Provenance, Provenance, Provenance

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey.

When all is quiet, the crowds have long-gone home and the lights have been dimmed, the back rooms come alive for the curators who have long finished their official hours. For it is the time for tracking down rogue specimens, delving into the past or anticipating the future. What I am trying to say is that it is the time for research and the inevitable Miss Marple style adventures to be discovered when finding details to add to the current knowledge of a historic specimen. I say current because invariably details will have been lost or not even deemed worthy to have been recorded on labels, or written in a language so obscure as to not be recognised by the modern eye.

Perhaps lost details are just a phenomenon of the botanical world, but I suspect not, and I will explain what I am alluding to above using just a couple of examples of specimens made by a single collector, John Forbes, who undertook a voyage from 1822 until his death in 1823, almost 200 years ago.

John Forbes was one of the Horticultural Society of London’s (now the Royal Horticultural Society) early plant collectors. Head-hunted from the Liverpool Botanical Garden for his horticultural skills, he was employed to travel to Southern Africa to bring back plants to introduce to British gardens. He sailed with Captain Owen on the HMS Leven, a voyage tasked with making a survey of the east coast of Africa, visiting (in the following order): Madeira, Tenerife, Santa Cruz, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique (Forbes is noted as the second botanist to collect there (Exell & Hayes: 130)), Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique, South Africa and finally Mozambique (where Forbes died, 16th August 1823).

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The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

A good title goes a long way, and based on that alone I was excited to receive a review copy of Ross Barnett’s new book through the post. I knew of Ross from Twitter – and I can heartily recommend following him for a whole host of natural history-related wonders, particularly around climate change, ancient mammal DNA and palaeontology. As a result, I was slightly surprised that he had written a book that I assumed – from the clever title – was about reintroducing the lynx to Britain.

That is, in fact, not what the book is about. Instead, it takes us species-by-species, chapter-by-chapter, through the incredible range of beasts that have disappeared from the British Isles in recent millennia (I should have paid more attention to the subtitle). We learn about the woolly mammoths and rhinos, the huge cave bears and their slightly smaller relatives, cave lions and cave hyenas, sabretooth cats, massive species of cattle and deer, as well as wolves, beavers and, yes, lynx. All of these stories are told in the voice of a person clearly fascinated and excited by the things he has been studying all his life, and with a dry sense of humour.

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Brendel Plant Model Survey

Written by Donna Young, Curator of Herbarium, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

Inspired by the project led by the Corning Museum of Glass, which looked at holdings of Blaschka models, I am embarking on a project to map and document collections of Brendel botanical models worldwide.

The objective of this project is not only to provide a useful resource to be used in the curation of anatomical models, but to document their past and present use – promoting and bringing awareness of these collections to new audiences.

Brendel model Papaver rhoeas
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Anatomical Models

The nineteenth century was the golden age of scientific discovery, and as the century progressed, the teaching of science in schools, academies and museums evolved to reach a new mass public audience. Science was no longer the exclusive preserve of an elite few.

Changing teaching techniques promoted this transformation and pedagogical inquiry was seen as a constructive and involved way of learning. The written and spoken word was supported by the use of visually instructive wall charts and classroom demonstrations. The introduction of interactive teaching models encouraged audiences to understand nature using new and original perspectives.

Botanical models were used to illustrate and demonstrate plant anatomy. Unlike living material, their use was not restricted by seasonal availability and they were ideal for demonstrating small or ephemeral details which are difficult to preserve.

In 1827 Louis Auzoux established his workshop in France, manufacturing human and veterinary anatomical models from papier-mâché. The company also produced botanical models, which were widely distributed to universities and schools in France, particularly to support the expansion in teaching agricultural science.

Brendel model Centaurea cyanus ‘dissected’
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

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Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

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In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

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The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK

Science and Museums with Erica McAlister

It’s been a little quiet around here so today you’re getting two posts to make up for it. This afternoon we’re going to have a guest post by Plymouth Museum’s very own Jan Freedman but first let’s talk about bugs:

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

London’s Natural History Museum houses an impressive natural history collection. It has millions of specimens ranging from amoebae to blue whales. For Dr. Erica McAlister, an entomology specialist at the museum, the most important part of the collection are flies. Many of us relate to flies as a nuisance that needs to be swatted away from our sandwiches but, to Erica, they represent an amazing resource of information. Last month Erica agreed to come and talk to the good people of PubSci about her research.

