We Put the “Re-” in Research!

By David Dyer, Curator of Natural History

Part of the research collection of butterflies. Part of the research collection of butterflies.

In my last blog post I talked about how the natural history collections at the Ohio Historical Society have always been referred to as a synoptic collection, or a one-of-everything approach to representing the natural history of Ohio. But its not as simple as that, and there are lots of other components to the collection. For example, if we think of what is the opposite of a synoptic collection then we usually think of the “research collection”.

The classic idea in building a research collection is the notion that you want to collect as many individuals of each species as possible. And that makes sense for research; the larger your sample size, the better and more accurate your research project. Let’s say you are writing a new field guide to mammals. When you try to describe the range of black bears in Ohio, and you have only two specimens – one is the hide of a bear labeled only as Eastern Ohio with no date it was collected, and the other is a skull labeled as Adams Co., OH and collected in 2009 – there sure isnt much you can say about the range of the black bear in Ohio or when they expanded across the state. But if you had 50, or 100, or even more specimens, with data attached, you would have a lot of information to create an accurate range map for the book and could authoritatively talk about the status of bears in the state. Does this mean museums should go out willy-nilly and kill every animal they see and pull up every plant they come across for the collections!? Obviously not! How museums get their specimens is a topic for another post, but with todays modern ethics of collecting and highly regulated scientific collecting permits, many museums can acquire most of the specimens they need from a variety of sources without wholesale killing and impacting existing populations.

So then, does our synoptic collection have no research value!? It does indeed, and actually almost any type of scientific collection can have potential research value. In fact, we just had a visiting scientist from the Illinois State Museum travel to OHS and spend two days examining our collection of mammoth and mastodon specimens for a major research project. There has been a regular stream of scientists and researchers visiting our collections over the years. In fact, some sub-sets of the natural history collection are indeed research collections. Part of this is because the collections reflect the interest area of the current and former curators; thus we have large collections of butterflies and moths, beetles, dragonflies, and vertebrate skeletons. Also, if someone calls and has discovered a mammoth skeleton on their property and calls us and asks if we want it, were not going to say “Nah, we already have one”! Our collection of Pleistocene and Recent vertebrate skeletons is particularly strong, and we would no doubt accept more than one-of-each of these (at least until we run out of space!).

This brings up the point too about voucher specimens. If you conduct research, collect specimens, and publish the results of your research based on these specimens, then its required by good scientific procedure to deposit the collected specimens (to vouch for your research) in an established museum. Why is this!? Well, then the results of your work are available for all time, and other researchers can come along in the future and double-check your specimens and your conclusions. Hence the “re-” in research! It can be searched, and searched again, to see if the conclusions hold up. For example, someone describes a new species of insect from Ohio. Then its determined that the species has a low population and thus it is listed as a protected species in the state. But then a future researcher has doubts that it is indeed a new species and suspects its merely a variety of another species. Through morphology studies or maybe DNA analysis, the researcher proves that it is not actually a new species by examining the original specimens housed in a museum. Other than museum collections, there would be no way to verify this type of research. For our collections, we normally obtain a selection of vouchers of specimens as part of research projects done at OHS sites.

Though it’s true that most of the original OHS scientific research collections were left on loan to OSU in 1970, the natural history collections are continuing to grow, and to find more and more use and relevance. Think this is the end of the story!? Check back next time for even MORE uses for the awesome natural history collections!

David Dyer
Curator of Natural History

Posted August 9, 2013
Topics: Natural History

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