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Natural history collections as goldmines of ecological knowledge*

By Julia J. Mlynarek

Natural history collections are continuously in peril; every few years we hear news that their funding is slashed (Dalton 2003) or frozen (Yong 2016). Whenever I read that, my heart sinks a little because collections are gold mines of information for fields like ecology and evolution. When people tend to think of research in a natural history collection they imagine a dust covered scientist sitting in a dimly lit room somewhere a basement without windows looking at dusty specimens (I’m hopefully exaggerating) describing species new to science. Yes, one of the traditional uses of natural history collections is taxonomy and species description but they are so much more. They are the link to our past and a window to the future; they are a source of long-term datasets (Lister 2011) in which we can answer questions in how (and maybe even why) species change over time and geographic space (Shaffer et al 1998). I often wonder whether collections are on the chopping block so often because people do not know what really happens behind the scenes in collections. So why don’t we look more closely at a collection, beyond the shiny displays and fraction of specimens that are out on display for the public to see – Let us go into the bowels of a collection** to see how magical they really are.

A person must first pass through the beautiful displays that are available for the public to see before they arrive to an area where much of the research happens; call it the guts of the collection. Generally these are large rooms filled with cabinets and other storage units (e.g. freezers). For the untrained eye, these rooms may seem pretty stark, unapproachable, and smell of moth balls (!) but if one continues to proceed inside and opens one of the cabinets you will find that they hold neatly stacked and meticulously organized drawers. These drawers may continue to look unimpressive but they hold the start attractions. Pull out one of the drawers, that is where the magic is. As you peer into a drawer, you find rows of sorted and identified (most of the time) specimens; these specimens almost smile back at you and almost beg you to tell their story. They are not just a pin, a “bug”, and a label (Fig 1).

Fig 1 What we see

They are so much more. Each specimen is the gold nugget, the key to unlock knowledge about the world around us. Each one has a slightly different story to tell but in general the can convey the same information. Here’s what you can learn from every specimen (Fig.2).

Fig 2 the real story

Let’s start with the pin: not much information there but it’s the “glue” that holds the package together.

As you proceed down from the pin head you reach the insect itself and it provides us with glimpses to the story about speciation, its potential evolutionary relationships, phenotypic plasticity, and it can even provide us with their molecular identity and sequence data.

Finally the label, because a well curated specimen is incomplete without its label containing information about where it came from, at what point in the year, how it was collected, etc. A label adds information about the location; it tells us where the specimen was collected answering questions of geographic ranges (including invasions and extirpations) and biogeography. It lets us know when it was collected; its phenological story. And it can even have information about its associations with other species (e.g. host record, mutualistic networks), and habitats. And that is only one specimen!

There are thousands if not millions of specimens in any one natural history collection and, if you’re listening, they are all screaming to have their ecological stories told.


Dalton, R., 2003. Natural history collections in crisis as funding is slashed. Nature 423, 575 (05 June 2003) doi:10.1038/423575a

Lister and Climate Change Group. 2011. Natural History collections as sources of long-term datasets. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 26(4):153-154

Shaffer, H.B., Fisher, R.N. and Davidson, C., 1998. The role of natural history collections in documenting species declines. Trends in ecology & evolution, 13(1), pp.27-30.

Yong, Ed. 2016. Funding freeze hits natural history museum collections. The Atlantic, March 25.

Additional notes:

*This is loosely based on the Terry Wheeler Memorial lecture I presented at the Societe d’Entomologie du Quebec annual meeting (November, 2017) in Montreal in honour of Dr. Terry A. Wheeler (1960-2017) who was a Dipterist extraordinaire and a huge proponent of Natural History Collections for ecological and evolutionary research until the end.

**I’m mostly describing entomology collections but the description is also valid for other types of animal collections (e.g. mycological, herbaria, vertebrate)

Author biography: Julia is an evolutionary ecologist and systematist interested in understanding species interactions and diversification of insects. She has worked on many different systems from presenting hypotheses on the evolutionary relationships in the Chloropidae (a family of flies) to explaining damselfly-water mite associations to testing host associated differentiation and diversification of leaf mining insects. She is also interested in understanding the role of environmental change on insect evolution.