Sunday, June 29, 2008

Creature Feature: Ophiacantha bidentata! Deep-Sea Animal Profile by Keyla Pacheco

Today's special Echinoblog was written in part by my intern Keyla Pacheco from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico!! She is supported by the NMNH Latino Students Initative and is a smart, enthusiastic worker and came up with many interesting bits! I welcome her input! Keyla is co-advised by myself and Martha Nizinski at the NMFS Lab!

When we look at the deep-sea, we often see so many of some critters that they practically take on the landscape!

Today!-one of many articles on the importance of the ubiquitous!!

Today!-we treat a relatively common deep-sea critter that wouldn't normally get the uh..STAR treatment!! (sorry-this is my bit..chris)

Past blogs have focused on critters that have lived or taken advantage of coral as a living substrate. Ophiuroids are among the most frequently encountered of echinoderms that live in this fashion. Among them are the Ophiacanthidae! Where have we heard of these before?

They were all over the news when "Brittlestar City" was found!!

Ophiacanthids are ubiquitous-they are found in nearly all of the world's oceans. But how are they important?

Let's look at a widely occurring species and see:

Ophiacantha bidentata is a widely distributed species found in the shallow waters of the Arctic and in deep sea settings in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Dense populations of O. bidentata occur in the hundreds to thousands of individuals occurring among deep water coral habitats. Their abundance and dense aggregations in deep water coral habitats make this animal an important component of deep sea benthic communities.

O. bidentata lives on both soft bottoms but also as an inhabitant on reefs of the deep-sea coral Lophelia. This seems to go in hand with their ability to switch from deposit feeding to suspension feeding depending on food availability.
Because the protection of deep sea corals have become of increasing concern and a “hot topic”, studying species that present an important trophic resource within these communities is of greater interest.

Bigger ones apparently show greater incidence of well as a greater incidence of sublethal predation! This, in turn, seems to suggest that they provide a "renewable trophic resource"..i.e., food among these coral communities!!

So come for the coral habitat, but stay for the brittle star arms!

Other Curious Facts:

1. Those found in the deep sea waters have shown to be protandric hermaphrodites, which means they start out as male and develop into female. This is apparently an uncommon reproductive strategy among ophiuroids.

2. The same(?!) species found in shallower waters tend to be gonochoric which means there are at least two distinct sexes which do not brood their young.

3. O. bidentata is bioluminescent!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Echinoderms..So What Good Are They?

Sea Cucumber
Image by John White
A typical conversation I've had with interested parties:

me: ...and THAT is why echinoderms are cool!
other: So?
me: What do you mean?
other: What good are they? Why should I care? How do people use them?

Between this fun little exchange and it bein' the summer grant for writing NSF grants, the whole notion of importance has been a lot on my mind. The answer to the question above, obviously is A LOT.

But for good or bad, echinoderms do not evoke the same need for study that say, various pesty mammals or scavenging, nocturnal insects seem to generate. They do not attack people with rabies nor do echinoderms reside in your sink waiting for your dinner to go bad.
So, aside from their intrinsic interest, what makes echinoderms "worth" studying in the professional world? 

1. Ecology
Far and away the most important reason. A great many near-shore echinoderms have demonstrated critical roles in marine ecosystems. Echinoderms occupy critical roles in those systems, without them those ecosystems would be radically altered. Potentially with very deleterious affects on human systems. Examples:
  • Pisaster ochraceus-keystone species in intertidal ecosystems-feeding on and interacting with mollusks of various types.
  • Asterias amurensis. Introduced from the North Pacific to Southern Australia, where it is currently running amok and apparently wreaking havok with Australian shellfish.
  • Strongylocentrotus and/or Diadema. Purple sea urchins in kelp forests or Black needle urchins in coral reefs. Remove them or increase their numbers and the balance of food is lost.
  • Acanthaster planci. I've written about these earlier. But the short version? They eat coral. A LOT of it.

