Five things you didn’t know about IMNH

The Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) was founded in 1934 as the Historical Museum of the Southern Branch of the University of Idaho, as Idaho State University (ISU) was then called. The museum was established by a group of professors in an effort to collect, preserve, and displays the region’s natural and cultural heritage. In 81 years we haven’t changed our focus but here are some things you may not know about the museum.

1) Hold in trust over 700,000 objects for the public

Herpetology collection

Herpetology collection at the IMNH.

The Life Science division has approximately 76,500 objects in collections including plants, mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. The Earth Science division has approximately 135,000 objects including Pleistocene mammals, dinosaurs, plant fossils, fish fossils, and geological collections. Anthropology and archaeology collections combined for approximately 495,500 objects including stone tools, prehistoric organic material and ethnographic material from around the world. And education cares for 5,000 educational objects that are used for teaching purposes in the museum and in outreach programs.

2) Conduct active research

Active research is conducted both internally and externally on our collections. We are known for our spectacular Pleistocene mammal collection and several type specimens, the standard of reference for the identification and naming of a species, including a horse, pocket gopher and rabbit. Because of our amazing collections we host researchers from around the world to utilize our collections in master thesis research, doctoral thesis research, and academic research. Our collections are also utilized by Idaho State University students. In addition, the staff at IMNH conducts active research on the collections to help understand Idaho and her history.

3) Largest public collection of Helicoprion shark fossils

Helicoprion fossil

Helicoprion fossil from IMNH’s Earth Science collection.

The IMNH has the largest public collection of the Helicoprion shark in the world at over 70 specimens. The Helicoprion shark is an extinct genus of the strange cartilaginous fish known as Holocephalans. Helicoprion swam in the shallow lagoons of Idaho 270 million years ago and grew to lengths of up to 30 feet. The most interesting feature of Helicoprion is its strange spiral of teeth, known as “tooth whorls”.  For the last 100 years paleontologists have been confused by these tooth whorls because no associated jaw material was found. In 2011 researchers at the IMNH CT scanned an exceptionally well preserved specimen that was determined to contain the elusive jaws of Helicoprion. The research eventually led to the first accurate reconstruction of the shark as well as placing in its proper position on the great tree of life. For more information on this shark and the research behind it, please visit:

4) Home of one of the most powerful 3D imaging labs in the country


Skull 3D image

The Idaho Virtualization Laboratory (IVL), established 2003, is a research unit of the IMNH. Our lab houses state-of-the-art technology for imaging, virtualization, and simulation of material items, landscapes, and life. We provide education, research, and informatics to the social and natural sciences. The IVL has scanned over 11,000 individual items from the IMNH, other museums, and individuals.  The quality and quantity of the IVL’s material is unsurpassed by any other facility! To learn more visit:

5) And we do it all with less than 15 staff members

The IMNH has nine full staff members, including three collection managers: Mary Thompson-Senior Collections Manager, Janet Bala-Life Science Collection Manager, and Amber Tews-Anthropology Collection Manager; one education coordinator, Becky Hansis-O’Neill; three imaging techs: Robert Schlader, Nick Clements, and Jesse Pruitt, one registrar/exhibits manager, Curt Schmitz, and one administrative assistant, Faith Tan. We also have four part time staff members: Leif Tapanila-Director, Rick Williams-Life Science Curator, Amy Commendador-Earl Swanson Archaeology Repository Manager, and Bill Angle-Store Manager. With the support of ISU we are able to employ 26 students as part of the Career Path Internship program and federal grants employ 2 students.