I had been thinking of writing this post for a while, and during yesterday’s Natural History Friday, I e-mailed my contacts at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) to ask for photos of a couple of specimens. I had the UMMZ photos an hour later, and the AMNH specimens had been pulled and put into their photo cue – I’ll get them Monday or Tuesday. I also had a chance to update the folks at AMNH of my impending visit (hopefully this fall), along with a jaunt to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, to study endangered Ivory Gulls (there are only a few hundred pairs left in Canada, down 80% since the 1980s. I’m looking at some explanations as to why this is). So at the end of the day, I tweeted my appreciation:
Natural history museums are possibly some of the greatest places, and have some of the greatest people.
— Lab and Field (@thelabandfield) June 28, 2013
It was favourited and retweeted and replied to by far more people than usually react to my online ramblings, so I thought I would explain why I think that natural history museums are so amazing.
Back in 2010, Paul Sweet, the collections manager in the Ornithology Department of the AMNH, took me down a locked corridor into a locked room, and then opened a locked cabinet. “I’ll be back in half an hour” he said.
Not only were there three Great Auks, but the museum’s examples of other extinct North American birds (Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, Eskimo Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker). I was in heaven.
But I didn’t go to the AMNH just to oogle the extinct birds (though that was a nice fringe benefit). I was there to better understand moult energetics, and address issues of fisheries bycatch in the Pacific.
At a museum, you say? Absolutely.
Museums aren’t just where stuffy curators (pun intended) go and shoot things, stuff them, and then leave them in drawers. They’re a veritable Noah’s Ark of the natural world, and in a time when species are disappearing, declining, and generally having a poor go at it, they’re critical for biology, ecology, conservation, and management.
I got my introduction to museums writing one of my PhD thesis chapters on moult, the regular replacement of feathers, in small pacific seabirds called Least Auklets.
Take a look at the younger bird on the left – see how his (or her) flight feathers are brown and worn? That’s because they’re old, and due for replacement. Next to breeding and migrations, moulting feathers is the most energetically expensive part of a bird’s year. And unlike many species, Least Auklets tend to start while they’re breeding. About the time their single chick hatches, they’ll start replacing the first four flight feathers while they feed and care for the chick. But then they leave for the nebulous “North Pacific” where they are almost impossible to study. So how can we figure out the last 6/10 of their flight feather moult? Museum specimens.
It turns out there are only about 60 Least Auklets in museum collections from Canada, the US, Russia, and Japan that aren’t from the breeding season. I was able to look at these (or photographs), score the moult, and figure out what was going on.
We couldn’t have done this without natural history museum collections.
And now with minimally destructive sampling for things like genetics, stable isotopes, contaminants, and stress hormones, the possibility of looking at really long time series back to the mid 1800s is fantastic. To say nothing of the morphological and evolutionary studies that can only be accomplished with large numbers of many closely related species.
All this material in the public trust surely must be incredibly valuable and worth promoting and protecting. Which is precisely why cuts to natural history museums in Canada, and the US are so devastating. The Rooms Provincial Museum in St. John’s, NL, lost it’s natural history curator position, and now just has a collection manager. A staff of one. For all of natural history. For an island. That has multiple extinct endemic species or subspecies represented in the museum. Chicago’s Field Museum, one of the largest and most prestigious collections in the US, cut $3 million from its research budget.
Those museums that aren’t facing hard times are woefully understaffed, which means that requests from researchers, processing new specimens, and updating/fixing catalogue entries takes a long time, and there’s always a backlog.
Chris at Arthropod Ecology has discussed this from an arachnid perspective, where the situation is worse than for most vertebrate collections. But not by much. The arachnid collections of the Canadian National Collection of Insects (et al.) has been without a curator since the 1990s. By comparison, the Canadian Museum of Nature has one curator for birds and mammals (and a 5+ year backlog of specimens to be entered into the catalogue).
Important collections in almost every Canadian province, and in most of Europe are still not digitized. Many bird collections are searchable on ORNIS, which is a huge step forward because I can sit in my office, and scan millions of specimens for those winter Least Auklets rather than e-mail 40 curators or collections managers and have them check. But important collections in places like Nova Scotia, Manitoba, British Columbia, Newfoundland, and many more provinces remain inaccessible. Lest we think that this is problem is provençal, one of the largest avian collections at the Natural History Museum in Tring, UK is still not online (though it will be soon, with your help!).
What can you do? A couple of things.
First, if you happen to live in a city/town with a natural history collection, consider volunteering. Some of this is grunt work moving specimens around, or could be as much as helping prepare specimens if you have that skill.
Contact an appropriate museum, ask if they’re accepting specimens, and if you come across suitable specimens during your field work, donate them. Museums used to launch massive multi-year expeditions to collect specimens (some still do, but they’re typically weeks rather than years!). And the specimen doesn’t have to be from your field site – if you come across a dead animal in reasonably good condition, bag it, freeze it, and drop it off. Many specimens come from window strikes (birds), from along highways (mammals), or even aircraft!
Use museum specimens in your research. This is easy if you have a nearby collection, but even if you don’t, museums often lend specimens for study (under strict guidelines).
And get your students (if you have any) to follow these tips, too.
If you’ve never been to a natural history collection, check out the YouTube channel “The Brain Scoop” that I posted about back in February. Emily is now working out of Chicago’s Field Museum, and the latest videos take you behind the scenes to the collections – what the public doesn’t see.
And, as always, use museum collections if you happen to partake in Natural History Fridays.