Museums – The Endangered Dead. By Christopher Kemp

We found Christopher Kemp’s terrific article dated February 2015 in Nature, the weekly online science journal. It shines a light on the plight of museums around the world and on their essential role in recording biodiversity and preventing future extinctions. Christopher has kindly shared with us additional photographs to accompany the extract we print here:

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.

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.


“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.

The decline is not limited to the United States. “The situation in the United Kingdom is the same, or worse,” says Paolo Viscardi, chair of the UK-based Natural Sciences Collections Association and a curator at the Horniman Museum in London. Commonly, a museum will restructure its staff, replacing three or four curatorial positions with a single collections manager, and sometimes an assistant. That manager might cover every discipline, from contemporary art to the natural sciences.

Museum staff and researchers have a name for the barriers that slow down species discovery: the taxonomic impediment. And one measure of the taxonomic impediment is the lag time — the gap between when a new species is first collected and when it is identified. Currently, the average lag time is 21 years2.


It is not clear whether that lag is increasing, but it often stretches much longer than the average. In April 1856, Henry Clay Caldwell of the United States Navy found a large, fruit-eating bat on the Samoan island of Upolu. The specimen currently resides at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and details of the find are now scarce: a few faded, hand-written descriptors on a box, a skull and a fragment of discoloured skin. In 2009, Kristofer Helgen, a mammal curator at the Smithsonian Institution, held the skull up to the light and realized it was an unknown species. More than 150 years after it was first collected, he named the species Pteropus allenorum — the small Samoan flying fox3. The species is already extinct on the island.


Researchers say that such work is crucial for understanding biodiversity and how it is being threatened. “We are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis, and collections-based institutions have a unique role in society to document that biodiversity,” says Quentin Wheeler, a taxonomist and president of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York in Syracuse. “When we only know 10–20% of the species, we’re at a huge disadvantage to detect changes in the environment, whether it’s species extinctions or introductions or whatever.”


Christopher Kemp is a scientist and writer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His book on species discovery and natural history collections, titled The Lost Species, will be published in 2017.

Read the whole article at here.


Thylacines in the Bronx – by Madeleine Thompson

Between 1902 and 1919, the Bronx Zoo exhibited four thylacines. They were housed in the fox dens, which were near where the Dancing Crane is now.

In 1902, William Hornaday, first director of the Bronx Zoo, turned down a pregnant thylacine, which would have been the first to be shown in the United States. It went to the National Zoo and promptly gave birth. Henry Fairfield Osborn (paleontologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History) was unhappy about the missed opportunity, and Hornaday bought  the next available thylacine for $125. On December 17, 1902, the Bronx Zoo obtained this thylacine, a male, from the animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck. In doing so, it became one of seven zoos outside of Australia and the second in the US (behind the National Zoo) to hold the species. The thylacine died on August 15, 1908.

The Bronx Zoo received a second male on January 26, 1912. Conflicting reports suggest that it came from either the Beaumaris Zoo in Tasmania or from the London Zoo. According to that year’s Annual Report, “while it arrived in good health, it was so nervous and unreconciled to captivity that it lived only a few months,” and died on November 20.  A third, unsexed individual arrived at the Bronx Zoo on November 7, 1916 from Sydney dealer Ellis S. Joseph. It arrived in poor health and died seven days later. The fourth and final animal was a female who arrived on July 14, 1917. She had been purchased by Ellis from the Beaumaris Zoo and resold to the Bronx Zoo. She died on September 13, 1919.

Upon viewing a Bronx Zoo thylacine during a visit, the director of the Melbourne Zoo, W. H. LeSouef, told Hornaday: “I advise you to take excellent care of that specimen; for when it is gone, you never will get another. The species soon will be extinct.” Hornaday included this quote in his Our Vanishing Wildlife (1913) in a section on “Species of Large Mammals Almost Extinct.” In a later section of the book on the importance of wildlife preserves, Hornaday affirmed: “The extermination of the thylacine would be a zoological calamity; but it is impending.”



With many thanks to Madeleine Thompson at the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo (New York) for compiling this information. Thanks to the WCS for sharing with us these photographs taken of a thylacine at the Bronx Zoo in 1903.

All images © Wildlife Conservation Society. Shared by permission of the WCS Archives.

The idea of extinction – by Dr Sadiah Qureshi

To mark the 80th anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine, and to launch the 2016 season of remembrance for lost species, we will be releasing an extended series of blog posts over the autumn. These will consist of RDLS-inspired or extinction-related stories and projects from a broad range of contributing writers and artists. The image in this week’s post is a Micro CT scan of a sectioned thylacine skull from the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum at the University of Dundee, downloadable in 3D here.  Many thanks to Caroline Erolin of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification for sharing it with us.

The RDLS 2016 blog begins with this brief introduction to the idea of extinction from historian of race, science and empire, Dr Sadiah Qureshi of  University of Birmingham:

Over ninety percent of all the beings that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. If you’re reading this, you’re lucky enough to be in the 10% that have survived. Between fifty and ninety percent of those lost to us have disappeared in five mass extinctions such as the one that eliminated the dinosaurs. We are now living through the sixth mass extinction. The disappearance of flora and fauna is familiar to us all. Yet how did we come to view such loss as extinction?

Before the nineteenth century, animals and plants were known to have vanished. Infamously, hungry sailors arriving on the island of Mauritius found that flightless dodos were easy to catch and made a hearty meal. The sailors also brought pigs, dogs, cats and rats that preyed upon the birds’ eggs and destroyed their habitat. No one knows exactly when the last dodo died, but most sources suggest that it was extinct by 1680. Crucially, humans were known to have caused the extinction.

Accepting that extinction was an endemic feature of the natural world posed problems for scientists and theologians throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For the faithful, the possibility of extinction undermined the perfection they expected of a world designed by God to reveal natural plenitude. In such a world, Creation always exhibited its fullest range of diversity and all possible forms of being existed.

For the faithless, it seemed far more likely that migration or evolution accounted for apparent loss. After all, much of the earth remained unexplored. Animals known only from fossils might be alive in tropical jungles or many leagues under the sea. The American President Thomas Jefferson, a keen collector of fossils, famously claimed that megabeasts might still be found in the far West. It was rare for anyone to claim that past forms might have evolved but it remained a possibility. By the early nineteenth century, evolution, migration and extinction were all seen as equally plausible theories for explaining natural loss.

Extinction became an increasingly popular theory with the work of French comparative anatomist George Cuvier. After the French Revolution, the government established the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Cuvier was given a job. He quickly gained a reputation for being a world authority on fossils and reconstructing entire animals from tiny handful of bones. In 1796 Cuvier published an article comparing a fossil elephant to living Asian and African elephants. He proclaimed that the fossil was an unknown and extinct species. Several more articles on elephants and the mastodon had appeared by 1806. Cuvier’s detailed anatomical research was compelling, and helped establish the reality of endemic extinction.

We are so familiar with extinction that it is easy to overlook the significance of the early nineteenth century. Accepting that extinction had always occurred in the natural world underpinned later theories of evolution, including humans, and conservation efforts. For Remembrance Day for Lost Species, it is also worth remembering the history of extinction of as an idea.