The Importance of Natural History Collections

Specimen collections, an invaluable resource to researchers, document the presence of a particular species in place and time.

Compactorized Shelving with SpecimensTo many of us, museums are a source of public entertainment – a chance to see and learn about the past. While natural history museums are dedicated to education and public outreach, the value of their specimen collections in documenting historical and modern patterns of biodiversity cannot be overstated.

Specimen collections document the presence of particular species in place and time. This historical record provides a biodiversity baseline that enables researchers to track geographic and temporal changes in species and communities, and to correlate those patterns with natural or human-related changes in the environment, such as climate change and pollution.

The FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Specimen Information Services (SIS) collections preserve over 50 years of Florida’s marine biological history gathered by the agency’s researchers and their predecessors, as well as specimens from around the globe, some of which date back to the late 1800s. These collections offer a wealth of information, especially for research scientists. The specimens represent a baseline to guide conservation, restoration, and species-replacement efforts. In addition, the specimens provide material for research on evolution and species distribution. Collection data, such as field notes on location, environmental conditions, and reproduction, are a source of information on the natural and life history strategies of each species. SIS assists fellow FWC staff, as well as individuals from other agencies, and academic institutions by identifying and vouchering (storing for future reference) specimens and by supplying specimens, data, and materials for research and education. Staff members also provide training in taxonomy, sample-processing, and museum protocols.

SIS collaborates with other FWRI staff on several research projects. SIS is working with FWRI's Fisheries-Independent Monitoring program to identify and voucher specimens collected from the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program. These activities are part of a federal cooperative program to collect long-term data on the condition of regional living marine resources and their environment in the waters of the southeastern United States.

SIS also collaborates with researchers outside the agency on projects that use specimens from FWRI’s specimen collection. One such collaboration is with the Smithsonian Institution on the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, an international initiative devoted to developing DNA barcoding, a new technique for species-level identification, as a global standard for the identification of biological species. SIS recently collaborated on the description of a new species, and is working with other researchers to elevate a subspecies to species status and to document that another species' range extends beyond what was previously known.

SIS has several new projects under way, including “Historic Patterns of Biodiversity in Florida’s Coral Reefs,” which uses the 50-year collection of specimens and data to document changes in biodiversity on Florida’s reefs. This project will result in the identification of Species of Greatest Conservation Need and will provide a baseline to guide restoration and species-replacement efforts.

FWC Facts:
Sea turtles are born with the instinct to move in the direction of the most open horizon. On a natural beach, this direction is toward the ocean.

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