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

NatSCA Digital Digest – March

The bob tailed squid. (Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What Should I See and Do?

The fantastic ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is still on until the 26th April. If you are visiting nearby, then you must pop into this museum!

Something is coming…..Bristol Museum and Art Gallery will be having a prehistoric adventure with their new Pliosaur exhibition opening in June this year. Expect lots of fossils, digital recreations, and I hear there will be a life-sized model of their incredible specimen. More updates as the beast swims towards June…

What Can  I Apply For?

There is an opening for a curator of natural science at Birmingham Museums. With collections covering geology, botany and zoology, this post is an exciting opportunity! The deadline is 20th March, so hurry! More information on their website here.

Twitter

Keep your eyes out on Twitter for some great ways to share our collections. They are a great way of showing a much larger audience specimens in our store rooms. Have a look and join in!

February had the tongue in cheek #MuseumPromo hashtag that showed the wonderful ways curators pose for the press.

Every week there are a number of museum related hashtags to join in with, including #MineralMonday, #TaxidermyTuesday and #FossilFriday.

Journal online

After one year of publication, our Journal of Natural Science Collections is freely available online.

Volume 1 held exciting articles covering collections reviews, conservation projects and how to manage radioactive collections. All articles are freely available here.

Volume 2 includes articles about DNA damage to specimens, making models and how to create a successful social media strategy for your department. The articles are all freely available 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 new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

NatSCA Digital Digest- February

 

"What shall I do this month?" Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

“What shall I do this month?”  Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

What Should I See and Do?

I have had a number of people telling me how good the ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is recently. You have until the 26th April to see it but we all know how fast time flies so don’t keep putting off your trip. And I’ll do the same.

This Saturday (11th February) the New Walk Museum is running ‘Fossils in Focus’ from 11am to 1pm, at which you can fondle some specimens and take in the Museum whilst you’re at it. For more information, check out the Museum’s website.

Opening soon is an exhibition at the Lapworth Museum of Geology (where I began my career! Ahhh fond memories…*) called ‘Where Land Meets Sea’. It is a photographic exhibition of work by Dr. Richard Greswell who, as both a scientist and photographer, has created what looks to be a stunning exhibition. A more detailed description of the exhibition can be found here.

*Completely irrelevant to this blog

What’s Can  I Apply For?

There are a number of natural history posts available at the Natural History Museum at the moment:

If you would like to help ‘maintain and develop a world-class collection of natural history specimens’, choose whether you are more of an Earth Science or a Life Science type museologist and apply to the relevant position here.

If you’re a little further along in your career, and it happens to have been focused on botany, then the same NHM is also looking for a ‘Senior Curator in Charge, Historical Collections and British and European Seed Plants’. Further information is on their website here.

Finally, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is looking for a Documentation Assistant. It may only be a temporary placement but collecting the OUMNH for your CV is well worth the faff.

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 new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

NatSCA Digital Digest

Welcome to the weekly digest of posts from around the web with relevance to natural science collections. We hope you find this useful and if you have any articles that you feel would be of interest, please contact us at blog@natsca.org

1. Blog: Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Lil Stevens, Natural History Museum, London

Synopsis

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival took place in Dorset on 2-4 May 2014. Our palaeontologists Lil Stevens and Zoe Hughes report back from a weekend of sun, sea, fossils and fun.

On the right hand side of this page, you will find links to two other blogs, Lyme Regis Fossil Festival Day 1 and Day 2, which outline the activities of the weekend.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

2. Conference: Woodward 150 Symposium: Fossil Fishes and Fakes

Natural History Museum, 21st May 2014

Synopsis

‘Arthur Smith Woodward contributed widely to our knowledge of fossil fish, extinct animals and regional geology. This symposium considers his influence on palaeontology and the legacy of his work at the Museum.’

Woodward 150 Symposium

3. Exhibition: Nature, not just ‘red in tooth and claw’

Manchester Museum, Now until September

Synopsis

‘We have an exhibition, ‘From the War of Nature’ that revisits the idea of a ‘struggle for existence’, a very widely misunderstood and misapplied phrase. The exhibition links to the WW1 centenary, and explores whether nature is cruel, nice or anything else. The answer is that it’s not one thing- it’s lots of things. Sometimes animals co-operate, collaborate or divide resources up between them. The old idea of nature red in tooth and claw is a very misleading one- and does a real disservice to the complexity of nature. The exhibition runs until September. It was very rewarding to work on.’

Nature, not just ‘red in tooth and claw’

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor