New Discoveries in Natural History Museums

New Discoveries in Natural History Museums One of the biggest misconceptions held by most people is that we have discovered all that there is to discover in nature. Biased by amazing National Geographic footage of some of the rarest species on Earth, it is easy to think that there is nothing left to be found, that people have been to every corner of the planet, and that all species have been documented. This is far from the truth. In his book The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums, Christopher Kemp elaborates on the importance of natural history collections and the specimens they house as a source for the discovery of newly described species to science. Specimens in natural history museum collections are like the books cared for in libraries: The quality of any library, in many ways, is represented by its number and quantity of books and the range of topics covered in those books. Rare books are always valuable and add greatly to the value of the collection. In the same way, natural history museum collections are represented by the specimens they house. Most people do not realize this, but natural history museums throughout the world display to the public only a small fraction of the countless treasures that they house. Traditionally, within these extensive collections, countless scientists have attempted to decipher the puzzles of the last 4.5 billion years of evolution on our planet. Solving these puzzles is an enterprise sometimes halted for years, until new technologies or new collections bring additional pieces to complete the puzzle. Sometimes, an answer comes as the result of years of preparation, and other times, it is a lucky capture—being at the right place at the right time. Still other times, both preparation and luck help individual people discover new species for science. View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide It is important to note that the vast majority of taxonomic groups and/or species are poorly known, and few have been widely studied. As a mammalogist, I find it easiest to illustrate this idea with mammal references. Mammals such as lions, polar bears, and chimps have been studied more extensively, but most people have probably never heard of Chacodelphis formosa, Mesomys leniceps, Myosorex bururiensis, Micropotamogale lamottei, Neonycteris pusilla, or Pseudomys glaucus, many of which do not even have a true common name. For many species, all that is known is from one or a few scattered samples in natural history collections. Sometimes, species are represented by an entire skin and skeleton, and sometimes only by a few bone fragments. Wilson and Reeder documented all 4629 and 5416 of the known living mammals in 1993 and 2005, respectively, and more recently, the number rose to 6495 (Burgin et al. 2018). The vast majority of these new species have resulted from new field expeditions, improved taxon sampling, cheaper and improved DNA techniques, faster and improved computers and statistical software, and more work in natural history museum collections. In a recent evaluation of rodents of South America (Patton et al. 2015), it was noted that of 627 species reported, 42 were known from a single location (or type locality), 11 known only from the type locality or near it, and 8 were known only from a few sites (Kelt 2015). Most of these findings are associated with the collections of some of the most important natural history museums in the world. Many of these species have been housed, sometimes for centuries, safely in museum collections around the world, simply undiscovered. In the first chapter of his book, Kemp does a beautiful job of explaining the present-day complications of natural history and museum-based science in the United States and Europe—and perhaps the world. In particular, he addresses the decline in museum-based careers and financial support for natural history museums worldwide. This has resulted in the decline of numbers in the taxonomy profession—the very people who have described the species highlighted in the rest of his book. The book is written like a nonfiction novel but documented like a scientific paper, referencing loads of recent scientific papers and journals. The rest of the book manages to capture some of the stories of some charismatic animals and plants that have been described in recent years, specifically from museum collections, including 10 vertebrates (5 mammals, 2 fish, 2 amphibians, and 1 reptile); 12 invertebrates (7 insects, 1 crustacean, 1 arachnid, 1 nematode, and 2 mollusks); and a member of the custard apple family. The chapters describe the origin stories of recently recognized species and their discoverers, with topics ranging from the black tapir and the Arfak pygmy bandicoot to the atomic tarantula spider and the aforementioned custard apples. For anyone who is curious about nature and wildlife and who understands how new discoveries are still being made these days, this is a great introduction. For professionals, it is a closer look into the work of our colleagues, some of whom we may know only by name or from scientific articles or meetings. This is perhaps most valuable and motivating for new and starting scientists who are eager to pick up the reins of the last generation of great scientists. Either way, this is a wonderful book to fill in the gaps that at times arise between the general public and the academic and scientific communities about the critical importance of growing and maintaining museum collections. In an era when many people are losing faith in science, this type of book is of utmost importance. It is well written and is relatable to academics and nonacademics alike. Anyone interested in natural history and the state of biodiversity in the Anthropocene will enjoy and relate to the work described in Kemp's book. It is noteworthy to reflect on an observation by Robert Voss (2009) in a review of Mammals of South America, volume 1, that “revisionary systematics is a dying science in North America, where the number of mammalogists under the age of 40 who are actively working on taxonomic problems of real importance can be counted on the digits of 1 manus.