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.


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.


Natural history under the hammer

Reblogged from UCL Museums & Collections Blog

Natural history under the hammer

By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013

Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocusskeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.

I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics.

Lost to Science

One of the most common criticisms that comes from the scientific community is that these high profile and expensive auctions, way above the budgets that museums can afford, result in a loss to science when specimens pass into private collections. I don’t want to downplay that this is a real problem, I know of at least two examples of important material that would likely cause a re-evaluation of entire groups of organisms but which are resolutely in the hands of private collectors who won’t allow them to be accessed. However, other museums, particularly art collections, embrace and work with private collectors. The museums get to display important or interesting objects and the collectors receive credit and validation for the collections they have built up. Furthermore, the buying, selling and trading of artworks means that there’s an excellent paper trail in the form of auction and exhibition catalogues which means that the movement of works can be traced much more readily than natural history specimens which don’t have this tradition of a published, publicly accessible paper trail.

Private to Public

When it comes to natural history I think we’re too quick to demonise private collectors with the “loss to science” rhetoric. Many of today’s largest museums were founded as private collections that were donated to the nation including the Natural History Museum London, the Natural History Museum Tring and the British Museum. Of course the Tate galleries still bear the name of the man whose funds and collections seeded what is now considered one of the most important art collections in the world. Recently two George Stubbs paintings, the first Western depictions of Australian animals was ‘saved for the nation‘  by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The works were finally secured by a significant donation from a shipping magnate and patron of the NMM. It would be interesting to consider if the paintings would have been saved in the same way if it were the Natural History Museum trying to secure the funds instead.  Natural history museums don’t receive anywhere near the same level or have such a long history of patronage supporting them as other kinds of museums. Often it’s assumed that buyers of multimillion pound specimens erect them in their mansions and display them as ‘trophy’ objects. That’s not to say that this doesn’t occur but I think it’s fair to assume that these buyers may have a keen interest and love of natural history. Perhaps talking to private collectors instead of instantly labelling them as a problem would improve the patronage and support of natural history museums and increase the awareness of ethical collecting and trading.

Grant Museum plastic dinosaur specimens

If relationships were improved there’s also the danger that scientific research on specimens could be used to increase the price tag of specimens as commercial assets. Say for example, if research on the recently sold Diplodocus skeleton revealed that it was the largest, rarest or the only example of a new species this increases the rarity and desirability of the object and pushes the price even further away from the reaches of public institutions. Conversely, research may devalue a specimen, yet another reason why private collectors may be wary of caliper bearing scientists examining their collections. It’s already ubiquitous across museums to never give a valuation on objects brought in for opinions or identifications to avoid certifying or authenticating material for sale. I’d recommend looking across the museum sector to seek guidance on how other museums deal with the issues of research affecting commodity prices.

Amateur vs. Professional

Lastly, working with private and amateur collectors can very realistically improve our knowledge about the natural world. Anecdotally, I’d say that there’s a deep mistrust of museums by amateur collectors (either those buying their collections or those collecting fossils and unfortunately extant animals from the wild). There’s the perception that once an object goes into a museum collection it’s essentially lost to the public, only accessible to card carrying scientists. With museums bursting at the seams with objects, only a tiny proportion of collections on display and visits to collections requiring managing it’s easy to see where this perception comes from. Again, looking to other museums provides guidance. The excellent, excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme is a solution to this exact problem in archaeology. There are thousands of amateur archaeologists, metal dectectorists and collectors and the portable antiquities scheme is an easy way to encourage the wider archaeological community to register finds. They are given full credit for the discoveries, there’s a prestige associated with contributing to the scheme and their finds and data are almost instantly available to the wider sector. Quite why a similar scheme for fossil finds doesn’t exist is increasingly perplexing especially as the legislation and policing of the movement of fossil material, as the aforementioned Tarbosaurus auction highlighted,  is nowhere near as robust as it is with artworks and archaeological material.

With museums brokering discussions with private collectors and auction houses we could better support patronage for museums, save important specimens for the public and improve our understanding of  palaeontology and biology.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums

By Mark Carnall – 27 March 2013 – Reblogged with author’s permission, originally posted on the UCL Museums & Collections Blog

We interrupt this normal service to bring a special PSA. This post is intended as a how-to for the global community of researchers who are looking for biological specimens in the UK to study.

Recently I went to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) annual conference and with cuts to heritage and museums many of the talks were about how we make the most of natural history collections in the UK. Biological research is seen as one of the most important drivers and reasons for keeping and using natural history collections, however, in my opinion we do a relatively poor job at matching researchers to specimens and a certain portion of the research community can be forgiven for struggling to find material for research despite the wealth of resources we put out there supposedly designed to help them.

So if you work in a natural history museum, supervise Phd students or teach on a biological/geological course please pass a link to this article on and see if we can’t create more research opportunities that I suspect we currently miss.

There are hundreds of them in this country but anecdotally, a lot of the researchers that we see here just think of museums that they know about. Hopefully that includes the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales and the National Museum of Scotland but rarely does it include smaller museums dotted around the country which hold approximately half of the nation’s collections. Unfortunately, and this is where we’re to blame a bit there isn’t a comprehensive list of them all in an easy to find place (this is something that NatSCA will be working on…).Even good old Wikipedia isn’t much help (spot the Grant Museum here ) which probably says volumes about Museums engaging with the web. The Museums Association publishes a Museums and Galleries Yearbook but it would be remiss of me to ask that every researcher buy a copy and then plough through it trying to identify all the natural history collections. At the moment, my recommendation would be to contact the NatSCA mailing list . NatSCA is is the UK’s organisation for representing Natural Science Collections and associated museum staff, as such it represents a large number of natural history collections in the UK and the chances are high that the people on the list will be able to help you find specimens within the collection they look after or will be able to point you in the right direction, however….

