Sahas Barve’s work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History involves measuring feathers to understand how birds stay warm in cold weather. Photo: Sahas Barvé.
The red-whiskered bulbul, one of the most common bird species found in India, is hard to miss. She has an elegant black crest on her head and a red patch on her face. She is bold. She will sing from the exposed branches of trees and show off her vast repertoire of calls in gardens, forests and farmland. But as daring as she is, you’ll have to be exceedingly lucky to catch her to see her feathers up close, or get a quick measurement of her beak length for your study.
In the collections of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), however, row after row of this same species are arranged in neat drawers. Collected by the British and Indians decades ago by the thousands, these birds are preserved in natural history museums in India and around the world. Likewise, careful conservators are preserving insects, marine invertebrates, reptiles, plants, seeds, nests, bones, faecal samples and frozen tissues from a bygone era in many countries.
These specimens make natural history museums an invaluable source deposit of information for researchers. Sahas Barve, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, insisted that his study to understand how birds warm themselves using their feathers would be impossible without such collections.
“I study the feathers of birds of different species. Right now I’m looking at over 250 species and 2,000 specimens. It would be impossible for me to sample these species, and as many birds, in the field. My westernmost species is from northwestern Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and my easternmost specimen is from Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh,” he said. “It would probably take me a decade to do the same research that I did in six months, if I had to plan the field logistics for all these places.”
The bird specimens he studies come from four different countries, but Barve can now access them all in one place. “Having them all in one repository means that I can directly compare the feathers of a laughing thrush from Bhutan to those of a snow finch from Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
These biological libraries house more than specimens, which sometimes number in the millions. Old photographs, notes and field observations, audiovisual content of species are part of the “metadata” that these museums house. Taken together, this information can paint a picture of the occurrence of certain endangered species, such as the Bengal tiger or the great Indian bustard.
By precisely identifying where these specimens were collected, researchers can determine the geographic and species distributions in the past and compare them to their current distribution. In a warming planet, species that are restricted to small areas may see their habitats shrink even further, and data from natural history collections may offer our only clue to tracking that trajectory.
Like Barve, Anand Krishnan, a DST-INSPIRE faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, also used specimens from natural history collections in his research. With another researcher, Krishnapriya Tamma, he studied the morphological differences between barbets, a group of predominantly frugivorous birds1.
“This was particularly facilitated by visiting museum collections such as those of the Smithsonian, as all the morphological variation of the family was available at your fingertips. There is a vast resource of superbly preserved data that is very useful in answering such questions,” Krishnan said.
In the age of molecular biology, researchers are also increasingly turning to natural history collections to study genes. Using DNA sequences from individuals alive today and preserved specimens from these collections, scientists are able to identify the effect of environmental changes on wildlife. By carefully scraping DNA from birds’ toes, researchers can try to determine if bird populations in different parts of the country are genetically different.
These collections act as windows into the planet’s past life – both the recent human-dominated past and the distant paleontological past. A trip or two to one of these places can help researchers fill in the gaps in the evolutionary history of species by studying their long-extinct ancestors.
“Natural history collections are also very useful in educating and raising awareness about biodiversity conservation and the importance of natural history studies,” said BNHS scientist Saunak Pal. Pal has been with the organization for five years now, and working with these specimens has been special. “Being associated with the BNHS Museum is like a dream come true, as I have always been fascinated by the organization, ever since I was a student. Working in the museum has its own advantages as you can see an array of specimens collected from across the subcontinent, many of which were collected over a hundred years ago,” he said.
Today, collections around the world are be digitized make these resources more accessible to researchers and natural history enthusiasts. Genetic data, three-dimensional scans of preserved animals, images of pressed plants, and digitized field notes are uploaded to online databases from natural history museums around the world.
In India, this digitization process is in its infancy. Pal said easy access to information in natural history museums is a major obstacle for researchers in the country. “This may be due to the lack of proper digitization of catalogs, specimens and associated metadata. It is essential to have a standardized digitization protocol in place in all museums, as well as to train museum staff and researchers in modern tools and techniques to carry out this colossal task,” he added.
Maintaining natural history collections is also a demanding task on a daily basis. Barve said the large number of specimens in museums can pose a challenge. For example, changes in taxonomy can quickly translate into an incredible amount of physical reorganization in museums. Conservators should control temperature and light and ensure that storage areas are regularly fumigated. In a tropical country like India, it is even more important to carefully monitor the temperature to prevent the specimens in the collections from deteriorating.
“The digitization of specimens and the proper maintenance of collections require regular funding and support from all the organizations involved. Therefore, it is important for people to understand, appreciate and support natural history collections as they could be the last reserve for many endangered species and also for some extinct species,” Pal said.
There are strong arguments for keeping specimens in museums – even those of common species like the red-whiskered bulbul. For many scientists, these collections are invaluable and they look back with great enthusiasm on the memories of their work in these museums.
“I have always had a great experience in natural history collections in India and abroad, without exception. I have received great support from the people who work there and they are always very open to researchers who come to look at the collections,” Krishnan said. “In India in particular, the visits to the BNHS collections have been very helpful for my research, and working in these collections is intellectually very stimulating.”
Priyanka Hari Haran is an environmentalist and writer who enjoys communicating science and stories of the natural world. She tweets at @PriyankaHariH. Vijay Ramesh is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and uses historical and contemporary data to monitor bird diversity and ecosystem health in the Western Ghats. He tweets at @vjjan91.