… By contrast, systematic mammalogy is alive and well at many universities and national museums in South America.” Unlike a generation ago, field-based and collections-based careers are in sharp decline; the number of university collections are decreasing, and museums are cutting staff—especially curators—as major funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation are decreasing resources for museum science. In academia, the basic –ologies (e.g., mammalogy, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, and ornithology) are being replaced by bioinformatics and computational biology (Pyke and Ehrlich 2010, Tewksbury et al. 2014, Kemp 2015, de la Sancha et al. 2017). In addition, employment and careers for scientists pursuing basic field and museum-based inventories and natural history careers are dramatically disappearing; this is especially acute for early-career scientists (Maher and Sureda Anfres 2016, Powell 2016). Of the 787 mammal species newly described between 1993 and 2005 (Wilson and Reeder 1993, 2005), approximately 85 percent were small mammals, and more than 44 percent were Neotropical (Solari 2007). This is a situation that highlights not so much the vast numbers of species in the Neotropics but rather the recent intensification of research in the region (Solari 2007), especially as more countries such as Argentina and Brazil expand their schools of mammalogy, with many other South American countries following suit (Ortega et al. 2012). More recently, perhaps anecdotally, a new volume of Mammals of South America (volume 2) included 41 authors from Mexico and 8 from South American countries (Kelt 2015). By contrast, the first volume included 30 authors from the United States of the 37 total (Voss 2009). The transition, however, has been happening since Linnaeus, with the first shift to continental Europeans (1801–1850); then to British scientists (1851–1900); then to North Americans, primarily in the United States (1951–2000); and perhaps now to South American scientists (Patterson 2001). The last comprehensive review of mammalogy in South and Central America included separate chapters for each Latin American country, most of which were authored and coauthored by mammologists of the respective countries (Ortega et al. 2012). In the past, the vast majority of field-based scientific knowledge was driven by scientists in the United States and Western Europe, mainly white men. Now, the torch is being passed on, as is reflected by the vast majority of chapters in Mammals of South America, volume 2, edited or written by Latin Americans, for example. This is happening in China with all sorts of living and extinct forms as well. A superficial scan of the authors of the recent volumes of Mammals of Africa shows that most authors are Europeans, but African contributors are still few. Perhaps soon, continental Africa will follow suit. Thus, we enter a coming of age for many of the countries around the world that house the vast majority of species in the world. Perhaps Kemp's next book will reflect this changing of the guard. I look forward to reading those stories as well. Noé U. de la Sancha is affiliated with the Department of Biological Sciences at Chicago State University and with the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago. References cited Burgin CJ, Colella JP, Kahn PL, Upham NS. 2018. How many species of mammals are there? Journal of Mammalogy  99: 1– 14. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   de la Sancha NU, Boyle SA, Patterson BD. 2017. Getting back to the basics: Museum collections and satellite imagery are critical to analyzing species diversity. BioScience  67: 405– 406. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kelt DA. 2015. Mammals of South America, Vol. 2: Rodents. Journal of Mammalogy  97: 321– 323. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kemp C. 2015. Museums: The endangered dead. Nature  18: 292– 294. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Ortega J, Martínez JL, Tirira DG, eds. 2012. Historia de la mastozoología en Latinoamérica, las Guayanas y el Caribe. Editorial Murciélago Blanco. Patterson BD. 2001. Fathoming tropical biodiversity: The continuing discovery of Neotropical mammals. Diversity and Distributions  7: 191– 196. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Patton JL, Pardiñas UFJ, D’Elía G, eds. 2015. Rodents. Mammals of South America , vol. 2. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Pyke GH, Ehrlich PR. 2010. Biological collections and ecological/environmental research: A review, some observations and a look to the future. Biological Reviews  85: 247– 266. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  Solari S, Baker RJ. 2007. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference by D. E. Wilson; D. M. Reeder. Journal of Mammalogy  88: 824– 830. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Voss RS. 2009. Book review : Gardner AL, ed. Mammals of South Americ a, Volume 1: Marsupials, Xenarthrans, Shrews, and Bats, Edited by Alfred L. Gardner. Journal of Mammalogy 90: 521– 523. Wilson DE, Reeder DM, eds. 1993. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference , 2nd ed. Smithsonian Institution Press. Wilson DE, Reeder DM, eds. 2005. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference , 3rd ed. Johns Hopkins University Press. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png BioScience Oxford University Press