Most museum professionals are a friendly lot and making specimens accessible to researchers is part of what we’re here for. However, we won’t do your research for you and we’re not here to do your homework for you. The difference between “I’m interested in Primates” and “I want to see disarticulated postcranial skeletons of female wild caught green monkeys with a known collection date” may be the difference between receiving a swift reply either way or no reply at all.

You may think that museum staff spend the whole day idling about, occasionally dusting the skeletons, but the reality is that there’s always stuff going on from appointments with other researchers, school groups, teaching responsibilities, conference presentations, sometimes the skeletons do need to be dusted and the odd flood/fire/act of God takes curators and collections managers away from getting back to you about your research visit tomorrow because you’re visiting your Auntie in Glasgow and you’d like to pop in.

Okay so I’ve mentioned already that museums are pretty bad at putting their content online but believe it or not the sector has spent millions of pounds and person hours digitising collections for you! Yes you! We just forgot to tell you about it. If you’ve got a museum in mind it’s always worth checking to see if they have an online database for specimens you may wish to use. Here’s our database and here’s the online database for the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons . There. Already you can access the collections from 50% of the zoological collections in London from the comfort of your armchair you lucky person. There are also a host of other online databases and networks that might help you to find specimens:

Cornucopia   is an online database of information about more than 6,000 collections in the UK’s museums, galleries, archives and libraries that allows you to search collections by a number of different criteria. The data in it isn’t comprehensive but does allow some clever searching.

Culture Grid is a UK wide aggregator of Museum online database content. Currently around 100 UK institutions have their content syndicated to it but the list is always growing. It’s still very much a work in progress but it’s worth a punt.

Europeana contains the same data as Culture Grid but casts the net wider and represents a number of institutions from across Europe. Again the site is still a work in progress but it’s getting there.

Herbaria seem to be ahead of the game here, the excellent resource Index Herbariorum , is a guide to the 3,400 herbaria across the globe representing an estimated 350 million herbaria specimens. Herbaria United brings together information about herbaria in the UK and Ireland, hosts gazetteers and conveniently lists the online databases of individual herbaria.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility is an excellent site that represents many of the larger natural history museums in the world. The user interface could be a little bit easier to navigate but once you find your way around you can search for instances or specimens, or occurrence records. Those green monkeys I mentioned earlier? We can see there’s 135 of them in the largest museum collections in the World. Again, you won’t find the Grant Museum and other smaller museums on here yet but it’s a starting point.

Search by collector on FENSCORE the rather odd sounding Federation For Natural Sciences Collections Research is now a very out of date online resource for finding the collections related to a geographical region, a particular person (e.g. collector) or a particular taxon. Again it’s not the kind of easy to use resource you’d expect in the 21st Century but if it’s a collection related to a person you are after this is still probably your best shot of finding it.

Between these resources, you have more information at your fingertips than Darwin ever had. There are many more out there created by individual institutions, subject specialist networks or research networks interested in specific taxonomic groups. If you know of any that would be good to put up here, let me know and I’d be happy to add them here.

It may be convenient and easier on your travel expenses to spend more time at a larger museum rather than traveling around but as I mentioned before there are vast amounts of objects in smaller collections and your sample set will be all the better for avoiding institutional collection and preparation biases. The National museums may hold large collections but I’m willing to wager that University museums have a better selection of osteological specimens for some vertebrate groups and many local authority museums will have a better selection of taxidermy specimens if its skin, fur and feathers you’re after. There are also a whole range of historic houses, charities and zoological parks and gardens that have significant holdings but you may not have thought to look in these places. Furthermore, I’d always recommend checking at your local museum as the eccentric individuals who founded many of them traveled the world collecting specimens you wouldn’t expect to find in the museum round the corner from you. It’s worth bearing in mind that most museums hold a high percentage of their collection in storage so just because there isn’t a natural history display in the galleries doesn’t mean there isn’t a warehouse full of specimens behind the scenes.

Some research may demand destructive sampling of specimens. Normally this isn’t something that natural history museums are fundamentally against and most have policies for undertaking it but your science has to be good and you have to demonstrate how your research will get out to the wider research community. When brokering a destructive sampling request you’ll probably have images of curators slowly shaking their head and padlocking their drawers  in your mind. In our minds we have images of specimens with massive chunks taken out of them and no published works disseminating the results. Destructive sampling is always a risk, especially if your methodology is relatively untested, so you have to demonstrate why you need to take samples, how, where and when you’re going to publish them and why your work has significant impact. In addition, museums will ask you about non destructive sampling techniques as well so come prepared to demonstrate how your laser/scanner/bain-marie won’t irreversibly damage a specimen. On another note, blu-tack, plasticine and silly putty are not appropriate putties to be smearing all over specimens to hold them in place so you should expect to have it confiscated upon entry.

These six tips are just the starting point but hopefully it will help researchers to find the biological and geological specimens for use in research. The use of collections by the research community be it scientific or artistic is core to justifying the existing of many collections and at the heart of many museum’s founding doctrines. In short, it’s what we’re here for.

UPDATE 27/03/2013. A colleague from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent has alerted me to  Natural Sciences Collections West Midlands website which is a neat summary of 11 natural science collections and museum services in the West Midlands. Check it out.

UPDATE 2 27/03/2013. Added information about the excellent Index Herbariorum which I must confess I hadn’t heard of before.

UPDATE 3 27/03/2013. Been alerted to The Linking Museum Collections by the Welsh Museum Federation  by a colleague at National Museum Wales. This project looks set to link up natural science collections across Wales and make them more accessible to the public and researchers. One to watch.

UPDATE 4 27/03/2013. Reminded about Cornucopia (which I’d completely forgotten) and added information about Herbaria United.