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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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