Not Just Old Birds in Cases

This article is reposted from the Stories from the Museum Floor blog by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Not Just old Birds in Cases – The Value of Natural History Collections

The most recent exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’ at Manchester Museum has brought many interesting ideas and suggestions from a wide group of visitors about how we can change our future. Several comments have mentioned animals kept in museums and collections, for example, “Stop killing animals to put in a museum” or “help all the animals by collecting DNA … and … not get stuffed like … in museums”. These comments have inspired me to write about the importance of natural history collections, especially the value of bird collections.

deana 2Comment card left at the ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2017.

Whether collecting birds for science is still necessary remains a hotly debated topic. However, the value of scientific collections cannot be questioned. Research or reference collections are still making crucial contributions in documenting biodiversity in time and space, and understanding species’ ecology and evolution, vital for conservation strategies. Furthermore, collections and museum have an important role in preserving and caring for past and present natural heritage and providing educational opportunities.

CAN COLLECTING BIRDS FOR SCIENCE BE A THREAT TO NATURAL POPULATIONS?

Among the most significant causes of bird mortality in the UK are window strikes, for example against houses and buildings, and capture by domestic cats. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that up to 33 million birds are killed by windows each year. The Mammal Society estimates that 55 million birds are caught by cats annually. By contrast, all bird collections in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the above numbers. But even cats do not cause decline in natural populations, in fact, the most significant threat to bird species worldwide is habitat loss.

BIRD COLLECTION BEHIND THE SCENES

Manchester Museum holds around 15,000 study skins, or bird specimens, from 3,000 different species, they were mostly collected between 1850 to 1950. All study skins are kept in labelled drawers in cabinets, organised in taxonomic order. If you want to know where the Manchester Museum’s birds come from, see here.

deana 3Drawers of study skins at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Ian McKerchar – see Further reading)

Study skins are different from taxidermy. Taxidermy preserves an animal in a lifelike position by stuffing and mounting the body for display in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, a study skin preserves the animal in a simple, un-lifelike position (in birds, resting on their backs), but useful for research. All the information associated with the specimen is kept on a label attached to the study skin.

diana 4Taxidermy of Pouter Pigeon (domesticated variety of Columba livia) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

FullSizeRender (1)Study skin of the extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

WHY SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT

Natural history specimens provide useful information for disciplines such as taxonomy, anatomy, morphology and ecology, among many others. The information associated with each specimen, for example, date and location, also provide important information about distribution, diet, breeding, geographical variation and much more. Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been conceived without collections.

dian 4Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) study skin from Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, held at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester)

Many study skin labels can be found around the museum galleries.

diana 8aLabel of a male Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), now extinct, collected in Toronto, Canada in April 1875 by I. Morley. ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition.

dian 5Label of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), collected in Enterprise, Florida, United States in February 1875 by I. Morley. Nature’s Library gallery.

HOW BIRD COLLECTIONS ARE STILL USED TODAY – FOUR EXAMPLES

1. Illustrations

Bird books have always been a useful tool, not only for ornithologists, but also for birdwatchers. To identify species, illustrations can describe patterns, colours, shapes, sizes and other characteristics better than photographs. Many illustrators and painters have been using bird study skins for this purpose since the early 19th century.

Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was a Dutch bird illustrator, working in England in the 19th century. His illustration of Great Northern Diver can be appreciated in Nature’s Library next to the bird specimen that inspired it. The specimen is part of Henry Dresser’s bird collection, held at the Manchester Museum since 1899.

Study skin of the Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) collected by Henry Dresser and the painting by J.G. Keulemans in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Guy Tudor and John Gwynne, artists and bird illustrators, produced beautiful colour plates, modelled on specimens in bird collections, for the guide to the Birds of Colombia and the guide to the Birds of South America. The drawings show different plumage according to age, sex, breeding status and subspecies.

Cover: The Birds of South America.