(from New Scientist)
  • Biomass. Echinoderms are also probably very important in deep-sea and other cold-water ecosystems. But that role remains poorly studied. The presence of deep-sea echinoderms: sea cucumbers, ophiuroids, etc. is substantial and can constitute a majority (up to 90%) of the TOTAL deep-sea biomass. You don't see them, but by the pound, there's a LOT of them spread out on the ocean floor!
  • Plus, they process the benthic biomatter like giant deep-sea earthworms. apparently quite a bit of it.
2. Geology: Index Fossils
Crinoid fossils
Image by Paul Lamble
In geology, echinoderms are important as index fossils. These are fossil members of a particular kind that are used to determine or indicate a specific strata/age of rock. Helicoplacoids, for example occur only in the Cambrian.

 These fossils correlate with occurrence for specific types of organisms in the fossil record and are usually common enough that they can be found readily and make immediate identifiers for the age/layer you are attempting to identify.

 MANY echinoderms find their way towards use in this fashion: sea urchins (including sand dollars, sea biscuits, and "regular" sea urchins), crinoids, blastoids, and even asteroid ossicles can be useful at specific horizons. Fossils can also be used to help reconstruct the paleoecology of a specific area.

Some could only have lived in unconsolidated sandy bottoms. Others only on hard bottoms. Paleozoic fossils can be surprisingly data rich.

3. Food Its always weird for me to think that ANY echinoderms are eaten as food.
But there they are.

Really, only two groups of echinoderms have ANY kind of real market.
To my knowledge, people don't eat crinoids or ophiuroids and only marginally devour asteroids... 

Sea Cucumbers. aka trepang, gamat, or beche-de-mer. Eaten throughout Asia and believed by some to have various medicinal qualities, including tissue repair (some support) and as an aphrodesiac (not well supported).

Holothurians from several different regions, including Alaska, British Columbia, Australia, Madagascar and areas throughout the Indo-Pacific tropics are supported. An update can be found here. Sea cucumber fishery politics can be very contentious. and sustainability of the fishery remains a hot button issue with several species perceived as potentially endangered from overfishing.
Dried Sea Cucumbers - Hong Kong Nov 2008 (16 of 66)
Image by Wyld Ginger
99 Ranch Market: Black Sea Cucumber
Image by Photobat

Sea Urchins. Sea urchin gonads are eaten by the Japanese and now throughout the world. Several taxa, including Strongylocentrotus, are sought out for their tasty innards... Sea urchin fisheries appear to have organization. The North Pacific Strongylocentrotus is represented by the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association.
Image by goodbyesunday
Uni from Tsukiji
Image by Yusheng
4. Genetics & Development Recent years have found echinoderms occupying increasingly important roles as experimental animals throughout biology. sea urchin larvae 2
Although nearly all of the classes have been studied in minor ways , three conspicuous taxa have emerged at the forefront.

The Purple Sea Urchin-Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

By far one of the MOST heavily studied echinoderms in the world. A search on Google Scholar revealed 8,730 hits for "Strongylocentrotus" and "development" with only some 2,740 hits for "Strongylocentrotus" and "genetics". All that plus a recent issue of Science from 2006 which announced the 814 megabase genome of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus). Honestly, how many single echinoderm SPECIES get a whole FRAKKIN' issue of Science devoted to them????? The Asterinidae (Cl. Asteroidea)-particularly Asterina miniata. This odd little group of starfish occurs quite commonly in several nearshore and easily collected habitats. That, plus the keen developmental patterns observed have made several bat star species VERY heavily studied.

When last I checked Google Scholar..some 1850 citations were recorded from JUST "Asterina" (in part a synonym of Patiria) and "development" and some 940 for "Patiria" and "development" with only some 524 for "Asterina" and "genetics". If the "development" hits are combined, that makes some 2790 total.

