Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museum Specimens track dwindling biodiversity

A collection of Christmas beetles in one of the entomology collection storage rooms at the Australian Museum. Photo: Cameron Richardson. Source: Daily Telegraph.

Christopher Kent, Museums: The endangered dead, Nature, 18 February 2015

The billions of specimens in natural-history museums are becoming more useful for tracking Earth’s shrinking biodiversity. But the collections also face grave threats.

Ricardo Moratelli surveys several hundred dead bats — their wings neatly folded — in a room deep inside the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. He moves methodically among specimens arranged in ranks like a squadron of bombers on a mission. Attached to each animal’s right ankle is a tag that tells Moratelli where and when the creature was collected, and by whom. Some of the tags have yellowed with age — they mark bats that were collected more than a century ago. Moratelli selects a small, compact individual with dark wings and a luxurious golden pelage. It fits easily in his cupped palm.

To the untrained eye, this specimen looks identical to the rest. But Moratelli, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, has discovered that the bat in his hands is a new species. It was collected in February 1979 in an Ecuadorian forest on the western slopes of the Andes. A subadult male, it has been waiting for decades for someone such as Moratelli to recognize its uniqueness. He named it Myotis diminutus1. Before Moratelli could take that step, however, he had to collect morphometric data — precise measurements of the skull and post-cranial skeleton — from other specimens. In all, he studied 3,000 other bats from 18 collections around the world.

Myotis diminutus is not alone. And neither is Ricardo Moratelli.

Across the world, natural-history collections hold thousands of species awaiting identification. In fact, researchers today find many more novel animals and plants by sifting through decades-old specimens than they do by surveying tropical forests and remote landscapes. An estimated three-quarters of newly named mammal species are already part of a natural-history collection at the time they are identified. They sometimes sit unrecognized for a century or longer, hidden in drawers, half-forgotten in jars, misidentified, unlabelled.

“It’s certainly the case that collections right now have vast resources of undescribed material,” says Robert Voss, curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York.

These collections are becoming increasingly valuable thanks to newly developed techniques and databases. Through DNA sequencing, digital registries and other advances, existing collections can be interrogated in new ways, revealing more about Earth’s biodiversity, and how quickly it is disappearing.

But just as the collections are growing more valuable, they are falling into decline. With many institutions struggling to cope with significant budget cuts, some collections are being neglected, damaged or lost altogether. And the scientists who study them are also threatened as their positions disappear.

Cuts to collections

“This is the repository of all life that we know has existed,” says Michael Mares, director of the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and past president of the American Society of Mammalogists. “If you want to go back and do a survey of the mammals of Kuala Lumpur or something 30 years or 40 years ago, you can’t go back,” he says. “You have to go to the collections to do it.”

In 1758, with the publication of the encyclopaedic Systema Naturae, Carl Linnaeus attempted to classify nature — an effort that continues today at almost 8,000 natural-history collections around the world. The United States alone holds an estimated 1 billion specimens, and the global figure may reach 3 billion. The average institution displays only about 1% or less of its store. The rest — often hundreds of thousands of specimens — is catalogued and stored away, inaccessible to the public.

The collections are overseen by a dwindling corps of managers and curators — mainly taxonomists who describe species, and systematists who study the relationship between organisms. The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, had 39 curators in 2001. Today, there are just 21. At present, there is no curator of fishes — an enormously diverse class of animal. Neither The Field Museum nor the AMNH — which hold two of the largest collections in the world — has a lepidopterist on staff, even though both collections contain hundreds of thousands of butterfly and moth specimens. Similarly, the National Museum of Natural History has seen a steady drop in the number of curators — from a high of 122 in 1993 to a low of 81 last year.

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