Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Natural history collections in ecological research

Once I dreamed a dream of being an evolutionary biologist.  As I imagined it, I would hang out in a natural history museum, comparing fossils to one another, taking notes on the minute differences, and piecing together the history of life. It wasn’t until a job fair years ago, when I babbled to an evolutionary biologist about morphologies, collecting specimens, and, pretty much word for word, “working in a dusty basement full of drawers of fossils,” that I realized it was an unlikely future.  The scientist looked at me like I was nuts: “Um… that’s not really what I do.  I work with DNA and genomes.”  I pushed him further, but his answer was clear: The job I described did not exist anymore.

Why can't I just hang out and compare the varying shapes of animals in a basement lair? Image: Wikimedia Commons: Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 44: Ammonitida

But while the job does not exist (or is a rare find at best), the specimens do. There are still huge archives at museums stuffed with bones, skins, ad infinitum. I am fortunate to have a friend who works at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the mammals department. When I visited Catherine back in October, she was spending most of her time with the bat specimens, ensuring that they were in proper order and condition.

She gave me a tour of the place and I was blown away: I had always dreamed of walking into a room, stacked ceiling to floor with hippo skulls, and there I was! Catherine showed me the cleaning rooms, where fresh skeletons are picked clean by flesh-eating beetles; slid open a case in which hung tiger skins, as if it were her coat closet; and, by far my favorite, the marine mammal room, with massive whale vertebrae lined up on shelves. It’s funny to imagine a whale complaining of back pain, but there was even a pair of calcified vertebrae among the bunch.

After walking through the maze of rooms and seeing this vast collection with my own eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder: What are these even used for anymore? Certainly, education, but the museum was already packed with skeletons and stuffed animals without this backup. Catherine told me that sometimes researchers try to extract DNA from specimens, but that purpose alone doesn’t seem to make the best use of this huge collection. If taxonomy is now prescribed by genomics, are these collections, compiled and curated over centuries, going to waste?

In the past couple months, I stumbled upon three papers describing three different ways that these collections can be used to study ECOLOGY! (O, be still, my heart!)  The first, in Marine Ecology, online on Feburary 16, 2011, argues for the use of natural history collections to inform us about past species assemblages of areas that haven’t been heavily studied — baseline data. The researchers used Saba Bank, a reef in the Caribbean Netherlands, as a case study, studying coral specimens collected by divers in 1972. In this older collection, there were five species of corals collected that are no longer found in Saba Bank, suggesting that this understudied reef may need greater protection.

This may seem like an obvious use – but the authors note that it’s relatively unexploited. This may be because of poor record keeping, or the difficulty of locating collections from a specific area that have been shipped off to another museum. Another problem is that, if earlier sampling methods weren’t written down, it’s hard to know how representative a collection is of the area. Divers, not scientists, collected the Saba Bank specimens, so they may not have been trying to take note of all the species there at the time. But finding five species that survived there previously but don’t now is very useful information, no matter the completeness of the collection.

Certain organisms can provide information about their growth through growth rings, which makes their presence in natural history collections useful for learning about environmental conditions. Robert Scott is remembered for failing to reach the South Pole before Roald Amundsen – and part of the reason he was so slow is that he was so busy collecting specimens and taking measurements for SCIENCE. During his 1901 and 1913 expeditions, Scott collected Cellarinella nutti, a bryozoan that develops growth rings. Because this species was collected throughout the twentieth century, scientists were able to date the rings based on collection date, and create a timeline of relative growth: did the bryozoans grow significantly more in one decade than another?

The scientists found no change in growth between 1890 and 1970, but a sharp increase since the 1990s, as they published in Current Biology on February 22, 2011. Based on studies in related species, they think that this growth acceleration is either related to (a) greater production of phytoplankton, the food chain base or (b) a switch in the dominant species of phytoplankton, which could alternatively be more nutritious, speeding their growth. If they’re correct, it means that these museum specimens provide evidence for a recent increase in carbon storage on the seafloor in the Antarctic.

A chicken infected with avian pox with lesions around its beak and eyes. Image: Wikimedia Commons: Roman Halouzka

Natural history specimens can also be useful for tracking the development of disease in an animal population. Avian pox is caused by a DNA virus (the aptly named Avipoxvirus) that causes lesions either externally, on feather-free areas, or internally, in the mouth, windpipe and lungs. Beyond the metabolically draining effects of the virus, the pox symptoms can cause trouble feeding, cleaning and breathing. The virus is carried by mosquitoes and has been linked to the extinction of Hawaiian bird species.

Avian pox has been identified recently in the Galapagos islands, affecting mockingbird, warbler, and finch species that are only found there. To figure out when the virus arrived to help trace the progression of the infection, scientists used natural history specimens. Digging through past collections, the researchers selected birds with lesions like those found on avian pox victims, and looked for viral DNA to confirm that these lesions were caused by the virus. Their research, published on January 13, 2011 in PLoS ONE, reports the earliest specimen with avian pox they found was infected in 1898, and that the infections generally followed the pattern of human colonization. This suggests that the virus has been spread not by mosquitoes moving between islands, but by chickens and other pox-carrying fowl brought by settlers.

These perhaps unexpected uses for natural history collections — to reconstruct species assemblages, extrapolate climatic or ecological variability reflecting growth, or trace a disease through a population — should force scientists to rethink their collection methods. Historically, these collections were created to answer a simple question: What species are out there? As a December 2010 paper in the American Journal of Botany notes (hat tip to Colin Schultz), this mindset often leads to (a) oversampling of rare species, as just one or two specimens can misrepresent their abundance proportionally and (b) undersampling of common species, since just a couple specimens will do.

But gathering fully representational collections is easier said than done. These are real people out in the field, digging in the dirt or seafloor and may not have the space or energy to haul back many examples of a single species. Plus, you can go too far in the other direction; there is also no need to destroy the ecosystem for the sake of fair sampling!

But it does make clear that the age of DNA and genomics does not exclude the need for sampling. To ensure that past collections remain useful as ecological tools, scientists need to keep sampling for the sake of future science.

Edit: Fabulous commenters leave links to relevant articles! They each get a gold star sticker

  • Tracing the history of the parasite Wolbachia in butterflies using museum collections
  • Utilizing museum specimens to map deep sea creatures
  • Using bivalve fossils to study the latitudinal diversity gradient extending from the equator

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for>Barnes, D., Kuklinski, P., Jackson, J., Keel, G., Morley, S., & Winston, J. (2011). Scott’s collections help reveal accelerating marine life growth in Antarctica Current Biology, 21 (4) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.033

Hoeksema, B., van der Land, J., van der Meij, S., van Ofwegen, L., Reijnen, B., van Soest, R., & de Voogd, N. (2011). Unforeseen importance of historical collections as baselines to determine biotic change of coral reefs: the Saba Bank case Marine Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0485.2011.00434.x

Parker, P., Buckles, E., Farrington, H., Petren, K., Whiteman, N., Ricklefs, R., Bollmer, J., & Jiménez-Uzcátegui, G. (2011). 110 Years of Avipoxvirus in the Galapagos Islands PLoS ONE, 6 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015989

Steege, H., Haripersaud, P., Banki, O., & Schieving, F. (2010). A model of botanical collectors’ behavior in the field: Never the same species twice American Journal of Botany, 98 (1), 31-37 DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1000215

Written by Hanner

March 2, 2011 at 12:41 am

12 Responses

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  1. Loved this piece – I am fascinated by the idea of flesh-eating-beetle rooms in museums.

    Here’s another example of museum collections yielding cool discoveries – in this case, an evolutionary war between butterflies and male-killing bacteria

    Ed Yong

    March 2, 2011 at 4:47 am

    • Thanks, Ed. The carrion beetle room was completely lined with the stickiest gunk – those is NOT bugs you want escaping, neither for the sake of the collection or the museum visitors!

      Hannah Waters

      March 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

  2. I recently returned from the Smithsonian’s invert collection doing some work for my adviser…it’s sort of spooky being in a room so stuffed with specimens that you loose track of where you are.

    Here’s another example of museum specimens being used morphologically:

    Great article!


    March 2, 2011 at 9:30 am

  3. Great post! I agree that there is a wealth of information to be found in those dusty basements and we should continue adding to them. Also great point about the bias that sampling methods can introduce. One point though (which hopefully won’t crush you) – your dream job of days past definitely does exist, it’s just usually classified as paleontology, not evolutionary biology (though the two are really just separated by the time scales upon which researchers work). I know lots of paleontologists who travel the world checking out museum collections, measuring and counting specimens, and writing important papers about their findings. Those dusty collections are our main window into the diversity of extinct life. See for a recent-ish paper that used museum collections to determine where groups of organisms first evolved to try to figure out the latitudinal pattern in marine biodiversity.

    Phoebe Cohen

    March 2, 2011 at 9:57 am

    • Maybe it’s time for a change of career path — to paleontology! I remember taking paleobiology in college and cursing to myself for not being a geology major.

      Thanks for the paper! I don’t think I’ve read up on the latitudinal diversity gradient since college. Time to get reacquainted!

      Hannah Waters

      March 2, 2011 at 10:29 am

  4. Hi Hannah, great post!

    We can often forget how important museums are for hosting specimens that may one day prove scientifically valuable.

    On Nature Network we have been running a series of editorial posts on museums. I actually interviewed a post doctoral research assistant in palaeontology at the NHM. I thought it was really interesting to hear how passionate she was about her job! You can read the interview here:—part-2

    It sounds to me that your dream job definitely does exist :)

    Laura Wheeler

    March 2, 2011 at 11:36 am

  5. Great post exalting some of the benefits of natural history collections! I’ll also argue that natural history collections are not only of use for Paleontology, but rather they are vital to all scientists who use taxonomy (i.e. any biologist really). Getting a correct identification for your study subject can require holotype examination, and any voucher specimens used in ecological or behavioural studies should make their way to the local natural history museum for preservation and use by future researchers! Not to mention the legions of taxonomists who continue to (re)organize the tree of life using more than just molecules and who define taxon limits by comparison of as many specimens from as many areas as possible to account for variability. Natural history collections (and the people who maintain and contribute to them) are increasingly seen as antiquated remnants which no longer require funding, so it’s nice to see their value being recognized!

    Also, we might not have stacks of hippo skulls where I work, but floor to ceiling trays of pinned insects is pretty awe-inspiring! The dream is alive and well!

    Morgan Jackson

    March 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

  6. Wow, great post Hannah. I totally recognize the feeling you describe. Whenever I walk past rows and rows of stuffed birds with little labels on them (Paradisaea such an such, 1876) in some museum of Natural somewhere (often these are French museums, for some reason), I think about the treasure trove of untapped data that is locked away in musea worlwide.

    But your post also made me think of another largely ignored resource: books. Great examples include the expedition logs with which scientists inferred historical Orang-Utan populations (covered by Ed Yong here) and old taxonomy books that allowed scientists to infer 200-year old fish population data (covered here by Wired Science). Not exactly what you were referring to, but still pretty cool I thought :).


    March 3, 2011 at 4:55 pm

  7. […] With the potential closure of the Scripps Library, now seems like a good time to remember the importance of libraries and Natural History collections for current research. […]

  8. This was a fantastic read, Hannah. I’m a natural history curatorial trainee in the UK and am currently investigating the ornithology collection. It’s an amazing opportunity to work with these collections and to facilitate their access to researchers and artists alike.

    Just in case you’re interested, my blog is:

    Thanks for the article; I enjoyed it.



    August 31, 2011 at 6:20 am

    • Thanks, Russell! Your blog looks great – will add it to my RSS

      Hannah Waters

      September 21, 2011 at 11:23 am

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