Asterias spp. (Asteriidae). While not quite in the league of the two groups above. Running "Asterias" and "development" scores an impressive 5, 110 hits but only 979 if run against "genetics" but still....
Common Starfish (Asterias rubens)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pycnopodia Friday!!

some videos for your weekend amazement!
Pycnopodia helianthoides (Asteriidae) scares up some sea urchins and ophiuroids en espanol!:

Clam (Clinocardium?) Escaping from Certain Death!

Poking Pycnopodia!!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Giant Pink Monsters Among US!!! Enter: Pisaster brevispinus!

Imagine a giant animal that could get to be almost 2 feet across that could sling out tentacles and capture prey a FOOT away from itself!!!

Imagine no further! Enter: Pisaster brevispinus! AKA The Pink Star! The Giant Pink Star! The Short Spined Star! The Giant Short-Spined Pink Star!

One of the three species in the famous genus Pisaster (Family Asteriidae) which occurs on the western coast of North America.
Pisaster brevispinus has two rather famous sister species: P. ochraceus, which everyone learns about when you study keystone species in marine ecosystems and P. giganteus, which is so striking that its hard to miss.

Pisaster brevispinus
occurs between San Diego, CA all the way up to Alaska and can occur in much deeper water than its two shallower sister taxa.

P. brevispinus is a common inhabitant of SANDY BOTTOMS.
The Weirdness Pisaster brevispinus can HUNT for prey (usually bivalves of various kinds) in the TOP 40 cm of the sand!! That's easily about a FOOT and a HALF!!

HOW does it do that? It has LONG-ASS TUBE FEET!! And dunks them down into the sand! Like this:

(from Sloan & Robinson 1983)


P. brevispinus is recorded as being able to extend its tube feet into the sand THE LENGTH OF ITS ARM (measured from the center of the disk).

Small to average members of this species can have an arm length of about 6 to 8 inches..but in some GIANT members, P. brevispinus can reach arm lengths of up to TEN TO TWELVE INCHES (that means an overall diameter of almost TWO FEET!!)


That means one of these things with a large radius, can extend its tube feet ALMOST TEN INCHES into the ground!!!Here we draw on the Echinoblog's extensive computer graphics department to show what this looks like:

(Redrawn from Fig. 6, vanVeldhuizen & Phillips 1978)

Shown here is a diagram of a P. brevispinus specimen with an 11 cm arm diameter showing an almost 8 cm reach!!!!

This species apparently uses its central tube feet in quieter times to hunt for deeply buried bivalves (clams, etc.) and when left to their own devices can get quite big. I've seen these at different aquaria getting almost two to three feet across.

What's even more amazing is that apparently, P.brevispinus can ALSO EXTEND ITS STOMACH LOBES OUTSIDE ITS BODY ALMOST THE SAME DISTANCE.

Velduizen & Philips indicate that it probably doesn't do this easily and only when the food is close to the mouth. But, still...think about it.

Giant Pink Starfish with long tentacular tube feet! What happens when they start getting tired of clams...what happens after that?

What's next??


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Starro the Conqueror....hiding among us???

Many of you may be familiar with my fascination for the DC supervillain/monster Starro The Conqueror.

Well, much to my delight, I was able to add this wonderful new species to my collection of echinoderm oddities.

Interestingly, Starro has a carinal row on each arm and five primary spines the way many oreasterid starfish do.

And with the arm shape and distinct spine pattern..could Starro the Conqueror be among us? Disguised as....

Poraster superbus???

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Helicoplacoidea: Bizarr-O Morphology, Living in Slime & Death by Dirt

Helicoplacoid Sign 2
Picture by AlishaV
In 1963, a bizarre new class of Echinodermata was introduced to the world in the pages of Science by the two legendary invertebrate paleontologists J. Wyatt Durham, from UC Berkeley and K. E. Caster from the University of Cincinnati.
Weird could not have begun to describe this.... animal. Durham & Caster described one genus, Helicoplacus, which included two species. Other pertinent details include:
  • Round, spindle-shaped body with a spiral coil.
  • From the Lower Cambrian
  • Free-living echinoderm with an expansible test!!! This weird thing could EXPAND like a frakkin' accordion. There are apparently hinges on the lateral plates that strongly suggest that these things would allow the test to expand!! Like a big pulsating heart or tomato!! How's THAT for blowing your mind away.
Helicoplacoids defied the conventional definition of what had been considered an echinoderm.

They were ASYMMETRICAL and did NOT have your typical echinoderm 5-part body plan. They did seem to clearly have the unique calcium carbonate skeleton (i.e., the stereom) that was unique to most echinoderms. Except that in these beasts, it was arranged into bizarre spiral patterns around the body. Hence the name "helico" meaning spiral or helix and "placoid" meaning plate.

 They were pretty small (see below-the penny for scale). Some got bigger but not much more so. Over time, much more diversity was discovered and today the Helicoplacoidea includes 3 genera: Helicoplacus, Polyplacus and Westgardella which contain 9 species. (Taxonomic review here)

Ecology Its thought that helicoplacoids were suspension feeders, using several tube foot grooves which formed multiple channels leading up to the inevitable mouth somewhere on the body surface. You know things are getting weird, when people start debating where the MOUTH is located. 

The Cambrian Substrate Revolution.
Helicoplacoids lived in the Cambrian. Why was this interesting? See this paper for a good summary. That's because, during this time, the physical environment of the world was VERY different from what it is today. For example, the substrate (i.e., the dirt, sediment, mud, etc.) that these animals lived in was not very dynamic. Very still. Non-actualistic. Plus, the surfaces of these bottoms were covered by "surficial microbial mats" and/or horizontal surface bioturbation.
(thanks to flickr)
So, up until then, there were no little creatures burrowing up and down through the sediment. Nothing creating burrows. Nothing contributing to the dynamic fabric that is the substratum we know today. PLUS, it was covered in sort of a yogurt or cheese-like film or covering of MICROBES (what kind of microbes is another question).
(there was PLENTY of this. thanks again to Flickr)
Helicoplacoids sat with the spindle-end down, essentially suspended in these bacterial mats like living, suspension-feeding potatoes! And because we spare NO expense in your is a highly detailed graphic reconstructing how helicoplacoids may have lived. with mouth labelled. The black lines indicate feeding grooves, which were open to the water around them and were apparently absent on the surfaces of the body which were directed below the outward wurface.. Its thought that when all of this changed i.e., The Cambrian Substrate Revolution, began with the advent of bioturbation and the mixing of sediment by little critters, mixing up different layers of sediment creating little waves of sediment and water, etc. This began a major ecological shift that ultimately did no favors to the weird things that had become adapted to living there. Did it cause them to go extinct? Some believe so. 

Perhaps the most immediate question that arises is: How do you get such a funky looking animal? and how does it fit into the grand scheme of the Echinodermata??
(from Mooi & David, 1998-Helicoplacoids shown in red box)

To be sure, plenty of ideas exist. But one thing seems to be consistent across different phylogenetic ideas. Helicoplacoids occur down at the very base. Early forms that explored morphologies specialized to very specific habitats.

 One idea by James Sprinkle and Bryan Wilbur from the University of Texas hypothesizes that helicoplacoids are derived from edrioasteroids but have undergone a striking change in plate geometry and overall shape. A widespread Paleozoic group of echinoderms with a more conventional five part symmetry. Their hypothesis is represented below:
(from Sprinkle & Wilbur 2005)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Choosing & Understanding Graduate School

So, on Friday, I was a member of a Q&A panel for the Smithsonian's Research Training Program (RTP) in the National Museum of Natural History where, I helped to answer a the questions from some very bright and enthusiastic young people who have interests in pursuing careers as scientists in the "Natural History" field-systematic biology, mineralogy, paleontology, entomology, botany, etc. Basically, if you want to study echinoderms, this is the stop for you!

