Remembering the magic of natural history museums – and why we need them


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 in India, is hard to miss. She has an elegant black crest on her head and a red patch on her face. She is daring. She will sing from exposed tree branches and show her wide repertoire of calls in gardens, forests and farmland. But as daring as it is, you should be extremely lucky to catch it to see its feathers up close, or get a quick measure of its beak length for your study.

In the collections of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), however, rows upon rows of this same species are arranged in clean drawers. Collected by thousands of Britons and Indians decades ago, these birds are kept in natural history museums, in India and around the world. Likewise, careful curators preserve insects, marine invertebrates, reptiles, plants, seeds, nests, bones, fecal samples and frozen tissue from a bygone era in many countries.

These specimens make natural history museums an invaluable repository of information for researchers. Sahas Barve, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was adamant when he said his study of understanding how birds warm up using their feathers would be impossible without such collections.

Sketch of a red-whiskered bulbul by Margaret Cockburn, one of the few colonial female ornithologists in India (circa 1860-1880). Photo: Natural History Museum, London

“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 go and sample these species, and so many birds, in the field. My most westerly species comes from northwest Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and my easternmost specimen from Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh, ”he said. “It would probably take me a decade to do the same research I did in six months, if I had to plan the field logistics for all of these locations. “

The bird specimens he studies come from four different countries, but Barve is now able to access them in the same location. “Having them all in one repository means that I can directly compare the feathers of a Bhutan Black-headed Thrush to a Jammu and Kashmir snowfinch,” he said.

These biological libraries house more than specimens, which sometimes number in the millions. Old photographs, field notes and sightings, audiovisual content of species are all part of the “metadata” that these museums house. Together, this information can paint a picture of how often certain endangered species once were, such as the Bengal tiger or the great Indian bustard.

By precisely identifying where these specimens were collected, researchers can determine the geographic range and distribution of species in the past and compare them to their current distribution. In a warming planet, species confined to small areas may see their habitats shrink even more, and data from natural history collections may offer our only clue to follow this trajectory.

Like Barve, Anand Krishnan, a DST-INSPIRE faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, has also used specimens from natural history collections in his research. He and another researcher, Krishnapriya Tamma, studied morphological differences among barbets, a predominantly fruit-eating group of birds.

A map of the route William Ruxton Davison took in 1881 through the Nilgiris, while collecting bird specimens for AO Hume. Photo: lost feathers

“This was especially helped by visiting museum collections such as the Smithsonian, as all the morphological variation of the family was available at hand. 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 living today and specimens kept from these collections, scientists are able to identify the effect of environmental changes on wildlife. By carefully scraping DNA from the toe pads of birds, researchers can try to determine if bird populations in different parts of the country are genetically different.

These collections act as windows to past life on the planet – 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 Saunak Pal, scientist at BNHS. 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, because I have always been fascinated by the organization, since I was a student. Working in the museum has its own advantages as you can see a range of specimens collected from all over the subcontinent, many of which were collected over a hundred years ago, ”he said.

Along with Salim Ali, Hugh Whistler has spent decades collecting and studying the birds of the Indian subcontinent. He maintained meticulous field notes. Photo: Natural History Museum, Tring

Today, collections around the world are being digitized to make these resources more accessible to researchers and natural history enthusiasts. Genetic data, three-dimensional scans of preserved animals, images of pressed plants and scanned field notes are uploaded to the online databases of natural history museums around the world.

In India, this digitization process is still in its early stages. Pal said easy access to information in natural history museums is a major obstacle for researchers nationwide. “This may be due to the lack of proper digitization of catalogs, specimens and associated metadata. It is essential to implement a standardized digitization protocol in all museums, and also to train museum staff and researchers in modern tools and techniques to carry out this gigantic task, ”he added.

Maintaining natural history collections is also a demanding day-to-day task. Barve said the large number of specimens in museums can be a challenge. For example, changes in taxonomy can quickly result in an incredible amount of physical reorganization in museums. Preservatives 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 monitor the temperature carefully to prevent specimens in the collections from deteriorating.

Some of the ornithological collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. Photo: Sahas Barvé

“Both the digitization of specimens and the proper maintenance of the collections require regular funding and the support of all the organizations concerned. Therefore, it is important for people to understand, value and support natural history collections, as they could be the last reserve for many endangered and also extinct species, ”said Pal.

There is a strong case for keeping specimens in museums – even those of common species like the red-whiskered bulbul. For many scientists these collections are invaluable and they bring back with great enthusiasm memories of working 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 examine the collections, ”said Krishnan. “In India in particular, the visits to the BNHS collections have been very useful 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 from the natural world. She tweets to @PriyankaHariH. Vijay Ramesh is a doctoral student at Columbia University who uses historical and contemporary data to monitor bird diversity and ecosystem health in the Western Ghats. He tweets to @ vjjan91.


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