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

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.

 

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.

1) FIND A NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
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….

2) BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT
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.

3) GIVE PLENTY OF NOTICE. THE MORE THE BETTER!
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.

4) LOOK ONLINE 
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.

5) BE PREPARED TO TRAVEL
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.

6) A NOTE ON DESTRUCTIVE SAMPLING
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.

 

Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database