A lot of regular questions and misconceptions come up ever year I do this, so I thought I would share some of my advice and comments with everyone since I have spent some 8 years or so in grad school!! I went to San Francisco State University for my Masters in Marine Biology and got my PhD in Geology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Illinois.

Please bear in mind that this is advice for people interested in the types of sciences indicated above-academic research in the natural sciences. What I know, wouldn't be as helpful for someone seeking to pursue a more distant type of grad program, like say, Humanities, Med school, Business or somesuch thing.

What is Grad School like?

Graduate school is very dissimilar to being in an undergraduate program for a variety of reasons.
  • Your time is largely unstructured. You have some classes but they don't own your time the way that undergraduate classes do. You might take 2 or 3 classes a semester but you'll have sometimes whole days left to your judgement. The program will also have high expectations of your performance. Getting an A or a B is what any instructor will expect of a grad student in their class. All of that unstructured time does NOT mean you won't have anything to do! You'll be teaching, taking care of research, working for your advisor or any number of other independent tasks.
  • Your overall priorities are different. As an undergraduate you are treated like a "customer" in the school program (the school serves you)-but as grad student you become part of the institutional fabric. You are committed to the program. You become, in a sense, indentured to the school. You are a resource. A talent. There are obligations to the department that you must meet as part of your service commitment.
How do Masters and a PhD programs differ? Which one should I get?
  • Time Investment. Most major universities with a well-developed research program will prefer their students to enter into a PhD program (usually about 5-6 years). They often have options for a shorter Masters (about 2 years) program. But for most professors, training a grad student for a 2 year program, which results in one or maybe two publications, is less fruitful then training a student for a 5-6 year program, which results in someone with more publications and overall experience. Many schools will grant a masters to people who don't complete the PhD program.
  • Getting a Masters first can be good preparation. Unsure about how much of a commitment you can make to grad school? It might be a good idea to go to a either a smaller school or a smaller program and take 2-3 years for a Masters to figure out if you like it. For many students, it can be an easier transition to ease into a 2 year program rather then to jump head first into a 6 year commitment with a PhD program. Many undergraduates I've met are often traumatized by the abrupt shift from being an undergrad to a PhD grad. Some are fortunate to have the focus and drive to do the PhD program immediately. Getting a Masters first, can also give you a lot more experience before you actually apply to a PhD. I was much more comfortable with my PhD surroundings than many of the students around me.
How will I pay for graduate school?
  • It is the school's responsibility to fund its grad students.For most science programs, it is typical for that school to provide SOME way to fund its students. Most science departments I have seen in sciences will waive the tuition fee for their grad students. Because of this, most programs limit the number of students based on how much money they can obtain to support the number of students in their program. Some will end up being Teaching Assistants for their lower-division classes. Others will be fortunate enough to have a Research Assistantship, performing research tasks for their advisor. You might even be lucky enough to have a Fellowship or some other grant that will only require your thesis or dissertation research with no outside responsibilities!!
  • Other funding. Aside from teaching, a diversity of methods are available for domestic students. Financial Aid loans. Work study. But these should be secondary sources of funding relative to the above.
How should I select my graduate program??
  • Think about the advisor that you want to work with. A lot of people sort of figure that choosing a grad program is like picking a undergraduate degree program...i.e., "I want to go there because there is a generally good reputation for teaching, etc" But there's usually a SPECIFIC focus for working on something and a SPECIFIC person or persons involved. Unless you have very broad interests it will make your life difficult to just go to a department and hope that there's someone there doing something you will find interesting. When you look into grad school-it's about YOU and YOUR specific interests. You want to work on crinoid ecology? sea urchin paleoecology? deep-sea sea cucumbers? Try and find out who the professional experts are in those fields and go to them. Researchers are almost always receptive to having students so don't be shy about contacting them directly.
  • How is the program? What do you want to accomplish while you're there? Education? Research? Is the department well-funded for research? Mellow but good with teaching? Will you be professionally alone, aside from your advisor? Or will you be in good company. In other words, if you want to study sea urchin paleoecology and your advisor is in a Geology department-does that department have a big Paleontology program? Or is your advisor the only paleobiologist amidst an ocean of geophysicists?? Are there other people you can work with?
  • Having an advisor as contact will work for you when you apply. Most grad programs still require the requisite battery of GRE scores, good grades, and application materials. If you have contacted a person who wants you to work in their lab, they can vouch or maneuver your application through the application process. Your advisor can also give you the heads-up on funding and/or other importants facts of grad school before you apply.
Should I go to the same graduate school as my undergraduate?
  • Probably not. Generally speaking most schools and programs don't look upon it favorably that you got your undergraduate+graduate degrees at the same place. Its interpreted as a sort of academic inbreeding. You don't get to see integrate and learn how other schools and programs differ from the one you began in. This is not to say that it can't be or isn't done-but as a general rule, its considered a good move that you have more academic outcrossing then less.
How do international programs compare with domestic?
  • US programs are longer and often more involved. Schools around the world vary but from what I've seen-PhD programs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand fund you for about 3-4 years to do nothing but your research and then they cut you loose. No teaching commitments or very many of the other travails that you get with a US program. US PhD programs are filled with more distractions, including regular teaching commitments and more involved course work.
There's certainly more which I've missed...and I may follow up with another similar post. But was there another question about grad school? echinoderms? Ask the Starfish man!