New Discoveries in Natural History Museums

BioScience , Volume Advance Article (6) – Apr 14, 2018

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American Institute of Biological Sciences
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
ISSN
0006-3568
eISSN
1525-3244
D.O.I.
10.1093/biosci/biy031
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Abstract

One of the biggest misconceptions held by most people is that we have discovered all that there is to discover in nature. Biased by amazing National Geographic footage of some of the rarest species on Earth, it is easy to think that there is nothing left to be found, that people have been to every corner of the planet, and that all species have been documented. This is far from the truth. In his book The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums, Christopher Kemp elaborates on the importance of natural history collections and the specimens they house as a source for the discovery of newly described species to science. Specimens in natural history museum collections are like the books cared for in libraries: The quality of any library, in many ways, is represented by its number and quantity of books and the range of topics covered in those books. Rare books are always valuable and add greatly to the value of the collection. In the same way, natural history museum collections are represented by the specimens they house. Most people do not realize this, but natural history museums throughout the world display to the public only a small fraction of the countless treasures that they house. Traditionally, within these extensive collections, countless scientists have attempted to decipher the puzzles of the last 4.5 billion years of evolution on our planet. Solving these puzzles is an enterprise sometimes halted for years, until new technologies or new collections bring additional pieces to complete the puzzle. Sometimes, an answer comes as the result of years of preparation, and other times, it is a lucky capture—being at the right place at the right time. Still other times, both preparation and luck help individual people discover new species for science. View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide It is important to note that the vast majority of taxonomic groups and/or species are poorly known, and few have been widely studied. As a mammalogist, I find it easiest to illustrate this idea with mammal references. Mammals such as lions, polar bears, and chimps have been studied more extensively, but most people have probably never heard of Chacodelphis formosa, Mesomys leniceps, Myosorex bururiensis, Micropotamogale lamottei, Neonycteris pusilla, or Pseudomys glaucus, many of which do not even have a true common name. For many species, all that is known is from one or a few scattered samples in natural history collections. Sometimes, species are represented by an entire skin and skeleton, and sometimes only by a few bone fragments. Wilson and Reeder documented all 4629 and 5416 of the known living mammals in 1993 and 2005, respectively, and more recently, the number rose to 6495 (Burgin et al. 2018). The vast majority of these new species have resulted from new field expeditions, improved taxon sampling, cheaper and improved DNA techniques, faster and improved computers and statistical software, and more work in natural history museum collections. In a recent evaluation of rodents of South America (Patton et al. 2015), it was noted that of 627 species reported, 42 were known from a single location (or type locality), 11 known only from the type locality or near it, and 8 were known only from a few sites (Kelt 2015). Most of these findings are associated with the collections of some of the most important natural history museums in the world. Many of these species have been housed, sometimes for centuries, safely in museum collections around the world, simply undiscovered. In the first chapter of his book, Kemp does a beautiful job of explaining the present-day complications of natural history and museum-based science in the United States and Europe—and perhaps the world. In particular, he addresses the decline in museum-based careers and financial support for natural history museums worldwide. This has resulted in the decline of numbers in the taxonomy profession—the very people who have described the species highlighted in the rest of his book. The book is written like a nonfiction novel but documented like a scientific paper, referencing loads of recent scientific papers and journals. The rest of the book manages to capture some of the stories of some charismatic animals and plants that have been described in recent years, specifically from museum collections, including 10 vertebrates (5 mammals, 2 fish, 2 amphibians, and 1 reptile); 12 invertebrates (7 insects, 1 crustacean, 1 arachnid, 1 nematode, and 2 mollusks); and a member of the custard apple family. The chapters describe the origin stories of recently recognized species and their discoverers, with topics ranging from the black tapir and the Arfak pygmy bandicoot to the atomic tarantula spider and the aforementioned custard apples. For anyone who is curious about nature and wildlife and who understands how new discoveries are still being made these days, this is a great introduction. For professionals, it is a closer look into the work of our colleagues, some of whom we may know only by name or from scientific articles or meetings. This is perhaps most valuable and motivating for new and starting scientists who are eager to pick up the reins of the last generation of great scientists. Either way, this is a wonderful book to fill in the gaps that at times arise between the general public and the academic and scientific communities about the critical importance of growing and maintaining museum collections. In an era when many people are losing faith in science, this type of book is of utmost importance. It is well written and is relatable to academics and nonacademics alike. Anyone interested in natural history and the state of biodiversity in the Anthropocene will enjoy and relate to the work described in Kemp's book. It is noteworthy to reflect on an observation by Robert Voss (2009) in a review of Mammals of South America, volume 1, that “revisionary systematics is a dying science in North America, where the number of mammalogists under the age of 40 who are actively working on taxonomic problems of real importance can be counted on the digits of 1 manus.