Olivia Judson: Museum collections in the DNA age

1 minute read

In “Dawn at the museum”, Olivia Judson points to the huge potential of ancient DNA techniques to wring new answers out of old taxidermied specimens.

I think this is one thing among many – consider also chemical/isotopic analysis, new microscopic techniques to examine histology or look for hidden pathogens, CT scanning specimens to study internal structures – that are revitalizing museum science. Those of us who work in museums recognize the huge activity behind the scenes, enabling and advancing scientific inquiry. It’s not like the Relic back there.

Judson ends on an example that no doubt excited her inner Dr. Tatiana:

Or take the American black duck. During the 19th century, black ducks were the most common duck to the east of the Appalachians. That changed in the 1940s, when mallards started to arrive in large numbers; by 1969, mallards had become more common than black ducks. Moreover, genetic analysis of modern specimens shows that the two species are close so close that they might as well be considered one.
Again, it wasnt always thus. DNA analysis of museum specimens collected before 1940 show that black ducks and mallards used to differ much more markedly. So what has caused the change? Hanky panky. Yes, members of the two species have been interbreeding. There are even hints that the female black ducks prefer to mate with male mallards.

Using museum specimens to establish the historical course of genetic introgression breaking down species barriers. Cool.