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The Importance of Natural History Collections

"Natural science collections advance research that improves public health, agriculture, natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, and American innovation." -Natural Science Collections Alliance

The Importance of Natural History Collections

Ancient jar

To many of us, museums are a source of public entertainment – a chance to see and learn about the world around us. 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.

Specimens are historical records.

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. 

Specimens become more valuable over time.

With changing environments, and habitats, and populations, historical collecting events can never be duplicated exactly. As technology progresses, new kinds of data about the animal, about the environment, and about the ecosystem in a place and time that is lost to history can be unlocked from old specimens.

Specimens represent research data.

Specimens serve as vouchers for past research activities. Any monitoring projects, experiments, or other research projects that rely on identification of organisms should yield voucher specimens that can be associated with that project and re-visited if needed. When scientists name a new species, the specimens they examine must be available - forever - to serve as a comparison for any other specimens that might belong to that species.

The FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Specimen Information Services (SIS) collections preserve more than 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 technique for species-level identification, as a global standard for the identification of biological species. SIS staff discover, describe, and name new species, and work towards resolving problems in classification where species are poorly differentiated.