Friday, March 18, 2016

Taxonomy Day 2016! Museum Collections are the Taxonomist Habitat!

TAXONOMY DAY will soon be upon us!  On March 19th Several years ago, biologist Terry McGlynn declared a DAY FOR APPRECIATING TAXONOMISTS! who had supported his work.

In Biology, Taxonomists are those scientists who IDENTIFY species and work towards classifying and understanding their evolution and "place" in the natural world. Which species is it? The common one? The one we eat? The poisonous one?? 

Much of our understanding of ecosystems and conservation STARTS with knowing which species is which! 

I recently discovered that the  NSF program funding for "Biological Infrastrucutre" aka.. natural history collections has been put on "hiatus" as of this month while it is "being evaluated for the long term resource needs and research priorities in the Biological Sciences Directorate."

If you have FEEDBACK to the "evaluation" for NSF's Collection in Support of Biological Research, please send email to them on the email address located here:

So, I don't know anything about the issues surrounding this hiatus BUT I thought that this year for TAXONOMY DAY, it would be a GOOD time to refresh the public as to what services natural history collections perform for both the scientific and "greater good" of society...

As I described in one of my last posts, the Natural History Museum is essentially THE HABITAT for the taxonomist (as well as many other scientists!)

1. Specimen libraries that help us ID and understand biodiversity

Most people don't realize that behind the exhibit floors of dinosaurs, shells, minerals and other awesome displays there are actually large collections of natural history artifacts- shells, plants, insects, skeletons, and many more specimens of different organisms and mineral specimens from all over the world. Some local, some from very far away.

Just to be clear, these aren't just "stored" to get them out of the way, these specimens are ACTIVELY STUDIED and researched by scientists all around the world. I would say that this is the primary function of natural history museums. They house and care for biological (and in some cases geological and cultural) specimens that serve the scientific community.

Collections like this one are RESEARCH centers for these kinds of natural artifacts. In the context of biology, if you want to know what some Antarctic fanged rotifer looks like? Find the museum with all the Antarctic rotifer specimens and compare yours with professionally identified one in the collection!

If you think you have some kind of fossil that you'd like to check as being from specific stratum of rock? Compare it against the one in the natural history collection!

At one of the museums' I've worked at, they actually have a representative of EVERY phylum of animal! So yeah, you wanna know what a loriciferan is? And finding one isn't convenient? You can go look it up and find it!

Identifying animals, plants, minerals, etc. aka "collection based research" has all sorts of pragmatic applications (note all of these are based on REAL cases):
  • Identifying economically important pests or invasive species
  • Long term environmental monitoring (such as this one in the Gulf of Mexico)
  • Identifying species used in medical research
  • Identifying species with direct economic importance (i.e. corals or shells for jewelry)
  • Geochemical analysis to study past environments
  • Identify toxic/poisonous/venomous species
  • Identifying bird feathers involved in airplane accidents
  • and of COURSE my favorite application of museum research collections: Identifying weird bugs from a crime scene to help locate a murderer! 
Natural history collections and museums are thus part of our "knowledge infrastructure." It is here that we begin to identify many of the organisms around us.. be they animal, plant, fungus, mineral...or "other"..

What makes Natural history collections so critical to taxonomy? This is frequently where  the vouchers or TYPE COLLECTIONS are deposited.
These are specimens that are the original material used by scientists to describe new species. As I've described earlier, these are sort of the "first issue" of a new species. Essentially the voucher showing the original "intent" or concept of a species by its original author

These type specimens are kept for collections of all sorts of plants, animals and fossils in natural history museums all around the world. They allow scientists and other researchers sometimes HUNDREDS of YEARS down the road to confirm what a particular species looked like based on a particular author's description..

Sometimes, this preserved material also retains useful DNA for subsequent extraction and study to understand ancient relationships or other study areas.