2. Describing new species from old specimens

After many years of remaining lost in drawers in museum collections, new bird species can come to light. Ornithologists revising and working with collections have described new species that were previously confused with similar species, often due to poor data on their labels. Many of them are now rare or possibly extinct. For example, Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) was described by British ornithologist Thomas Donegan in 2007 from just three specimens in Colombian museums. It has not been seen in the wild since it was collected in 1971. It is currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dian 9Comparison of Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) with similar species from Colombia. (Figure: Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, 2007 – see Further reading)

Who knows what may be in Manchester Museum waiting to be discovered?

3. Effect of climate change on bird distributions

Locality information on labels, that is, where the specimen was found, is vital for studies to predict changes in animal distributions due to climate change. These modern techniques make use of specimens that were collected long before computers or scientific climate models. A study in Colombia using different scenarios to predict the effects of climate change on globally threatened birds showed that in most cases species were projected to have smaller ranges while some others disappeared as a consequence of climate change. Museum collections were the main source of data for the models.

diana 10Map showing the predicted percent of species’ range loss in Colombia. (Figure: Regional Environmental Change, 2012 – see further reading)

4. Revealing secrets of evolution

There are still many questions to be answered about evolution. A project attempting to understand how and why bird species evolved and colonized different places on Earth used 3D scanners to analyse the size and shape of bird beaks from the Natural History Museum at Tring and Manchester Museum. The project is being run by the University of Sheffield with help from more than 1500 volunteers. More information on how to take part can be found here.

dian 113D scanning equipment for ‘Mark My Bird’ project. (Photo: markmybird.org)

In conclusion, stuffed birds on show at museums, and in the vast collections behind the scenes, are not just dead animals, they are museum specimens, with important associated information. A vital role of museums is to make sure this information can be used today to help us understand more about birds and to conserve wild populations within their natural habitats.

Written by Diana Arzuza Buelvas, Visitor Team Assistant at Manchester Museum

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’!

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? The public want to see real or proper models of objects to which they can relate to. Museums are not so much dead zoos as a way to show what there is out there, without having to get your boots muddy during long hours of waiting to see the living things which may only be a fleeting glimpse, in the wild or even in a zoo.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Even the National Museums have an uncertain future so there are many great challenges to keep our NatSCA profile high with government and funding bodies so as to continue a proper level of care of and access to our collections. During my working career, there has been a steady erosion of curatorial and conservator expertise and staffing levels and knowledge of the taxonomy of our objects which greatly saddens me. Please do look for information on our website at collections at risk, and join us in defending ours and the nations’ natural heritage.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? Over and above my knowledge of Natural History, I have an interest in writing, photography, drawing genealogy, geomorphology, molinology, ancient buildings, archaeology and history and have been a farm labourer and forester (I still wield a chainsaw). So, without museums, I would probably be a reserve or historic site warden of some sort somewhere in the world.

What is your favourite museum, and why? It has to be the Smithsonian as they have so many real specimens on show and excellent dioramas which have such a ‘wow’ factor and must stimulate visitors to have a love of nature much more than any other museum I have visited! Otherwise maybe H.M.S. Belfast (2nd World War Cruiser) because it is a museum object in its own right and all the problems that this entails, as well as being a ‘museum’ full of objects.

Written by Paul A Brown, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

MusEaster

There are so many eggciting natural history themed events going on this Easter that it seemed like a good idea to put all of the egg-events into one basket-blog. Feel free to add anything we’ve missed into the comments, or email us at blog@natsca.org.

 

Powysland Museum

Easter Activities

‘Crafts, puzzles and activities for all ages relating to animals, Gerald Durrell and the Museum’s current exhibition Bones to Bronze.’

20th April

More information here.

Bones to Bronze; Extinct Species of the Mascarene Islands

‘An incredible exhibition of beautiful and inspiring bronze sculptures created by the sculptor Nick Bibby depicting extinct species of the Mascarene Islands.’

3rd March – 23rd May

More information here.

 

Dinosaur Isle Museum

A series of guided fossil walks, led by the Museum staff, scheduled to accommodate both the Isle of Wight half-term, and the mainland half-term.

Between 3rd and 31st April

More information here.

 

Hampshire Museums

Andover Museum

Many events and activities inspired by Easter and the Museum’s temporary exhibition.

