Even more uses of the Natural History Collections!

By David Dyer, Curator of Natural History

I’ve been threatening for a while now to discuss more uses of the Natural History collection, so here goes! In previous posts I talked about how the collection was a synoptic, one-of-each collection and how some parts of the collection had grown in depth enough to be considered as research collections. So what are some other uses of this 30,000-specimen natural history collection? Can you think of some before reading on!?

Probably the most obvious is collecting objects for current or future exhibits. A good example is a donation we recently received of a large adult black bear, a bear cub, and a lynx. These are all what we call “live-mounts”; they are prepared by a taxidermist to look life-like, rather than a flat hide or study skin. This type of specimen is prepared basically to be seen, and live-mounts are perfect for our exhibits. In fact, the two bears and lynx will soon go into our woodland exhibit at the Historical Center. Since most live-mounts and trophy-type specimens dont have much research value, they are often not accepted for the collection however they sometimes can be ideal for an exhibit or for education.

Did I say education!? A big part of the mission of any museum is education, and we will obtain objects specifically for the educational collection. These are cataloged separately from the permanent collection, and often are specimens with little or no data and thus not useful for the permanent collection. However they may be valuable for hands-on use in workshops, classes, and tours. Or even as a touch specimen in an exhibit.

Suppose you find a bone in your garden and bring it into OHS for identification, or perhaps our archaeologists excavate a fragment of an animal bone and they would like it identified. Identification of a 3-D object is difficult from 2-D images in a book, so having a comparative collection for identification of bones and other natural objects is important. In this case, having just one specimen to compare to is not enough. Given the great variation between individuals, its often necessary to compare to several known skeletons to get an accurate identification. We maintain a large comparative osteology collection, ranging from mice to mastodons, and this is one of the most used components of the natural history collection.

Where else but in museums will historic natural history collections be permanently preserved? These collections are absolutely unique and irreplaceable. One such example is the bird collection of Dr. John M. Wheaton, 1840 – 1887. He was a well-known physician in Columbus, and even served as a surgeon in the Civil War. But he is perhaps best known as an ornithologist and an active bird collector. We have over 100 bird specimens from his collection here at OHS, and about 500 more housed at OSUs Museum of Biological Diversity. These specimens document what birds were in Ohio in the mid-19th century and they continue to be invaluable for a variety of research projects.

Another use that is not often thought of is the preservation of specimens of endangered and threatened species. Other than museums, there is really nowhere else that these types of specimens will be preserved. And should a critically endangered species become extinct in the near future, the only remaining physical evidence of that species will be the individuals in museums. A good example is the passenger pigeon, including our specimen named “Buttons”. She was one of the last passenger pigeons taken from the wild, and if she had not been donated to a museum many years ago the specimen would most likely not exist today. Our collection contains over 50 animal species that are threatened, endangered, or extripated from Ohio. And, if cloning ever becomes easier to do and more viable, where will scientists turn for a source of DNA…!? Museums!

This brings up the final point, future research. With technology advancing so rapidly, we have no idea what technology will be available in the future and how it will relate to museum collections. If we look at past developments, who would have thought that seemingly unimportant preserved bird eggs in museum collections would be the proof needed to show that DDT was causing the thinning of eggs in peregrine falcons, bald eagles and other birds of prey !? This lead to the banning of DDT and was a huge milestone in awareness of human and ecosystem health. More recent developments in stable isotope extraction and DNA research all heavily rely on museum specimens. So with the myriad uses of a museums collection, we will continue to do our jobs to enhance preservation, research, and education; and museums will be here when new technologies come up with exciting new uses for the collections.

Oh, one more thing, what about just plain old
cool stuff!? Where else but in a museum are you going to see a giraffe skull, a mastodon skeleton, a stuffed extinct bird, and come eye-to-eye with a freeze-dried timber rattlesnake!? I could ramble on about a museum’s role in stimulating curiosity, and how that relates to education, learning, the power of objects, etc. but it all boils down to seeing and experiencing cool stuff!

David Dyer
Curator of Natural History

Posted September 24, 2013

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