The Temporary Number
During the course of my work in the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, (NMI) I came across a couple of boxes of bird skins that were in the wrong place. By deciding to move them to their correct place, I opened a metaphorical can of worms. It turned out that these 200 bird skins had been assigned modern numbers during a volunteer project 16 years ago. In the intervening period, the original accession number had been discovered. Never one to leave a wrong number in place, I took on the challenge to renumber this collection before rehousing them.
First, I read the acquisition register and found the donor to be a gentleman named Colonel James Grove White, a career British Army officer. Upon retirement, Grove White came to live in Co. Cork in the south of Ireland, and like many British men in Ireland at that time, he came to hold high office during various periods, and was very active in the local community. It was during his time in Ireland, almost 100 years ago, that he donated his collection of “Ceylonese” bird skins. Presumably these were collected by him while on duty in Sri Lanka, although there is no documentation in the NMI to contribute the field collection details, other than the labels on the birds themselves.
Approximately 200 bird skins were donated, and in his correspondence with the NMI, Grove White said “I am glad to know that some of the birds may be useful. I know that there were 2 or 3 rather rare ones.”
Once I had renumbered the specimens, and integrated them taxonomically in our bird skin housing, I wanted to investigate just how rare these particular specimens are now, and how valuable they are to our existing collection.
Of interest to me was: IUCN status of the birds, endemicity, and uniqueness in the collection. One of the limitations of this brief study, however, was that I did not have the time to reidentify dubious taxonomy.
The vast majority of the Grove White bird collection is currently considered to be of least concern thankfully. One of the species, Dicaeum vincens (Sclater, 1872), is near threatened and one, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus (Pennant, 1769), is vulnerable.
As can be seen below, almost three quarters of the species collected are widespread. Almost 20% are endemic to Sri Lanka. 10% are commonly found in Sri Lanka and neigbouring countries. One species, Turnix suscitator bengalensis Blyth, 1852, appears to be endemic to neighbouring countries, but not Sri Lanka, so that is an interesting find (see Avibase and GBIF).
Uniqueness in Collections
How important are these specimens to our existing collections? One way to ascertain this is to check our database see if we already have those species represented, and if so, by how many specimens?
Here we can see that of all the species donated, almost 30% of them are the sole representatives of their taxa in the NMI collection. Another almost 30% have a small number of specimens already in the collection, and these existing specimens can allow us to investigate intra-specific variation and also assist with future identifications. Lastly, almost 45% of the taxa donated were already represented in the collection in abundance.
The benefits of this body of work are manifold:
- I have assigned the correct accession numbers to the specimens, confirming their provenance.
- All object records in our collections management system, Axiell Collections, have been improved by the addition of the acquisition details.
- The biographical research relating to the donor has been added to the Persons and Institutions module of Axiell Collections.
- The Sri Lankan geographic locations in the database were also tidied and improved to enhance searchability.
- The specimens are now integrated taxonomically and can be found alongside their conspecifics and are available for research.
- Finally, analysis of historic and potential acquisitions can help us to realise the contribution that specimens can make to systematics, biogeography, genomics, morphology and other areas of avian research.