The Academy of Natural Sciences, the oldest natural history museum in the nation, and Drexel University announced Thursday that they would join forces.

"The dinosaur and the dragon meet today, and two fantastic beasts they are," said Academy president George W. Gephart Jr., referring to the Drexel mascot and a prized academy holding. "I don't know whether you call it a dragosaurus or what."

The deal, a formal affiliation, has the blessing of a $1 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to cover transition costs and help the two institutions explore how best to leverage their assets.

The 199-year-old Academy, home to rare collections of 17 million specimens, and Drexel, the nation's 14th-largest private university, said that the arrangement would result in "a nationally recognized powerhouse for discovery in the natural and environmental sciences."

Some of the Academy's Ph.D. scientists will teach courses for Drexel. Their cachet will buttress Drexel's natural- and environmental-sciences groups. Drexel staffers will have better access to the academy's collections. And so on.

"The fit is perfect because we fill each other in," Drexel president John A. Fry said. "But we also extend each other and push each other in new ways."

Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, called the affiliation "a very interesting development" that "makes a lot of sense."

Legally, the Academy will retain its name, nonprofit status, board, and considerable autonomy. But officials said that it would become known as the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

As a subsidiary of Drexel, the Academy's $51 million endowment will be managed by Drexel but remain wholly dedicated to the Academy.

Officials said that, together, the Academy and Drexel would be better positioned to compete for grants and investments from philanthropists, private foundations, and prominent agencies, such as the National Science Foundation.

At a time when Philadelphia nonprofits have had to make painful decisions - such as the Barnes Foundation moving its collection to Philadelphia and the orchestra filing for bankruptcy - the affiliation of the Academy and Drexel is seen as bold.

"Others in the nonprofit sector should look to this merger as a model of sound and creative decision making," Pew president Rebecca W. Rimel said. "It's just so obvious, the upsides here, you wonder why this is unforged territory."

She noted that Fry and Gephart, the first Academy head in recent memory who was a businessman instead of a scientist, took their positions within weeks of each other last summer.

They were already friends, and the two institutions had a long-standing, if informal, working relationship, collaborating on ecological research in the Pine Barrens and Delaware Bay.

Some 16 tons of dinosaur fossils that Drexel professor Ken Lacovara excavated in Patagonia and Argentina already were at the Academy, where paleontologist Ted Daeschler studies creatures that show the evolution of fish to limbed animals.

So at Gephart's instigation, he and Fry began to talk. During meetings and over informal dinners, they explored what could happen.

"We needed a partner to help us more fully capitalize on our strengths - including our location on one of the best half city blocks in Philadelphia and a rock-solid balance sheet with a $51 million endowment - and to grow at the rapid pace we desire," Gephart said.

He and other Academy leaders decided that a science-led, university-based partner would be ideal.

The Academy, founded in 1812, an age of classic expeditions and scientific exploration, will celebrate its bicentennial next year.

Thursday's announcement was made in the Academy library, overlooked by the portraits of stern gentlemen from an era when the Academy emerged as a science elite.

Some of the specimens they collected are now a trove of DNA, contributing to some of the Academy's cutting-edge research.

The Academy's holdings include birds collected by John James Audubon, herbs gathered on the Lewis and Clark expedition, fossils that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, and the world's first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton. It has more crickets, grasshoppers, and diatoms - single-celled algae found in water bodies - than any other museum.

In recent years, the Academy faced financial woes. The staff was reduced, and in 2009 the institution instituted a 5 percent salary cut.

At one point the museum sold off a portion of its mineral collection to fund a project for the library.

Officials said the merger would allow the collections to be preserved and enhanced.

The collaboration could extend to the Academy's seven buildings - now cobbled together into one - that date from 1876 to the 1970s.

Drexel's engineering program is taking a lead in greening their campus, Gephart noted. "Again, the knowledge and the power that they bring to us will allow us to take our plans and accelerate them."

The Academy's endowment, once nearly $65 million, dropped to $43.1 million during the recession, but has rebounded to $51 million.

Mayor Nutter summed up his support in one word: "Wow." He conceded "that may not be the most sophisticated reaction, but quite honestly it is from the heart."

"This is a spectacular achievement." The arrangement could also result in new experiences for visitors to the Academy.

"Imagine the dioramas," Gephart said of the Academy's classic exhibits featuring taxidermy specimens from around the world. Earlier Academy leaders had thought them passe and wanted to replace them.

But with Drexel technology, "imagine holding your iPhone up to a diorama or a dinosaur and putting the camera feature on and enjoying the technology known as augmented reality. . . . You are now looking at the polar bear, listening to how it is endangered because of global warming . . . then you see its skeleton superimposed, or perhaps it starts to move."

The boards of both institutions unanimously approved the plan Wednesday. Thursday morning, when Gephart announced the details to Academy staff members, they applauded. Over at Drexel, a student in Gail Hearn's biology lab yelled, "Fantastic!" as the news was delivered electronically to the campus.

The student, Patrick McLaughlin, has traveled to Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea with Hearn, who is a primate researcher and member of the Academy's board.

He's been collecting frogs on Bioko, "and we have what we suspect are new species," Hearn said. Other institutions had expressed an interest in obtaining these "type specimens" - which become representative for the species. Now, they will go to the Academy.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.