I recently attended a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s core network of museums. Although I have worked with museum collections for years, I still had that sense that I was in a scene from Citizen Kane or Indiana Jones as I wandered the labyrinth of hallways and dimly lit passages lined floor-to-ceiling with stacks of cabinets and shelves chock full of specimens from around the world.

Yet, it is sobering to note that over the years natural history collections are on hard times as funding and public interests have waxed and waned. Many universities and smaller museums have divested themselves of their collections of pressed, impaled, pickled, stuffed, and skinned specimens of plants and animals. Administrators, policy makers, and the scientists among them are hard pressed to justify the “care and feeding” of collections, preferring instead to direct ever-shrinking resources into other projects that are more likely to attract supplemental funding. However, as support for collecting and collections dwindles, the need for the information they provide continues to increase.

Biodiversity research has long been the primary motivation behind the use of natural history collections. However, the traditional uses of these collections for the purposes of identification, the study of relationships, and evolutionary biology through the examination and comparison of specimens are only part of the story. These very same specimens are now useful tools for tracking changes in populations and habitats over time.

Like “biological filter paper,” natural history specimens can reveal past and present environmental conditions. Chemical analyses of feathers, hair, bone, muscles, blood, stomach contents, and vegetative tissues are now used to trace migratory movements, uncover feeding behaviors, reveal changes in habitats over time, and determine the epidemiology of diseases that affect animals and crops.

For example, analysis of old egg specimens demonstrated the devastating effect DDT had on bird reproduction and ultimately resulted in legislation that banned its use in this country. Similar studies were conducted to trace the increase of harmful mutations after nuclear accidents (remember Chernobyl?), the origin and movement of crop diseases (think Irish potato famine), and the rise of mercury levels in marine animals.

I have always thought of natural history collections like libraries, only the references contained therein are in the form of specimens. Like books, carefully prepared collections provide unique information that links identity, geography, and history. This is the very information that conservationists rely on to inform their decisions regarding the rarity of species and the potential impacts of climate change on those species.

Like a library, the relevance and vitality of natural history collections is maintained through new acquisitions in the form of specimens gathered during ongoing field surveys. Data gleaned from both rare and common species will better inform scientists and policy makers to address the inevitable challenges wrought by shifting populations and habitats. But will we as a society have the foresight and will to support such endeavors?

©2009, A.V. Evans

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