… By contrast, systematic mammalogy is alive and well at many universities and national museums in South America.” Unlike a generation ago, field-based and collections-based careers are in sharp decline; the number of university collections are decreasing, and museums are cutting staff—especially curators—as major funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation are decreasing resources for museum science. In academia, the basic –ologies (e.g., mammalogy, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, and ornithology) are being replaced by bioinformatics and computational biology (Pyke and Ehrlich 2010, Tewksbury et al. 2014, Kemp 2015, de la Sancha et al. 2017). In addition, employment and careers for scientists pursuing basic field and museum-based inventories and natural history careers are dramatically disappearing; this is especially acute for early-career scientists (Maher and Sureda Anfres 2016, Powell 2016). Of the 787 mammal species newly described between 1993 and 2005 (Wilson and Reeder 1993, 2005), approximately 85 percent were small mammals, and more than 44 percent were Neotropical (Solari 2007). This is a situation that highlights not so much the vast numbers of species in the Neotropics but rather the recent intensification of research in the region (Solari 2007), especially as more countries such as Argentina and Brazil expand their schools of mammalogy, with many other South American countries following suit (Ortega et al. 2012). More recently, perhaps anecdotally, a new volume of Mammals of South America (volume 2) included 41 authors from Mexico and 8 from South American countries (Kelt 2015). By contrast, the first volume included 30 authors from the United States of the 37 total (Voss 2009). The transition, however, has been happening since Linnaeus, with the first shift to continental Europeans (1801–1850); then to British scientists (1851–1900); then to North Americans, primarily in the United States (1951–2000); and perhaps now to South American scientists (Patterson 2001). The last comprehensive review of mammalogy in South and Central America included separate chapters for each Latin American country, most of which were authored and coauthored by mammologists of the respective countries (Ortega et al. 2012). In the past, the vast majority of field-based scientific knowledge was driven by scientists in the United States and Western Europe, mainly white men. Now, the torch is being passed on, as is reflected by the vast majority of chapters in Mammals of South America, volume 2, edited or written by Latin Americans, for example. This is happening in China with all sorts of living and extinct forms as well. A superficial scan of the authors of the recent volumes of Mammals of Africa shows that most authors are Europeans, but African contributors are still few. Perhaps soon, continental Africa will follow suit. Thus, we enter a coming of age for many of the countries around the world that house the vast majority of species in the world. Perhaps Kemp's next book will reflect this changing of the guard. I look forward to reading those stories as well. Noé U. de la Sancha is affiliated with the Department of Biological Sciences at Chicago State University and with the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago. References cited Burgin CJ, Colella JP, Kahn PL, Upham NS. 2018. How many species of mammals are there? Journal of Mammalogy  99: 1– 14. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   de la Sancha NU, Boyle SA, Patterson BD. 2017. Getting back to the basics: Museum collections and satellite imagery are critical to analyzing species diversity. BioScience  67: 405– 406. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kelt DA. 2015. Mammals of South America, Vol. 2: Rodents. Journal of Mammalogy  97: 321– 323. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kemp C. 2015. Museums: The endangered dead. Nature  18: 292– 294. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Ortega J, Martínez JL, Tirira DG, eds. 2012. Historia de la mastozoología en Latinoamérica, las Guayanas y el Caribe. Editorial Murciélago Blanco. Patterson BD. 2001. Fathoming tropical biodiversity: The continuing discovery of Neotropical mammals. Diversity and Distributions  7: 191– 196. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Patton JL, Pardiñas UFJ, D’Elía G, eds. 2015. Rodents. Mammals of South America , vol. 2. University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Pyke GH, Ehrlich PR. 2010. Biological collections and ecological/environmental research: A review, some observations and a look to the future. Biological Reviews  85: 247– 266. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  Solari S, Baker RJ. 2007. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference by D. E. Wilson; D. M. Reeder. Journal of Mammalogy  88: 824– 830. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Voss RS. 2009. Book review : Gardner AL, ed. Mammals of South Americ a, Volume 1: Marsupials, Xenarthrans, Shrews, and Bats, Edited by Alfred L. Gardner. Journal of Mammalogy 90: 521– 523. Wilson DE, Reeder DM, eds. 1993. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference , 2nd ed. Smithsonian Institution Press. Wilson DE, Reeder DM, eds. 2005. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference , 3rd ed. Johns Hopkins University Press. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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BioScienceOxford University Press

Published: Apr 14, 2018

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