8th – 22nd April

More information here.

Red House Museum, Christchurch

‘Hunt for pictures of cats hidden in both the Museum and garden (weather permitting). Goody bags as prizes if you find them all. Booking is essential.’

18th April

More information here.

Willis Museum, Basingstoke

Many events and activities inspired by Easter and the Sainsbury Gallery exhibition.

8th – 22nd April

More information here.

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

A large range of activities from UV Face Masks, to Royal Crowns, and Music Movers.

8th – 22nd April

More information here.

 

Lapworth Museum of Geology

A number of events over the East Holidays including:

Eggtastic Easter

‘Search high and low in the Museum, to see if you can you find all of our dinosaur eggs on our egg hunt? Create some eggtastic arts and crafts and much, much more!’

11th April

More information here.

Why Dinosaurs Matter

‘Join Professor Ken Lacovara, discoverer of the mighty 65 ton Dreadnoughtus schrani, and TV Presenter and UoB’s Professor of Public Engagement in Science, Professor Alice Roberts, to discover why we should study the ancient past.’

12th April

More information here.

 

Manchester Museum

There are a number of events taking place over Easter at Manchester Museum. Further information to the events listed below can be found here.

Easter Holiday Activities: Springtime Flowerpot Labels

‘Get creative and celebrate Spring by making your own creature or flower lollipop-stick planter labels, to take away and brighten up your home or garden.’

3rd – 14th April

Big Saturday: Earth Day

‘Join in International Earth Day, celebrate what’s wonderful about our world and find out more about how we can care for it. With hands on experiments, opportunities to meet experts, arts activities and more.’

22nd April

The Junk Child; Performance by Scallywags Theatre Company

‘Enter the junk world on an exciting adventure that explores our impact on climate, and what we can do to help prevent climate change. Expect beautiful puppets, funky ‘junk’ music, and imaginative storytelling. Meet the rulers of the junk world, discover the secret of the trees, and help to make the sun shine again.’

Booking is essential.

22nd April

Hidden Object Stories

‘Museum objects can reveal many secrets about the natural world. Meet student experts from The University of Manchester who will be sharing the stories they have uncovered.’

29th April

 

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Activities over Easter include:

Easter Holidays: Brain Power!

‘See a real human brain up close and discover how this fascinating organ works. Make a colourful brain hat to wear and find out about all the different parts of your brain and what they do. On Tuesday 18th April you can say hello to Brain 4 maths, a group of scientists who invite you to take part in some mind boggling maths challenges.’

17th – 19th April

More information here.

Eggstraordinary Easter Eggventure

‘Eggsplore the Museums with an eggciting egg-hunters trail. Joint trail with the Pitt Rivers Museum.’

8th – 23rd April

More information here.

 

Natural History Museum, London

Behind the Scenes Tour

Join Science Educators for a behind-the-scenes look at the Museum’s zoology spirit collection. Although these tours run outside Easter, they will be more frequent over the holidays.

Four times a day on the following dates: 11th – 17th April, 22nd – 23rd April.

More information here.

 

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Family Activities: Sea and Do

‘Design a coastal or under-the-sea scene on a lightbox, make a badge featuring a sea creature, and use a microscope or magnifying glass to examine them more closely.’

13th April

More information here.

NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers.

What Should I Do?

The long awaited 2017 reopening of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology has been put back slightly, and they are still trying to raise funds to get their iconic whale skeleton conserved and remounted. So you may not be able to visit (yet) but what you can do if you’d like is to help fund the whale through the delightfully named Help us #RaisetheWhale fundraising project. Plus you can reap a whaley reward to boot. You can also get the inside scoop on progress if you’re coming to the NatSCA conference later this month!

It is currently Hippo Week at Leeds City Museum. Having popped by yesterday I can say with authority it’s a great museum if you haven’t visited yet, with the ex-rug tiger taxidermy a particular highlight! Until the 9th April, you can also see the entries to the Armley Hippo & Friends drawing and story competition.

What’s Can  I Apply For?

