Digital Digest – April 2022

Compiled by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology for Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Welcome to the April edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

This summer will see the return of the physical NatSCA Conference – a partnership with the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Early Rate registration has now closed but a Late Rate registration fee is still available, with NatSCA members eligible for the Standard Member rate. The programme of events is now available to view.

NatSCA Lunchtime Chats

The new lunchtime chats are for members only and run on the last Thursday of every month. In our last session we heard from Mike Rutherford, Curator of Zoology and Anatomy at the Hunterian in Glasgow all about their investigation of a sperm whale that washed up in Thailand.

In this month’s talk we’ll be having a discussion about upcoming openings on the board of trustees for NatSCA (i.e. the committee), so please join us if you’d like to learn more about what we all do. There will be specific roles opening up so departing trustees will be explaining in more detail what those involve, but there will also be general positions available. Any NatSCA member is eligible to become a trustee; no previous experience or length of time as a member is a requirement, just an enthusiasm for supporting the work of the association. We welcome and encourage all applicants and we are particularly keen to receive nominations that help us represent the diversity of our membership, at trustee level.

This series is supposed to be informal, no fancy equipment is needed, it will be put out over the NatSCA Zoom platform and there is no fixed format. There will be shaky walks through stores by mobile, demos, plain pieces to camera or traditional PowerPoints if that’s the best way to share images and info. For those who want to take part please email training@natsca.org to put forward your idea; if a stable internet connection for what you want to achieve is tricky we can put up a pre-recorded video and then speakers can jump in at the end for the discussion.

Bring your sandwiches and a cuppa and we hope to see you on the day! All members will have received a link to join via Zoom (the same link works for all sessions) – if you haven’t, get in touch with membership@natsca.org.

Upcoming NFBR conference

The National Forum for Biological Recording has an upcoming conference for members to attend: ‘Curating the Past, Creating the Future: Legacies in Biological Recording’. It will take place Thursday 5th May – Saturday 7th May 2022 at Oxford University Museum of Natural History as well as online via Zoom. The conference costs £20 in person or £10 online. You can book your space here.

The theme this year is the legacies created by biological recording. From safeguarding historic specimen collections to dealing with personal photographs, they aim to cover various aspects of usefully preserving biological recording outputs for present and future generations. On Saturday 7th May there is a field trip to Wytham Woods, a species rich site which has been maintained and researched by Oxford University for 80 years. Find out more about the conference here, including the event programme.

Where to Visit

The National Museum of Scotland currently has a fascinating exhibition showcasing a bound copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and several original, unbound prints from the National Museums of Scotland’s Library collection. This is a great chance to learn about the making of the rarest and most renowned natural science books and the exhibition considers both Audubon’s complex and problematic story, as well as the conservation lessons we can learn from his unprecedented publication. The exhibition will run until May 8th this year, and tickets can be booked here.

There’s also still time to visit Titus: T. rex is King at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. This exhibition hosts the first, real Tyrannosaurus rex to be displayed in England for over a century. Tickets and more information can be found here and the exhibit is set to run until the end of August this year.

What to Read

Cambridge University Library saw two notebooks, originally belonging to Charles Darwin, anonymously returned after more than 20 years after they were first reported missing. Read more about the work of Dr Jessica Gardner and Dr Katrina Dean and their work to recover and verify the notebooks here.

We have another wonderful NatSCA blog all about developing remote volunteering roles and promoting opportunities during and post-Covid, written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. ‘Wikipedia, Museum Volunteers And The New Normal‘ is available to read here now.

If you prefer reading with your ears, there is an upcoming online talk from Sam Turvey, conservation biologist for the Institute of Zoology in London, all about how the historical animal collections at Bristol Museum are helping conservation efforts for critically endangered species. The talk is at 12pm on Thursday 21st April,. Registration is free and can be found here.

Where to Work

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are looking for a Specimen Preparer (full time, permanent, £22,097). Closing date is Friday, 29th April at midnight. [https://careers.kew.org/vacancy/specimen-preparer-482106.html]

If you’re feeling brave and don’t mind the cold, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is recruiting a new seasonal team for their Port Lockroy base. Duties include caring for the historical collection at the museum, running the post office, and counting lots of Gentoo penguins. More info on the various roles can be found here.

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org. Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.

Collecting biological specimens essential to science and conservation

A letter signed by more than 100 biologists and biodiversity researchers,  published online in Science today (Science 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 814-815 DOI:10.1126/science.344.6186.814), states why collecting plant and animal specimens is essential for scientific studies and conservation and does not, as some critics of the practice have suggested, play a significant role in species extinctions.

