Some thoughts on museums, new species descriptions, and collections

3 minute read

What is the value of museum collections? One way of looking at this value is to watch people who newly describe species based upon specimens from collections taken long in the past. Today’s broader knowledge of biological diversity has created opportunities for scientists to recognize and describe specimens that don’t fit within recognized species.

Natural history museums are in a difficult place right now. Their budgets are tight and rely heavily upon their work in public education and engagement. The research side of these museums is having more and more trouble retaining talent in a landscape where universities and research institutes are better-funded. The age of genomics has brought new scientific interest to many collections, but the highest-profile results often benefiting highly-funded external researchers who snap up the low-hanging fruit.

Jake Buehler in Gizmodo tells the story of a new description of a parasitic plant species in Japan, and draws broader implications for the value of museum collections: “Mysterious New Plant Discovered in Museum Collection Is Probably Already Extinct”

This propensity to show up briefly only to vanish without a trace is likely a consequence of fairy lanterns’ strange life-cycle. Since they don’t need to photosynthesise, they can lay dormant underground for years, only sending miniscule flowers to the surface when they’re in a reproductive mood.
The discovery of the new fairy lantern highlights the crucial role museum collections play in our understanding of Earth’s biodiversity. Wurdack noted that in the in the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Herbarium alone, “we have hundreds of new species awaiting scientific description and further research.”

I don’t have a quarrel with this idea. There is a value to scientific description and understanding, as a way to alert people to the loss of biodiversity and the need to protect habitats.

But collection is also by its nature an act of destruction. Could this little fairy lantern have been the last of its kind? I’m interested that genetics was not a part of this story, although more and more it will be. We need to step up our means of noninvasive documentation of all kinds, from incidental genomic sampling to photo and photogrammetric documentation.

Future biological museums will mostly be data repositories. Natural history museums were established as repositories for physical collections. But the science in the future will rely upon vastly more data than physical specimens. We are not preparing museum supporters well for the coming era.

Another reaction: It’s indisputably true that museums possess many undescribed species within their collections. Important paleontological specimens keep emerging from the massive, incompletely-prepared collections from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That’s not a reason to praise these collections. All the undescribed specimens in these collections are the result of what today we would consider to have been near-indiscriminate destruction of sites.

In fortunate cases, the original collector recorded some contextual information, which is still associated with those specimens in the collections. Contextual information is often better for zoological and botanical specimens, mainly because living creatures were collected as complete bodies, skins, leaves, or skeletons, and the essential context is the collection location and time. The situation for paleontological and archaeological specimens is much worse, because excavation practices often did not result in any accurate idea of stratigraphic context. In many cases of both types, contextual information has been lost over time.

Sure, it’s a good thing that museums have stored these collections, often bringing them up to modern standards of curation that make such scientific description possible. Clever people can find some details of context even if original data are absent or poor. This scientific value is why we must maintain old physical collections and keep them as an intrinsic part of biology.

At the same time we must also redirect our scientific collections to integrate new models of data acquisition.

Obviously, a plot of forest that is about to be made into a parking lot is not the place to fret about leaving plant specimens in the field. My knowledge and concerns are more tuned toward paleontological cases, and as a paleoanthropologist I’m fortunate to work at sites that are either protected or have a strong potential to become protected because of their heritage value.

But that position gives us a broader responsibility. Paleoanthropologists should be at the leading edge of developing new and better ways of data collection, and finding ways to integrate those new approaches with old collections.