HIDDEN behind the popular displays at many of your favorite natural history
museums — in their basements, back rooms and, increasingly, off-site
facilities — sit humanity’s most important libraries of life, holding
not books but preserved animal and plant specimens, carefully collected
over centuries by thousands of scientist explorers.
specimen collections serve as the bedrock of our system of taxonomy —
the rules by which we classify life — and are integral to our
understanding of the threats, origins and interrelationships of
biodiversity. And yet, thanks to budget cutbacks, misplaced ethical
critiques, public misconceptions and government regulations that
restrict scientists while failing to restrict environmental
exploitation, the continued maintenance and growth of these libraries is
most visitors never know they are there, natural history collections
are as critical to modern biologists as libraries are to journalists and
historians. Indeed, like good literature, each museum specimen allows
reinterpretation by every person who examines it.
taxonomist looking for minute differences between species, and a
biogeographer investigating species distributions across a landscape,
will find the same specimen valuable for different reasons, as will an
evolutionary biologist resolving the interconnectedness and history of
life, and an ecologist piecing together the intricate functions of whole
ecosystems. These collections are particularly critical in today’s era
of rapid ecological and climate change, providing a unique and vitally
important glimpse into ecological conditions of the past.
the same way that students of the humanities use new critical
approaches to pull novel ideas out of old books, scientists regularly
use new technologies — like stable isotope analysis, high-throughput DNA
sequencing and X-ray computed tomography — to draw new discoveries from
sometimes centuries-old specimens. The never-ending story of every
specimen continues to unfold for as long as it is cared for, but threats
to this care have recently accelerated.
October 2014, a Smithsonian botanist and curator named Vicki Funk
cataloged recent budgetary and curatorial cutbacks at several of our
nation’s premier natural history museums, including the Field Museum in
Chicago, the California Academy of Sciences and the New York State
Museum. The curatorial staff at the Field Museum dropped by almost half,
to 21 from 39, between 2001 and 2014, and that’s at a relatively
well-funded American institution.
to an editorial last November in the journal Nature, most natural
history collections in Italy are virtually derelict, with up to a third
of all specimens lost to neglect. And many tropical countries, which
have disproportionately rich biodiversity and booming economies linked
to resource extraction, allocate few if any funds for cataloging their
natural heritage — shifting greater responsibility to those few European
and North American institutions that maintain robust global
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Continue reading the main story
cuts aren’t the only threat. In the journal Science last April, the
Arizona State University ethicist Ben A. Minteer and his co-authors made
the dubious claim that scientific specimen collection had significantly
contributed to many species’ decline and extinction. They recommended
that such collections be minimized in favor of nonlethal tissue samples,
photographs or other recordings, particularly for species thought to be
under threat of extinction.
aren’t alone. In October 2014, the Harvard entomologist and wildlife
photographer Piotr Naskrecki received withering public criticism,
including at least one death threat, for mentioning in a blog that he
had euthanized and preserved a single specimen of the relatively common
and widespread Goliath bird-eating spider, which he later deposited in
Guyana’s natural history museum.
heartily agree that the impact of scientific collections on species
should be minimized. But to deny the value of specimens is to accept
ignorance of many of the requirements for understanding the evolution,
ecology and conservation of biodiversity.
the extent that they can still capture a rich and verifiable record of
biodiversity at a single point and time, many biologists already strive
to maximize nonlethal sampling techniques, including camera traps, audio
recordings and tissue collection. But these tools are often effective
only for organisms that can be identified with certainty in the field.
What about the estimated 86 percent of all species that remain unknown?
And while photographs can record an organism’s external appearance, they
reveal nothing about its internal anatomy, reproductive state, diseases
specimen collection need never threaten extinction. It is hard to
imagine any modern scientist collecting more individuals from a wild
population than are regularly lost to predation and disease.
we enter an age of human-dominated landscapes, it would be a crime to
restrict the cataloging and study of biodiversity and consign natural
history museums, our most diverse archives of nonhuman life, to selling
themselves only as educators and entertainers. The research, growth and
maintenance of scientific collections must be strongly and publicly
is no substitute for collecting and curating specimens for long-term
study — not just for scientists studying biodiversity today, but also
for future generations, whose need for clues to the spectacular breadth
and complexity of unaltered ecosystems will be even greater than our
I would say that this is a must-article for anyone and everyone, but especially so for those working in or closely with museums and their natural history collections. This is a big issue, and the article points things out that are often left unmentioned.
Thanks goes to Dr. Scott Sampson via Facebook for posting this article.