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.


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