2. New Species are Described from Natural History Collections
So, if you remember from the recent Okeanos Explorer dives to the Hawaiian Islands, we saw on several occasions, THIS starfish species. A goniasterid, called Circeaster arandae, was a species I described in 2006! 
BUT When I found it, it was this. A dry specimen that had been sitting on a museum shelf for about 30 years with only a few collection notes. As I've mentioned in prior blog posts, it takes an average of about 21 years for a specimen to go from "shelf" to published description!!

And that doesn't count the time it takes to reach the "shelf"!! Thus, the museum collection plays one critical role in how biologists "find" new species. The natural history collection plays a role in providing a "stage" for a new "actor" (in this case a possible new species) to be discovered!! 

On multiple occasions I've described how I've descried new species from different parts of the world. I've got the new species I've described listed here and I'm up to around 31 of them by now.

Natural history museum collections are a natural place to describe new species because in many instances, you ALREADY have the other species present as a reference species for comparison as well as much of the literature.
So, whether this is just comparing the morphology (i.e., the external or internal appearance) or if you are taking DNA from tissues, museums with their many, MANY other specimens are often critical for such a study.

Once a new species is described. It remains with the museum until one of three things happens: the specimen fades away OR the museum collection fades away OR human society ends.

Either way.. vouchers for species are supposed to be kept "in perpetuity" and that's a LONG time...

I have literally met the 4th generation of descendants of scientists visiting the museum who had specimens deposited in the museum based on work finished in 1846!!!

3. Museum Collections: Where Scientists Gather
In places where collections are present, they serve as a focal point for scientists, politicians, and even activists and other folks to meet. You have the collections that everybody needs in one place. Travel often takes place at the same time (e.g., during the summer or winter when school is out) and before you know it, you've got a workshop or collaboration happening! New projects! New species!

During one of my last visits to Paris, a convergence of about half a dozen scientists from 4 countries led to a workshop on New Caledonian marine biodiversity!

These efforts benefit everyone as folks get their "heads together" to pool data and resources in order to solve bigger problems and to examine big issues in conservation, biology and other related fields.

4. Museums & their Collections are Research/Conservation Hubs
 Another aspect of research that ties directly to the collections: research and database hubs are often associated with museums. It makes sense that as researchers use additional tools, that these will be accordingly part of the modern museum infrastructure. Got the specimen with database information cataloged? Extracting tissue AND keeping track of that information are critical parts of the process.

As part of this whole dynamic, many, MANY government and non-profit organizations hang their hats in and around natural history museums. You've got biodiversity databases and taxonomic information?  Then you've got researchers and others who need to research that information and manage it.

5. Biodiversity Education
The collections motivate and spur a lot of research and research-related activities. But one of the greatest non-research things about natural history collections is their ability to inspire and educate!

Showing people "the real deal" is the often the BEST way to educate. Models and such are nice but when you are able to hold a 450 million year old fossil shell in your hands?  A REAL piece of history???

Plus, you often have scientists and educators who know their way around specimens and are more than happy to share the details and explain in the best way possible??

AND, many, many citizen scientist and natural history fans gather at museums. Many, MANY artists often sit and draw/illustrate specimens in the main display halls of many museums. Many citizen organizations meet at natural history museums..essentially inspired by the collections!!

Collections motivate all of the activities above! But remember that they don't necessarily happen on their own! Sometimes you can take one from column A and one from column B!!

How can you beat that??
So.. SUPPORT your natural history museum and their COLLECTIONS. They play an important role in supporting biology and research.

Even WITHOUT money for research activities, there's a lot of costs that go toward supplies.. labels, boxes, and most importantly trained personnel to help maintain the collections.

Supporting science and biodiversity:  the discovery and understanding of new life on the planet is the mandate of every natural history museum I know of!  Natural History Collections are ESSENTIAL to this. If you can support collections- PLEASE do so!  Happy Taxonomy Day!!


R. F. Bolland said...

Chris, great presentation and a worthwhile read.

Sam W. Heads said...

Excellent article. Happy Taxonomy Day!