Collections and Collection Management

Science Center Objects

The Challenge: How can we preserve and maintain evidence from our scientific past and continue to smartly expand that resource to help scientists find the answers to the questions and challenges they will face in the future?

The Science:  Biological Survey Unit collections management staff take care of North American amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal specimens and their data within the National Collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  They identify, catalog, and data capture new collections; curate and maintain existing specimens and their data; ship and receive specimen loans for in-house research as well as research at universities and government agencies world-wide; help visiting researchers use the specimens; and answer questions from the public about wildlife.

“Vouchers,” or biological specimens, can provide a wealth of information to the scientific community about ongoing changes in the environment and the effects that those changes may be having on wildlife.  Researchers and students from around the world representing academic institutions as well as Government and non-government organizations actively use these natural history collections to support their studies. The specimens provide a basis for repeatable study and proof of identity for the research material, be it measurements from a skull, nucleotides sequences from a DNA sample, or radioactive isotope levels from hair, scales, feathers or bone samples. Specimens such as these have been critically important in the past for documenting changes in diversity over time due to: loss of habitat, climate change, pressure from invasive species and have helped solve mysteries relating to the health and safety of other animals as well as humans.  Specimens also help us keep tabs on where animals can be found and how that changes over time. 

Specimens collected for one purpose can often be important for other, unrelated research because each specimen harbors a whole world of additional components available for study, such as DNA for molecular genetics studies, stomach contents for food habits studies, ecto- and endo-parasites, indicators of wildlife disease such as viruses or bacteria, environmental contaminants, and evidence of reproductive status, to name a few. Over time and with advances in techniques, scientists have even discovered new species that have been hiding in the jars and specimen drawers in the museum for years.  Sometimes these new forms are “cryptic species” meaning they are very hard to tell apart from other closely related species using traditional morphological techniques and can only be easily told apart using techniques such as molecular sequencing or acoustical analysis of calls.  

Specimen records of North American Vertebrates in the Smithsonian Institution Research Collections can be searched at http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/.

The Future: New techniques and analytical methods are continually being developed to use both the specimens and data.  Contemporary studies on museum specimens now use technology such as digital X-rays, micro CAT scans, 3-D images, SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope), and stable isotope analysis.  We can only guess what new techniques will be developed in the future.  Integrative databases such as BISON (https://bison.usgs.gov) allow specimen data to be used with other geographic, geologic, physical, biological and anthropogenic databases to aid conservation and land management decisions as well as new research areas.