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Natural history collections are fine specimens of great value

Natural history collections housed in museums and herbaria are generally not on display to the public – what visitors see represents only a tiny section of the wealth held behind locked doors. What use…

Natural history collections hold a wealth of research potential. Stuart Humphreys/Australian Museum

Natural history collections housed in museums and herbaria are generally not on display to the public – what visitors see represents only a tiny section of the wealth held behind locked doors. What use is this hidden wealth? What purpose does it serve to accumulate so many specimens?

To put it succinctly, natural history collections – whether seen by the public or not – are invaluable.

The Australian Museum contains a staggering number of specimens and objects – the estimate is more than 18 million – and other state and federal institutions have similar numbers of specimens.

It is not practical or desirable to put them all out for display. Many of them are minute or superficially nondescript. Many specimens would rapidly degrade if kept in a brightly-lit gallery environment. So if the public can’t easily see these collections, what are they for? Why do we need to have all these things?

The name game

It often comes as a surprise to many, but vast numbers of invertebrates, fungi, plants and microorganisms have not been formally described. This creates significant problems for conservation, natural resource management, agriculture, forestry, bio-prospecting, bio-security and for general understanding of the world around us.

A drawer of scuttle flies (Phoridae). Many of these will represent undescribed species. Stuart Humphreys, Australian Museum

If we don’t know what name to put on a particular species, how can we identify it when it turns up as a mystery agricultural pest?

Natural history collections form the basis for studies of taxonomy and systematics. In biology, taxonomy is the science of describing organisms, and systematics is the science of understanding the relationships between organisms.

These two linked scientific disciplines form the core of research that happens within natural science collections. Most of this research is carried out by museum and herbarium scientists.

This is not the only science that happens with these collections though. Collections allow researchers to go “time-travelling”, and are the only place where verifiable specimens with collection data showing where and when they were collected can be viewed. Specimens in the Australian Museum have been collected, donated and curated for more than 100 years.

Researchers can use these specimens to build a picture of past distributions, so they can see how environmental change such as deforestation, urban development, and changing climate affect animals and plants.

The value of collections is increased by the input of taxonomic researchers. Researchers need confidence that they are working with good data, and specimen observations without a physical reference cannot be readily verified. Specimens in natural history collections will have some level of expert identification.

Not only that, but because there are actual specimens on hand, changes in the specimens can be measured. Scientists predict that members of the same animal species get larger at higher latitudes. In the southern hemisphere, a species should be larger at the southern end of its distribution.

Koala pelts inthe Australian Museum collections enable researchers to look at how koalas have dealt with changing climate and diseases. Stuart Humphreys, Australian Museum

With the climate warming there should be a shift in size of animals at different latitudes, so that individuals at particular latitudes are now smaller than they were in the past. This has been proved by measuring body size from museum specimens of passerine (perching) birds.

Koala specimens in the Australian Museum are also being measured to see how body size and fur characteristics interact with climate and limit the range of this iconic species. It would be impossible to gather this data from field observations.

Data from any single natural history collection for a particular group of organisms is always going to be incomplete. Collectors may not travel far from home, and are only active for part of their life, and usually specialise in particular groups, such as butterflies, orchids or jewel beetles.

This decreases the ability to analyse historical patterns of biodiversity if you only use a single museum or herbarium.

Spreading the love

The data from many natural history collections is now available to more people than ever before, through organisations such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and the world-class, home-grown Atlas of Living Australia.

An x-ray of a Red Indian Fish Pataecus fronto. Measurements and counts of skeletal structures inform researchers about identity, relationships, age and the influence of the environment. James King, Australian Museum

Such biodiversity portals are aggregators of data, taking standardised data from individual collections and making a much broader picture available along with analysis tools and opportunities for citizen science. This way it is possible to fill in a lot of the gaps in time and space that an individual collection has.

Most people – myself included – would place a high value on the web initiatives mentioned above, and others like them. They have opened up natural history collections in a way that would have been inconceivable in recent memory.

But we shouldn’t forget what they catalogue and showcase are the physical, once-breathing natural history collections which, like the people who work with them, remain integral to our museums and herbariums.