First impressions are very hard to shake. If you meet a scruffy old man with aggressive facial tics and a fine coating of dandruff you may not want to stay around long enough to learn that he volunteers his free time at a refuge centre, or that he solves calculus problems for fun. There is so much more if you scratch beneath the surface. The same is also true of museums: beneath the faded Victorian grandeur, the cheesy 80’s animatronics, and the fine layer of last year’s dust, there is a hive of contemporary research and activity. The 2 500 or so specimens on display may be taxonomically out of date 50% of the time but, behind the scenes lie a collection 2 orders of magnitude greater – including type specimens of new species described this year.
Last Tuesday I attended a talk by Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum – one of two people responsible for the care and preservation of the Horniman’s 250 000 Natural History specimens. Despite how this sounds, the Horniman is a comparatively small museum. By contrast, London’s Natural History Museum houses nearly 75 000 000 specimens. For the average lay person with about 500 possessions, maybe 20 of them truly valued, It’s hard to even imagine being steward to so many treasures.
Paolo spoke about the important role collections play in academia and government science policy and the different sorts of specimens a healthy collection needs:
If you think you’ve found a new species, and you are proven right, the specimen you found becomes the Holotype, or type specimen – the individual of the species used to describe the species in the literature. All species have a Holotype except one: Homo sapiens. It is generally accepted that we should be familiar enough with our own species diversity to identify a human when we find one. Palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope offered himself as Holotype but was rejected on syphilitic grounds.
If you compare your newly found specimen to the Holotype of the most similar species and it doesn’t quite match any of them, this does not necessarily mean you have a new species. One specimen, no matter how well preserved, cannot hope to demonstrate all the variation within a species. The Holotype may be male and the specimen you have may be a female of that species. Even one of each is not sufficient – the Ark is not a good model for museum collections. Animals of the same species vary due to age, hereditary diversity, nutrition, health, habitat, gender, and social hierarchy. It is therefore essential that a museum has as varied a collection of its species as possible.
These are the specimens which typify the region or condition in which they are found. If you claim to have found a new colour variation of fox which only lives in Peckham (poor things), you need to keep voucher specimens of the morph so that other people can verify your claims. This is especially important when areas larger than Peckham are losing their habitats every day. What happens if the native inhabitants of an area are no longer there to be studied – or have been overrun by a more common morph? Someone needs to be keeping track of what was there when the papers were written.
Paolo also talked at some length about the transition from Linnaean classification to Cladistic Taxonomy and the importance of being clear. This is never more evident than in the case of “fish”: A lot of the time Linnaean groupings have stayed in the public consciousness so, when talking to a lay person, they will probably be thinking of the animals with superficially similar characteristics (fins, gills, typically eaten on Fridays, etc). When a taxonomist uses the term “fish”, they mean the common ancestor of all animals matching the fish description, plus all the animals descended from it. By this definition reptiles, birds, mammals, and amphibians are also “fish”. I will never look at Bernard Matthews Fish Fingers the same way again.
You can see how cladistics has some interesting challenges for the law here, though they do adhere to their own definitions more often than not: the US legal system treats “monkey” as “any non-human primate” even though, cladistically speaking, a human is a monkey.
Museums provide a source of research materials for a wide variety of academic disciplines: it was museum bat collections that helped geneticists identify three distinct species of Pippistrelle where, previously, we thought we had one; museum egg collections from the 1960’s provided conclusive proof of the harmful side effects of the insecticide DDT, which eventually resulted in it being banned throughout Europe; when biomechanics want to measure comparative bite forces of animals it’s the museum’s reference specimens they come and measure; when artists want to study the effect of light on structural colouration, or the effect skin thickness has on the visible manifestation of Livor Mortis, they contact a curator; Biomimetics students come to the museum to see what their robot can benefit from the articulation of scorpion limbs. The list goes on and on. I’d love to hear your stories of research requests you’ve had.
Museums may also be our best bet for restoring recently dead species such as the Megatherium or the Dodo – an antidote to the sense of loss you feel when you see extinct stuffed creatures, collected in an era with little concept of endangered species or extinction.
One of the biggest challenges museums face is conveying what they have to the academic public. Someone in the audience asked about the advances in 3D imaging and digitisation – a very hot topic at the moment. Paolo’s response was that nobody is going to fund you to digitise a museum’s entire collection. At the Horniman, less than 5% of the collection has been digitised. For that reason and numerous others, the digital versions are no substitute for the genuine collection. Beulah Garner pointed out that, in many cases, research drives digitisation. While there is great promise in this, there is still a long way to go. Even getting all the type specimens digitised would be the tip of the iceberg, yet we are still not at a point where we can find a comprehensive text list of all the Holotypes and where to find them. Let’s start there and the rest will follow.
Afterwards some git photographed the backs of people’s heads (stay tuned for the colour study to follow). If you missed it, shame on you. See the fun you could have had? You could have seen me win cinema tickets too.
There isn’t one in December but January looks set to inspire. I really hope to see more of you there.