Beetle collection. Image by Paolo Viscardi

The letter is a response to an April 18 Perspectives article in Science arguing that alternative methods of documentation—such as high-resolution photography, audio recordings and nonlethal tissue sampling for DNA analysis—make the field collection of animal and plant specimens unnecessary. As most natural sciences collections professionals are fully aware, this is simply not the case.

“None of the suggested alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants,” said Cody Thompson, mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the U-M Museum of Zoology.

“Moreover, identification often is not the most important reason to collect specimens. Studies that look at the evolution of animal and plant forms through time are impossible without whole specimens. Preserved specimens also provide verifiable data points for monitoring long-term changes in species health and distribution.”

In addition, specimens from museum collections and their associated data are essential for making informed decisions about species management and conservation now and in the future, the authors state.

“Photographs and audio recordings can’t tell you anything about such things as a species’ diet, how and where it breeds, how quickly it grows, or its lifespan—information that’s critical to assessing extinction risk,” said Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences, who organized the response to the Science article.

And contrary to statements made in the April 18 Science article titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction,” collecting biological specimens does not play a significant role in species extinctions, according to the rebuttal authors.

In the April article, Arizona State University’s Ben Minteer and three co-authors cite several examples of species extinctions and suggest that the events were linked to overzealous museum collectors.

Not so, according to authors of the rebuttal letter, who reviewed the evidence and found that none of the cited extinctions—including the disappearance of flightless great auks in Iceland and Mexican elf owls on Socorro Island, Mexico—can be attributed to scientific collecting.

Millions of great auks were harvested for food, oil and feathers over the millennia, and only about 102 exist in scientific collections. Mexican elf owls were common when specimens were collected between 1896 and 1932, and the most likely reasons for extinction around 1970 were habitat degradation and predation by invasive species.

At the same time, Minteer and his colleagues failed to point out any of the valuable services that museum biological collections have provided over the decades, according to the rebuttal authors.

Both historical and new collections played a key role in understanding the spread of the chytrid fungus infection, one of the greatest current global threats to amphibians. The decision to ban DDT and other environmental pollutants was based on the discovery of thinning bird eggshells collected over an extended period. And the declining body size of animals, one of the negative effects of climate change, was discovered using body-size data from museum specimens.

Egg collections like this helped identify the harm done by DDT. Image by Paolo Viscardi

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to “de-extinct” species. One of these, the Vegas Valley leopard frog, was thought to have gone extinct in the wake of Las Vegas development. However, a study published in 2011 compared the genetics of specimens from the extinct population to individuals from surviving populations of similar-looking frogs elsewhere in the Southwest and found them to be the same species.

These types of discoveries are “the hallmark of biological collections: They are often used in ways that the original collector never imagined.” And with the continuing emergence of new technologies, this potential only grows.

That potential, combined with the increasing number of threats species face and the need to understand them, suggests that the need to collect specimens—and to share the information they hold—has never been greater.

In their April article, Minteer and his colleagues erroneously portray scientific collecting in a negative light that distracts from the primary causes of modern extinctions: habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting and invasive species.

“Halting collection of animal and plant specimens by scientists would be detrimental not only to our understanding of Earth’s diverse biota and its biological processes, but also for conservation and management efforts,” said Diarmaid O’Foighil, director of the U-M Museum of Zoology and a co-author of the rebuttal letter.

“That detriment in understanding would only increase with time because having museum specimens available for future generations of scientists will allow their study using research methodologies that have yet to be invented.”

A pre-publication pdf version of the letter can be read here.

 

The Role of Museums and Collections in Biological Recording

SOURCE: The Role of Museums and Collections in Biological Recording

The Plenary meeting of the Linnean Society’s Taxonomy and Systematics Committee

Wednesday 18th September 2013 11.30-5pm, followed by a wine reception

Museum_Taxonomy and Systematics Gen contNatural science collections have a lasting and irreplaceable value and are highly relevant when defining national biodiversity and conservation goals today. By housing type specimens, vouchers and reference material they are a resource that enables recorders to produce more accurate and reliable data. However, funding for museums is at a critical point, with cuts, closures and the loss of curatorial expertise jeopardizing appropriate care for collections and access for researchers. Without overt use there is a very real possibility that collections will be lost, to the detriment of all. This open plenary meeting will draw on the experience of The Tullie House Museum in Carlisle and the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the NHM as well as the NBN and NFBR to debate how museums can more effectively engage with recorders and taxonomists for the benefit of all.

Click here to view the programme

Registration for this event is essential, please click here to register now. Please note that lunch is included in the registration fee.