Science museums are often thought of as educational institutions, dedicated to broadening the horizons of the public. But museums also serve an important role as research institutions that make collections and store them. Until I began working in museums this past year, I wasn’t able to appreciate this fact. Biological collections represent invaluable data sources for scientists – permanent records of what is alive, or what once was alive. As our planet continues to change at an accelerating rate, these collections reflect a world that is now lost. We cannot go back to the past but we can hope to obtain some tokens from it.
Here are some examples of bird collections from Copenhagen University’s zoological museum. In the next picture you can see a few specimens of Terpsiphone viridis, the African paradise flycatcher.
And here are many specimens of Nectarinia congensis, the Congo sunbird.
These carefully-preserved specimens provide records of 1) the past distribution of a species 2) the morphology of individuals and 3) the genetics of populations. By going back to these collections, digitizing tags, observing bodies, and sequencing DNA from preserved tissue, we can come to new understandings of biodiversity, speciation, and response to climate change. These sunbirds, for example, appear very similar but new DNA evidence suggests that they reflect several distinct groups!
Museum collections also bear witness to extinct species. It is one thing to have a written account of a species and contemplate the circumstances that led to its extirpation, and another thing entirely to see a physical specimen. Here are two great auks (Pinguinus impennis), a species which was hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Less than eighty stuffed birds now exist. Viewing these last fragments of a once-common species we are forced to bear witness to our darker history.
Most people never have the chance to explore the research collections of an active museum. But hidden away in these cabinets is often a story more interesting than can be found on display for the public.