of the museum. Charles N. Gould, Ph.D., was hired the following year to teach geology at the university and shared Van Vleet’s office. During this territorial era, the collections of the museum were divided into zoological, botanical and geological sections, with Gould caring for the geological collections.
The original invertebrate paleontology collection consisted of specimens that Gould brought from Kansas and collections that he made from various locations as part of his study of Oklahoma geology. This collection perished in a fire in 1903. To replace this loss Gould purchased geological specimens and cases in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and continued collecting and studying Oklahoma geology. Gould became the first State Geologist in 1908 with the establishment of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. He later became one of the founding members of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG).
In 1907, Chester Reeds, Ph.D., a former student of Gould’s, joined the school of geology and geophysics staff and taught invertebrate paleontology until 1909. Reeds pioneering work on the geology and invertebrate paleontology of the Silurian and Devonian in the Arbuckle Mountains formed the basis of all subsequent studies. He was later employed by the American Museum of Natural History.
D.W. Ohern, Ph.D., took over the teaching of invertebrate paleontology from 1909 to 1911. Ohern was the head of the OU School of Geology and Geophysics (1908-1911) and later became the director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey (1911-1914). Ohern was also one of the founding members of the AAPG.
The first formal curator of invertebrate paleontology at the museum was Irving Perrine, Ph.D., from 1912 to 1915. Perrine later became one of the founding members of the AAPG and participated, with Ohern, in the first seismic reflection project for the exploration of oil and gas in 1921.
M.G. Mehl, Ph.D., was also a founding member of the AAPG as the first secretary-treasurer. He taught a course on the paleontology of Oklahoma in 1915 before embarking on a long career with the University of Missouri.
Charles E. Decker, Ph.D., (1868-1958) became the curator of invertebrate paleontology and faculty at the school of geology and geophysics in 1916. He continued to be active long after his retirement in 1943 and continued research and publications until his death in 1958. He was a founding member of the AAPG, serving as secretary-treasurer from 1919 to 1926.
During his tenure at the University of Oklahoma, the invertebrate paleontology collection underwent significant growth from teaching, research, and student activities. He published some 99 papers on subjects including graptolites, hydrozoans, trilobites, eurypterids and algae. He also published on biostratigraphy, sedimentology, structural geology, quaternary geology, structural geology, economic geology and geologic maps.
Decker is best known for his work on graptolites, and the composition of the C.E. Decker Collection reflects this focus. This important component of the invertebrate paleontology collection includes specimens from the Athens Shale, Viola Group, Arbuckle Group, and Hunton Group. In addition, 136 specimens from Decker’s publications are included in the Type and Figured Collection.
Among other contributors to the collection during Decker’s tenure were J. Willis Stovall, Ph.D., (1930-1953), R.W. Harris, Ph.D., (1929-1943 and 1947-1977), Cecil Lalicker (1934-1941), Ph.D., E.A. Fredrickson, Ph.D., (1941-1963), G.G. Huffman, Ph.D., (1948-1984), and C.C. Branson, Ph.D., (1950-1972) of the school of geology and geophysics, and T.W. Amsden (1955-1985) of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Beginning in 1950, a new numbering system was instituted, which has been continued to the present. In 1954, Huffman was appointed curator of invertebrate paleontology for the museum and served until 1961.
P.K. Sutherland, Ph.D., became the curator of invertebrate paleontology in 1961. Sutherland and his students made numerous additions to the collections, particularly middle to upper Paleozoic corals and Carboniferous brachiopods. Sutherland retired in 1990 although he remained active as curator emeritus until his death in August, 2000.
In 1998, Stephen Westrop, Ph.D., became the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Sam Noble Museum and a professor in the University of Oklahoma’s School of Geology and Geophysics. In 1999, BP-Amoco donated an extensive collection of invertebrate fossils to the museum. These collections add breadth to the existing specimens and include materials from several continents. Westrop retired in 2021 but remains active in his research involving trilobites and Cambrian stratigraphy.
In 2022, the Sam Noble Museum expanded the department’s research and collections activities to have two curators of invertebrate paleontology: Selina R. Cole, Ph.D., and David F. Wright, Ph.D., with each also holding a joint position as professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma. Prior to arriving at the Sam Noble Museum, Drs. Cole and Wright each had extensive experience at natural history museums, including the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution).Both Cole and Wright are experts in fossil echinoderms, especially Paleozoic crinoids, which are well represented in the Sam Noble Museum collections. Research interests in the department are broad and include topics spanning paleoecology, macroevolution, phylogenetics, and quantitative paleobiology.