I recently spent a week in the Otago Museum arthropod collection in Dunedin where I had a wonderful time picking through the myriad of harvestmen. The sheer abundance and diversity of harvestmen in the collection, and the joy I get from being among all this history made me think – not for the first time – just how important biological collections are.
In my short career I have made use of numerous natural history collections around the world, from my academic roots at the impressive Lincoln University Entomology Research Collection, the secret corridors and quirky displays at the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, to the great halls of the British Natural History Museum.
While taking a break to look through the public displays is great fun, the main point of these missions is to delve into the arthropod collections kept behind the scenes. Phenomenal amounts of information are stored in never-ending stacks of drawers, filled with insects, bird skins, jars of pickled snakes…pretty much anything you can imagine! If you want to get an idea of the immense amount of objects stored in a museum’s collection, check out this amazing photo essay from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
One highlight for me was coming across some of Alfred Wallace’s 19th century collection when I was sorting through some brentine weevils in the British Natural History Museum. I’ll never forget that feeling of wonder that I was (carefully) holding the very specimens that Wallace mentions in his famous book The Malay Archipelago:
“I once saw two males fighting together; each had a fore-leg laid across the neck of the other, and the rostrum bent quite in an attitude of defiance, and looking most ridiculous” (p276-277)
These collections represent a snapshot in time and can tell a story about the community of organisms that were present at the place they were found. The possible contributions that collections can make to society are countless. This paper by Andrew Suarez and Neil Tsutsui describes some of the scientific applications from biological collections housed in museums. Museum collections have been used to understand the spread of Argentine ants across the USA, track the effect of climate change on species distributions, and even learn about the transmission of infectious diseases like influenza. What’s apparent from my own experience using collections, and those studies mentioned in the Suarez and Tsutsui paper, is that being able to use museums saves researchers an enormous amount of time and money. Imagine the cost involved in personally travelling to all of the places around the world to try to find the specimens you are interested in, and this would be impossible anyway if you want to look at historic patterns.
Visiting the natural history museums where the best collections are kept can also allow you to get to know the experts who also work on your study organisms. Natural history museums often hire scientists who as well as maintaining the collections usually have their own research specialty. These are the people who painstakingly describe new species and who build our understanding of the relationships between groups of species. Given the importance of describing the diversity of species we have in the world, taxonomists are an incredibly valuable group of scientists. If you are lucky, your new taxonomist friends might even invite you to stay at their Tuscan villa where you spend your evenings entertaining puppies and watching the sunset over the olive orchards.
During my latest visit at the Otago Museum I had a couple of goals. Firstly I wanted to get my head around the taxonomy of the long-legged harvestmen (Opiliones: Neopilionidae) in New Zealand. Otago Museum was a perfect place to do this because it houses an enormous number of harvestmen that were largely collected by the Dunedin-based arachnologist Raymond Forster, who was director of the museum from 1957 to 1987. Forster and others deposited specimens into the Otago Museum from all over New Zealand, with a particular focus on the South Island. The collection is therefore very useful when trying to figure out what species are where, and at what time of the year I should be looking. This will help me plan subsequent field trips around New Zealand to observe the mating and fighting behaviour of various long-legged harvestmen species, with the larger goal to try to figure out why males have such varying jaw shape and size.
While I was there I also started collecting data on the morphology of as many specimens as I could get through (which was probably 0.0001% of the available collection). As I’m interested in jaw shape and size and how this relates to body size and the sex of the harvestmen, I took lots of photos that I will later use to take various measurements.
So once again I’ve been thankful that natural history museums exist and hope that we can continue funding these valuable institutions. Scientific progress would be greatly hindered if we lost museums and the experts who continue the tradition of describing and understanding our natural world.
If you are interested you can listen to this Our Changing World podcast by Alison Ballance which was made after the recent Royal Society report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand. You can also learn more about the importance of taxonomy and biological collections in New Zealand here.
A drawer of brentid weevils at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris