NatSCA Digital Digest

 

A mounted skeleton of a fruitbat leers at the camera

Welcome to the March edition of the Digital Digest! Without further ado…

News

Booking is open for the 2016 NatSCA Conference and AGM, ‘The Nature of Collections – How museums inspire our connection to the natural world‘, which will be held at the Derby Museum & Art Gallery and The Silk Mill on 21 – 22 April.

We have invited papers and posters looking at how museums have inspired and shaped the relationship of visitors and users of the collections to the natural world:

  • Projects between wildlife/environmental organisations/parks and museums.
  • The training & developing of naturalist skills using collections.
  • Artists projects connecting collections/gallery to outside spaces.
  • Looking at the relationship between natural history societies, their collections & museums.
  • Exhibition examples linking preserved specimens and our environment.

The Early Bird deadline is TODAY (Thursday 10 March), so get booking and save money!

If you’re not yet a NatSCA member, now is a great time to join – you can purchase membership and get the member’s conference rate for the same cost as a non-member ticket! See our membership page to join.

If you are a member, email the NatSCA Membership Secretary (membership@natsca.org) for your booking discount code.

Jobs

Geologist, Scarborough Museums Trust. A great opportunity for any rock and fossil enthusiasts! Application deadline: Friday 8 April.

Research and Data Coordinator in Science Policy (CITES), Kew. One of a selection of interesting posts currently on offer at Kew, the application deadline for this post is Wednesday 16 March.

Around the Web

A taxidermy warehouse in London was broken into on Tuesday this week, and 18 specimens were stolen. The Met police are appealing for information: http://news.met.police.uk/news/help-needed-to-trace-stolen-stuffed-animals-154850

DNA from museum specimens confirms a new species of forest thrush.

Why was the pink-headed duck’s head pink? Museum specimens reveal the secrets of this extinct species.

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

20150128_114015

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.

 

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

Reblogged from the UCL Museums and Collections Blog

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

By Mark Carnall, Grant Museum of Zoology

You may have figured from the title of this blog but I’m going to take a bit of time to talk about when specimens go missing from a museum collection. It can be a difficult thing for museums to talk about as most museums operate to care for the specimens and objects that are given in trust to them often for perpetuity, or more practically until the death of our part of the Universe. Currently a lot of my work here involves relocating our specimens following the move of the stores and museum a couple of years ago and trying to work out what happened to a missing specimen involves a bit of detective work, so I thought I’d offer an insight into the process.

Missing Specimens- The Prime Suspects

Collectively, museums look after billions of objects. The Grant Museum contains roughly 68,000 specimens which may sound like a lot but natural history collections regularly number in the millions. Even keeping track of a mere 68,000 of them can be problematic enough. Here’s the mental checklist I go through when a specimen can’t be located.

1. Somebody* put it back in the wrong place. A little known fact about museums is that under English law it is still possible to punish a museum professional with death if they commit this crime. Putting a specimen in drawer 43 instead of drawer 44 may sound trivial, but if it’s one of 200,000 superficially identical butterflies that’s been misplaced….. Of course, naturally you search the nearby area but if it isn’t immediately  findable the next step is to organise a search committee and comb the museum inch by inch until it is located. Sometimes this is how half dodos are rediscovered.

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

2. It’s temporarily somewhere else. At the Grant Museum, we use our specimens a lot. On any given day we’ve got specimens out for researchers, specimens on loan across the department and to other institutions, specimens being photographed and documented and our own rotating and temporary displays. For longer term movements, the ever useful object movement record should be where the specimen normally lives and the temporary location will be recorded on the database. For shorter term movements this won’t be the case and it’s true to say that with higher-than-you’d-expect regularity two people will need the same specimen at once. As for loans to other institutions it used to be common place to loan specimens on ‘permanent loan’ so some specimens have been temporarily somewhere else for 20, 30, 40 and even 60 years and before the current museum good practices and standards the loan agreement may or may not have been written down anywhere… There’s a good reason why ‘permanent loans’ have been all but outlawed in museums.

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

3. The specimen never existed in the first place. Many museums have gone through a number of phases in the attempt to catalogue every single object and specimen in the collection. Sometimes two or more people are documenting the same objects at the same time. This results in duplicate or ghost records appearing for the same object. Over time, and I can testify to this happening, you can be in the situation whereby you’ve got to try to work out whether the 20 physical dog skulls you have before you are the 20 records on the catalogue or not. Another complication is that we appear to have older catalogues of the collection which were part descriptions of the physical collection and part ‘wishlists’.

4. The specimen has been destroyed. Without constant monitoring and conservation work, sadly specimens may be degraded past the point of being recognisable, safe or otherwise usable. In addition specimens may be actively destroyed for the purposes of sampling or other investigation. Today we’d record a specimen as being disposed of and the method by which it was destroyed but in the past this may or may not have been recorded so you’ll be looking for objects that haven’t existed for a long long time.

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

5. The specimen was part of the ‘curator’s collection’. If you’ve been following my colleague Emma’s series on previous Grant Museum curators you will have read how some of our previous curators didn’t appear to leave much of a material trail in the museum. This is because in the past the boundaries between what belonged to the museum and what belonged to individuals was, how shall we say it, very fluid. When the curators moved on to other institutions they sometimes took their own collections with them or donated their important specimens to the Natural History Museum. Frustratingly, they didn’t always record that this had happened.

6. Stolen. Whether it’s innocent 5 year olds pocketing a handling specimen, a professional scientist accidentally retaining specimens sent to them or your organised criminals stealing to order it’s a sad fact of life that museum specimens do get stolen. There’s at least a bookshelf of literature on art thefts over the years, rhino horn thefts are at an all time high and then there’s the more run-of-the-mill smash and grab jewellery thefts. The real issue is at what stage the theft is noticed. Gallery display thefts tend to be obvious but if it’s one of 40,000 specimens in a storeroom that’s gone missing it can be months or years before it’s noticed. More often than not it’s when specimens come onto the open market that it’s realised it’s no longer in the museum.

7. Misidentified. The classification of animals is constantly changing. In older collections you’ll have the full spread of names an animal has ever been known by that may be completely different to the current ‘consensus’ (which can be in a state of flux for 150 years and counting). Furthermore, depending on who has been documenting a specimen, your non specialist may get as far as bones, your generalist natural historian as far as lion and your carnivoran expert down to population you may be looking for a bag of bones labelled lion or looking for a lion labelled as a bag of bones.

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

8. Human Error. I don’t know if there’s a ‘background rate’ for errors that people make but when you scale museum staff adding up to 200 different fields of information (number, description, location, etc.) for thousands or hundreds of thousands of different specimens the inevitable fallibility of humans starts to add up. Couple this with the fact that, like GPs, scientists tend to have awful handwriting and you can be looking for a Z300 instead of an S800.

 So that’s the mental checklist I run through when a specimen can’t be located and it can be very heartening to relocate a missing specimen but ultimately some specimens end up recorded permanently as lost in the hope that at some point they’ll be rediscovered.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

* For diplomacy I use the generic somebody here. In reality it’s always Mr. Nobody who takes responsibility for this.