Weird Echinoderm stuff to return soon!!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Starfish on the Brain...and being consumed by your work..

Portrait of echinoderm biologist in the Smithsonian NMNH Gallery (ID available upon request). Readers, this was done by professionals. Do NOT attempt this on your own!

(Starro the Conqueror from Justice League 190 by Brian Bolland fom the Grand Comic Book Database)

That's right..they are SLAVES to those starfish!! Resistance is futile.

(Starro the Conqueror from Justice League Europe 26 by Bart Sears fom the Grand Comic Book Database)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Natural History Museum: An Overview

Today, I thought it would be interesting to talk about how natural history museums and natural history collections are important to biology, and to the "big picture" in general..

A lot of people who are reading this are probably already quite familiar with all of this-but I discover in one way or another that every day is filled with an educated person who knows NOTHING about what I or so many others do at work.

What is a natural history collection??A natural history collection is a massive storage "warehouse" of sorts, that includes almost exclusively natural history type specimens. Historically, they have included minerals, gems, anthropological artifacts, shells, insects, plants, pelts of mammals, birds, and preserved specimens of a myriad of other animals.

The amassed aggregations of these artifacts led to people who began to study and describe them. Often for the first time. It is for this reason that a great deal of taxonomy and systematics is done at museums.

It is important to note that the collection data (i.e., where it was collected, when, by who) is crucial towards the value of these artifacts. Without them..all you have, at best, is a pretty display specimen.

When new species are described there are rules in the International Commissions for Zoological and Botanical Nomenclature which mandate that some kind of voucher specimen must be deposited for long-term storage. Specimens can be dried, preserved in some sort of fluid (ethanol, formalin, etc.) or sometimes even as a slide or a video (although this is not very common).

This is done for many pragmatic reasons, the least of which, is so that someone else can clearly see the concept for that animal on an actual specimen. In other words...what does "big spine" or "cruciform lip" mean???

There might be a picture..but ultimately seeing the original specimen..known as the "type series" and other subsequent representatives give future generations a tangible idea (and sometimes even the intentions) of the original author.

Where do natural history collections come from??
A lot of natural history museums have their roots in either a federal, state, or some local government natural resources survey (or surveys) or sometimes the massive collection of a private collector.

