Libraries of Life

Elsie, a former teaching assistant for Cornell’s ornithology course, holds up an Impeyan Pheasant skin specimen. Photo by Rebecca Snow.

At Raxa Collective we’ve always been big admirers of museums, whether focussed on art, culture, or nature. In today’s op-ed section of the New York Times, two biologists write about the importance of natural history museums. The authors, Larry M. Page and Nathan K. Lujan, argue that funding shouldn’t be cut from these types of institutions and that the active collection of specimens from the wild should not be curtailed:

These specimen collections serve as the bedrock of our system of taxonomy — the rules by which we classify life — and are integral to our understanding of the threats, origins and interrelationships of biodiversity. And yet, thanks to budget cutbacks, misplaced ethical critiques, public misconceptions and government regulations that restrict scientists while failing to restrict environmental exploitation, the continued maintenance and growth of these libraries is in danger.

Though most visitors never know they are there, natural history collections are as critical to modern biologists as libraries are to journalists and historians. Indeed, like good literature, each museum specimen allows reinterpretation by every person who examines it.

A couple of our contributors–myself included–are currently working for the Smithsonian Institution, and our supervisor is the curator of birds in the department of vertebrate zoology. Also, pretty much every bird of the day photo contributor from Cornell studied under one of the directors of the University’s Museum of Vertebrates. To say that we benefited from routine examination of actual specimens during our work would be an extreme understatement.

Charles Dardia, one of the curators at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, shows specimens to local high-schoolers at a youth science workshop. Photo by Martha del Campo.

Simply visiting the About page for the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates helps understand the great value of natural history collections to science and education, and–as we might expect–also shows that the Museum shares similar sentiments about specimens with the op-ed contributors above:

What can a salamander’s spots tell us about local pollution levels? Where are the best places to discover new species of fishes? Scientists use specimens in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates (CUMV) to find answers to these and many other questions. By studying vertebrates—animals with backbones such as fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals—researchers can provide valuable information about the health of an ecosystem or the evolutionary family tree of species. They can even trace roughly how many and where species existed across the span of continents, decades, and millennia. Each specimen has countless stories to tell, and much like a library, CUMV lends specimens to scientists who bring those stories to light.

To read the full article by Lujan and Page, click here; for the CUMV website, which explains more reasons for keeping a collection of specimens, click here.

One thought on “Libraries of Life

  1. Pingback: A Museum You Likely Never Heard Of | Raxa Collective

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