The senior management teams of all natural history collections appear to have got together and declared a moratorium on vacancies at the moment. Don’t despair though, something will come along.

In the mean time, there are two positions at the Horniman Museum if you prefer your collections alive to dead, and quite a few at Kew if your preferred subjects are both alive and botany-shaped, details here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

* Several hundred

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Rachel Jennings

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Editor

Name: Rachel Jennings

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Editor, responsible for managing our published content: Journal of Natural Science Collections, and NatSCA Notes & Comments.

Job title and institution: Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Twitter username: @rachisaurus

Tell us about your day job: I work across the collections at the Horniman, but at the moment I am mostly focused on cataloguing and photographing objects selected for a major redisplay of our anthropology collection. I get to work with a fascinating variety of objects from all over the world. I’m really excited to see the new World Gallery when it opens next year.

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? I think people love being able to experience aspects of nature that they’re unlikely to see in the wild. Museum collections can give them up-close encounters with the rare, the exotic, and the long-extinct. And, of course, there’s the cute factor!

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Museums in general are facing very uncertain times at the moment, with the funding landscape shifting constantly under our feet. Natural science collections are at risk due to loss of staff and expertise, and if the collections are lost, that would represent a huge loss to science. NatSCA is working to champion natural science collections, and advocate for the people who care for them. We collect information on collections at risk, and lobby for resources to maintain those collections.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? The only other things I’ve ever wanted to do were to work with animals, or be a writer. So, I think that if I didn’t have museums, you’d probably find me in a zoo or out in the field on a conservation project. Or holed up in a cabin somewhere, still struggling on my first novel!

What is your favourite museum, and why? I have an enduring soft spot for Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, as it is where I got my first introduction to museum work. They have amazing collections and staff, and I will always be grateful for the experience.

Written by Rachel Jennings, Documentation and Collections Assistant, at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

It’s all in the subconscious

Biologically speaking, women (in general) are built lighter than men and with less physical strength. In the past this has been used to decide that women are therefore weaker in all ways, including in intelligence, and even worse, in worth. Putting aside those people whose brains are wired a little strangely and believe it’s genuinely ok to be racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, etc, society at large, full of good, caring and wonderful people, still has a curious way of putting men first.

It is often by accident and sometimes it’s even in an errant attempt to put women first; for example I recently read a headline that said ‘Top Female Scientist Discovers…’. Great! But if it had been a male scientist, it wouldn’t have said ‘Top Male Scientist Discovers…’, it would have said top scientist. This perpetuates the idea that a scientist is a man unless otherwise stated. Another example aimed at a more general audience is that infuriating feminine hygiene product advert that has a sassy DJ jumping up and down saying ‘As a woman, I can step aside or step up’. Erm actually, men have the choice of whether to step aside or step up too. Being trod down and overlooked is not just for women.

For me, International Women’s Day is about two main objectives:

  • Reversing the damage done to any and every woman’s subconscious about what they are capable of, how seriously they should be taken, and how high up the career ladder they should be able to go. To name a few examples. We can do this by celebrating women’s achievements, encouraging our female colleagues to push harder, and mentoring younger generations to succeed.*
  • Reversing the gender stereotyping that still leaks its way into the minds of good people, men and women, and alters their subconscious beliefs. A random example, and not to point fingers, is WhatsApp who only recently brought out male and female emoticons for scientists/astronauts/runners, etc. This is a great step in the right direction but up until their release, it was another subtle, if accidental, way in which women are made second best in the subconscious of everyday people.

The new and improved range of emoticons

 

So, to start/continue the celebrations of International Women’s Day, here is a number of amazing natural history related articles and blogs for your enjoyment and dissemination:

ZSL Celebrates Dr Joan Procter for International Women’s Day, by Zoological Society of London

International Women’s Day; ARKive

IUCN Celebration of International Women’s Day; International Union for Conservation of Nature

Raising Horizons: Portraits of women in science; British Antarctic Survey

RSPB celebrates its female founders; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (from 2014)

Namesake Minerals #3; Pangeology

* Obviously we should all do this for men too!