Are Museums' Specimen Collections Going Extinct?

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
June 3, 2004
Natural history collections are facing the same fate as the dodo, the
passenger pigeon, and other extinct animals whose remains they preserve,
according to scientists in the United States and Britain.

The researchers say university and museum collections that catalog past and present life on Earth are at risk because the supply of scientists needed to manage them is drying up. They blame staff shortages on inadequate government funding and a lack of young scientists who want to work in museums.

As a result, we risk losing a vital scientific resource, says Richard Lane, head of science at the Natural History Museum in London. The museum holds some 70 million specimens.

"Having a collection on its own isn't that useful," Lane said. "You need to have people who can interpret that collection."

So far scientists have described about 1.6 million plants and animals. But the total number of living species on Earth is estimated at between 10 and 30 million. That means we still can't put a name to up to 94 percent of species.

"There's a moral responsibility for us to know the organisms we share the planet with," Lane added. "If you don't know what something is, how are you going to conserve it?"

Yet the facilities where these organisms are cataloged and studied are deteriorating to the point where some even face closure.

In the U.S., for instance, the University of Arkansas is in the process of closing its natural history museum. Other university-based collections are reportedly at risk in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, and Virginia, according to the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), based in Washington, D.C.

Robert Gropp, AIBS senior public-policy representative, said: "In some cases collections are bleeding slowly. This year they lose half a staff position. Next year they may suffer some cut to their operating budget. Slowly but surely they lose resources until an administrator must determine that it is best to close the facility."

Scientist Posts Lost

Even the country's foremost collections are affected. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., for example, lost 30 federal scientist positions in the last decade.

In March AIBS executive director Richard O'Grady contacted the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science. "When collection curators and researchers retire or leave an institution," he wrote, "they are simply not replaced, slowly eroding institutional capacity to care for specimens and support research."

Natural history collections in Britain face similar pressures, says Helen Chatterjee, curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. The museum is part of University College London, which in turn is part of the University of London.

Grant Museum contains a rare skeleton of a quagga (an extinct cousin of the zebra), dodo remains, and several specimens of thylacine, an extinct wolflike marsupial. The institution is the University of London's only surviving museum. Once, Chatterjee says, all 18 colleges within the university had one.

"There's been a long period of massive underfunding for university museums, generally, which is why many of them have closed," she added.

The cutbacks led to layoffs of trained curators, which are needed to conserve and manage natural history collections. "[Collections] were sitting there rotting away with no curators, so [the collections] were seen as underused resources, and so it became a vicious circle," Chatterjee said.

The AIBS's Robert Grobb said younger U.S. scientists show less interest in core disciplines such as taxonomy (the naming and classification of living organisms). Such skills are essential to a career as a curator.

"I think there is an inappropriate perception among some students, faculties, and administrators that these fields represent old science [and] lack the panache and economic potential of medical or biotechnology research," Grobb said. "An undergraduate student coming out of one of these programs may never be exposed to collections-based research."

For globally important collections, like those at London's Natural History Museum, this lack of capable curator candidates is potentially a serious problem.

Major Challenge

"Having well-qualified and experienced curators is a major challenge for us," said Lane, the Natural History Museum science director. "We are having to look further and further afield for staff. The concern for us is how sustainable that is in the long term.

"In a natural history collection you are trying to summarize or model the diversity of the natural world. They are like giant research tools. The quality of how that tool is operated is going to be under increasing threat."

Besides cataloging animal and plant life, such collections are important to other research, like understanding how different species evolve and interact, and responding to invasive species and emerging threats to human health.

Lane points to the example of the New World screw-worm fly, a serious pest to livestock. Though the fly is native to North and Central America, Natural History Museum staff identified the species in North Africa. The fly had been imported with infested sheep.

"Had it escaped from where it was, it probably would have devastated both livestock and wild mammals, because it had never been seen on that continent before," Lane said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization put a major program in place to stem the outbreak.

"If you didn't have people in museums like this taking a world view, [the outbreak] wouldn't have been picked up before it was too late," Lane said.

Similarly, natural history collections are a vital resource for conservation research, providing scientists with a historic record of where extinct and endangered species once lived and the types of habitats they favored.

Scientists say natural history collections don't just mirror the planet's biodiversity, they help to sustain it. For many museum visitors, the stuffed dodo is a reminder of what's at stake.

For more news on extinct species and museum collections, scroll down.

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