Pictured above is the the United States Fisheries Commission vessel Albatross which was reputedly one of the first vessels ever built for marine research. USFC Albatross surveyed throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific, ranging from the Caribbean to Alaska, Hawaii and Japan.

During the tour of the Albatross, she collected thousands of specimens of animals, plants, and etc. from around the world. These were part of the first natural resource and biodiversity assessment performed for the United States.

Can you imagine a Washington or California coast where we didn't know ANYTHING about the animals that live there? (note that there are now about 2 dozen field guides for this area alone!

They did.
Specimens from the Albatross were among the first to collect and return those specimens to the scientists of the day for description and our understanding.

Today, modern biodiversity expeditions and similar natural resource studies continue to provide the main fodder for museum collections. Everything from SCUBA trips to fisheries studies to submersible dives amass materials which are studied and eventually deposited in a natural history museum.

How do you tell what specimens were used for an environmental assessment?
Go check out the museum vouchers.

How can you be sure that all of the specimen identifications for that phylogeny of the Fang-toothed Astropectinidae were correctly identified?

Go check out the museum vouchers.

Where do you go to make sure that you identified all of the rare cookie-monster jaws from your recent expedition to the Mongolian mountains?

Go check out the museum specimens. (or the types in this case...)
What are the dynamics at a Natural History Museum??
The modern natural history museum acts as a library/storage vault of valuable biological vouchers. There's a couple of things that makes places like this pretty cool:

* Specimen treasure awaits!!
 Generally speaking most scientific expeditions bring back hundreds to thousands of specimens with MANY different taxa. Often, the initial exploratory "cut" of an expedition may not identify or sort all of the specimens collected. Because of this, specimens, often rare or even NEW SPECIES will often sit for decades before someone identifies it. That someone could be YOU.

*Historical Wonder.Most natural history museums contains specimens anywhere from hundreds to MILLIONS of specimens, sometimes collected over the course of hundreds of years. Specimens at the Museum nationale d'Historie naturalle in Paris, France for example, have specimens studied by Lamarck, d'Orbigny from the 19th century and thereabouts.

Between specimens I've seen at the California Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian, and the MNHN in Paris..I've held specimen tags written by Ed Ricketts, Lamarck, Darwin, d'Orbigny Walter K. Fisher, Austin H. Clark, the crown prince of Japan, and any number of other prominent biological luminaries.

*Museum people+environments=funky, cool science place.These specimens attract museum-oriented research visitors, making museums a great networking source. You can practically have mini-scientific conferences during a good visit. At the right time, at the right museum I've been around when 3 or 4 of the world's experts have just been coming through town and stopped into say hello.

Like universities, natural history museums are academic environments but with the added dynamic of the exhibitry, adult education classes, school group tours, etc, etc. There isn't as regular an input of students, but you get many different types of people in and around the facility.

Often times, museums are places where cutting edge innovation (e.g., DNA barcode extraction) meets classical 19th century conceptuals (e.g., taxonomic codes). You may or may not get critical mass..but you can get a lot of smart, creative, and unusual individuals around in a unique setting.

How do they keep track of all those specimens and how is that important?
(this is not an actual museum database)

With computers and electronic databases!!  

So, of course, one needs to be able to keep track and retrieve a needle in a haystack (so to speak). Museums can have millions of specimens and they would be lost without some way of retrieving them.
But this has been taken one step further and the data from these databases has found use for all sorts of things!  Museums have been around for a long time and often think about recording long-term changes.

They can record changes of baseline faunas over hundreds of years. What did San Francisco Bay look like when the Albatross first surveyed versus what it looks like now? All interesting challenges for these database assessments.

Even an assessment of an expedition of specimens from a particular place can be compared over time to assess how many species live there and where. And where they are no longer...

Some of the original specimens even contain enough DNA for studies of animal specimens that are 10s to 100s of years old!!