There are two primary frontiers of insect research: new areas of investigation; and cleaning up the mess Walker left behind. We’re going to talk more about the new areas but I’m sure Erica would be happy to tell you about Walker’s legacy if you’re not already familiar with it.

New areas include a recent trip to the Ethiopian church forests. This is an interesting phenomenon – deforestation for farming has decimated the Ethiopian forests but, due to their reverence for the church buildings, the forests have been left unscathed in a radius around them. This may be the last hope for many of Ethiopa’s native species. Flies are a major contributor to pollination – three of the six top UK pollinators are flies. What Erica wanted to know was whether the speciation at the edges differed from the core. She went out there and, despite some regional obstacles such as children stealing pan traps, managed to recover a huge amount of data – which has since been published.

Another major area of investigation has been identifying fly larvae: we may have over 100 000 described species of fly but we only know 4% of their larvae. The importance of this cannot be stressed strongly enough: if you cannot tell apart a disease carrier from a pollinator you may be shooting yourself in the foot however you tackle them. Furthermore their presence at the developmental stages of a crime scene could drastically alter your prediction of how long ago the crime took place if you do not get the species right.

Flies are used as an arctic bio-indicator of climate change because certain species of chironomids (non-biting midges) are ctenothermic and can only exist in very specific temperature ranges. There now exists a ‘chironomid thermometer’ due to this phenomenon.

Suitcase ecology is another area of crime scene investigation. It was once believed that the age of a body couldn’t be as accurately determined if the body was stowed away in a suitcase because flies cannot get into and out of it. Further study has revealed a pattern of egg-laying on the zip, through which the larvae may pass when they hatch. This now gives us a better picture of the circumstances of the murder than ever before.

There are lots of fly behaviours that touch upon our daily lives in ways we don’t even appreciate and understanding these is essential to our continued way of life. For example the very fact that we have chocolate is wholly due to fly pollination. Without them, we wouldn’t have it. Furthermore we can use flies as a source of chemical research – fly venoms used for biological control, for example. We need them to tell us whether the climate is changing and to help us catch murderers but, more importantly, we need people like Erica who can make sense of their behaviour and present it in a way that makes us forget our instinctive “ugh, flies” reaction. There aren’t many people who would be prepared to trawl through cow pats and fetid carcasses in the name of science but somebody has to. When someone steps forward and shows enthusiasm for this we should wholeheartedly encourage it.


PubSci is a pet project of NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi. If you’re in London tomorrow evening I highly recommend you come along. We will be talking about the history of natural history collecting and trade with Elle Larsson, University of London postgrad. I am sure it will be terrific.

Data-less Natural Science Specimens are Useless to Science. Aren’t they?

Here we have Clare Brown, of the Leeds Museum, telling us about some devilishly exciting research:

Tasmanian Devil specimens in UK museums, with no data whatsoever, have been used in cutting edge research on devil facial tumour disease as part of the effort to save these incredible animals.
Data – when and where a specimen was collected – is vital to the usefulness of natural science collections. It is crucial for so many aspects of research that these collections are commonly used for: climate change work; biodiversity research; distribution mapping etc.
Specimens without data are usually much more problematic. At Leeds we have thousands of objects that don’t have any record of where they came from or when they were collected. The information has either been lost or never noted down in the first place. Even our scrappiest, most moth-eaten bits of taxidermy are elevated above the rest of the collection if they have associated data.
I was therefore delighted when Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide asked whether we had any Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii material collected in the last 200 years. Crucially, he didn’t need an exact date or location – just a two century timespan. We’d been collecting since 1821.
Leeds, a large, rich, Victorian industrial city, spent most of the 19th century collecting scientific material from around the world. We had a ‘purveyor of Australian wildlife’ and acquired, amongst other things, two Devil mounts and a skeleton. The specimens were duly sampled and sent to Australia.

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The study, also using specimens from Oxford, looked at genetic diversity in a group of molecules in cell membrane proteins called the ‘major histocompatibility complex’. Low diversity in this complex has been linked to the emergence and spread of devil facial tumour disease. The team needed samples of historical and ancient Devil DNA to see how diverse the populations were before European settlement and after. The article, published in Biology Letters, can be read here.

This is a great example of how natural science specimens, whatever their ‘data status’, can contribute to scientific research at the forefront of species conservation.

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.