Why we need museum collections

As fisheries ecologists, we live, work, and think in the present. We identify problems, then design and conduct field studies to address them. We solve the problem by relating some pattern to a process that was measured over a few field seasons—a static snapshot in time.

But oftentimes we need to examine patterns through time, or draw comparisons between present conditions and some disturbance that happened 50 years ago. While we can sample numerous sites across space, we would need a time machine to retroactively sample sites across time.

Luckily, we do have a time machine: museum collections. For nearly 150 years (and longer in Europe), natural historians have been traversing the continent, describing its biota, and collecting voucher specimens. These specimens have been cataloged, stored, and curated at the numerous natural history museums throughout the world.

Specimen collections can be a mirror into the past. Source

When we think of museums, we may picture dioramas of Neanderthals fighting a sabretooth tiger, or maybe rows of skulls displaying the evolution of certain taxa—all cordoned off behind polished glass labeled Do Not Touch! Perhaps your mind conjures images of some outdated curator whose work is irrelevant to modern happenings, and who is obsessed with dusting the displays.

On the contrary—scientific museum collections are living, breathing institutions that serve a vital purpose in our pursuit to understand nature. Moreover, their staff represent some of the most knowledgeable scientists of their respective disciplines. Below, I describe a few of the cutting edge ways museum collections contribute to fisheries science.

Species re-assessment. You can’t know how to manage your species if you don’t know what species it is in the first place. The discipline of ichthyology is rapidly evolving, and we are continually discovering new fish species. Oftentimes, we can’t solve a problem without collecting morphology or genetic data from the original type specimens that are stored in natural history museums. Other times, we can go back and look at species that we thought were Species A, when new information suggests they are actually Species B. This can only be done with the help of scientific collections.

Assessing invasive species. We often see the damage caused by invasive fishes in because we have pre-invasion data from the recipient ecosystem. However, we don’t know the effects of many fish invasions because they occurred before the era of quantitative fisheries science. With museum collections, we can often reconstruct historical species distributions and understand occurrence patterns before and after invasions. We can also run stable isotope or fatty acid analyses on museum specimens to determine how their diets have changed in response to the invader.

Changes in contaminants through time. Museums also give us a nice time series of historical environmental conditions. For example, studies have examined tissue of museum specimens to understand how mercury contamination in both marine and freshwater fishes has changed over time. We can relate these changes back to significant environmental disturbances or regulations to evaluate their effects.

Evolutionary response to human threats. Fishes can adapt their morphology and life history quite quickly to deal with human pressures such as overfishing. Although data exists for some well-documented fishes, most species can only be assessed by re-measuring museum specimens.

Museum collections serve multiple purposes. Source

Yet despite their great utility, many natural history museums are under threat. With funding resources being diverted away from science, scientific collections are often not as valued as they should be.

In fact, just last week the University of Louisiana at Monroe decided to abandon its famed natural history collection—leaving its staff scrambling to find new homes for over 6 million specimens…to make way for a track-and-field facility. A few articles have been written about the event (e.g. here, here and here), but you can follow the ULM museum’s Facebook page for more info.

In the end, it’s up to us scientists to defend our great repositories of information. We need to utilize museum collections to their fullest extent, and clearly communicate the value of these institutions.

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