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Remembering the Magic of Natural History Museums – and Why We Need Them

Remembering the Magic of Natural History Museums – and Why We Need Them

Sahas Barve’s work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History involves measuring feathers to understand how birds stay warm in cold conditions. Photo: Sahas Barve.

The red-whiskered bulbul, one of the most common bird species found in India, is hard to miss. She has a smart black crest on her head and a splotch of red on her face. She is bold. She will sing from exposed branches of trees, and show off her wide repertoire of calls in gardens, forests and farmlands. But bold as she is, you would have to be inordinately lucky to catch her to see her feathers up close, or get a quick measurement of her beak length for your study.

Within the collections of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), however, row upon row of this very species are laid out in clean drawers. Collected by Britishers and Indians decades ago by the thousands, these birds are preserved in natural history museums, in India as well as around the world. Similarly, attentive curators preserve insects, marine invertebrates, reptiles, plants, seeds, nests, bones, faecal samples and frozen tissues from a bygone era in many countries.

These specimens make natural history museums an invaluable repository of information for researchers. Sahas Barve, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was emphatic when he said that his study on understanding how birds keep warm using their feathers would be impossible without such collections.

Sketch of a red-whiskered bulbul by Margaret Cockburn, one of the few colonial women ornithologists in India (c. 1860-1880). Photo: Natural History Museum, London

“I study bird feathers from different species. Right now, I’m looking at over 250 species and 2,000 specimens. It would be impossible for me to go sample those species, and that many birds, in the field. My westernmost species is from northwest Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and my easternmost specimen is from Namdapha national park in Arunachal Pradesh,” he said. “It would probably take me a decade to do the same research that I did in six months, if I had to plan the field logistics for all those places.”

The bird specimens he’s studying come from four different countries, but Barve is able to access them all in one place now. “Having all of them in one repository means I can directly compare the feathers of a laughingthrush from Bhutan to a snowfinch from Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

These biological libraries host more than specimens, which run into millions sometimes. Old photographs, field notes and observations, audiovisual content of species are all part of the ‘metadata’ that these museums house. Put together, this information can paint a picture about how common some endangered species once were, like the Bengal tiger or great Indian bustard.

By accurately identifying where these specimens were collected, researchers can determine the geographic range and distribution of species in the past, and compare them to their distribution today. In a warming planet, species that are restricted to small areas may find their habitats shrinking even further, and data from natural history collections may offer our only clue to track this trajectory.

Like Barve, Anand Krishnan, a DST-INSPIRE faculty-fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, has also used specimens from natural history collections in his research. He, along with another researcher, Krishnapriya Tamma, studied morphological differences among barbets, a group of birds that is predominantly frugivorous.

A map of the route William Ruxton Davison took in 1881 across the Nilgiris, as he collected bird specimens for A.O. Hume. Photo: Stray Feathers

“This was particularly helped by visiting museum collections such as those at the Smithsonian, because the entire morphological variation in the family was available at our fingertips. There is a vast resource of superbly preserved data there that is very helpful to address such questions,” said Krishnan.

In this age of molecular biology, researchers are also increasingly turning to natural history collections to study genes. Using DNA sequences from both individuals alive today and preserved specimens from these collections, scientists are able to pinpoint the effect of environmental changes on wildlife. From carefully scraping DNA from the toe pads of birds, researchers can try to ascertain if populations of birds from different parts of the country are genetically different.

These collections act as windows into past life on the planet – both the recent human-dominated past and the distant paleontological past. A trip or two to one of these places can help researchers fill gaps in the evolutionary histories of species by studying their long-gone ancestors.

“Natural history collections are also very useful to educate and spread awareness about biodiversity conservation, and the significance of natural history studies,” said Saunak Pal, a scientist at the BNHS. Pal has been with the organisation for five years now, and working with these specimens has been special. “Being associated with the BNHS museum is like a dream come true, as I have always been fascinated by the organisation, since when I was a student. Working in the museum comes with its own perks as you get to see an array of specimens collected from across the subcontinent, many of which have been collected over a hundred years ago,” he said.

Along with Salim Ali, Hugh Whistler spent decades collecting and studying birds across the Indian subcontinent. He maintained meticulous field notes. Photo: Natural History Museum, Tring

Today, collections all over the world are being digitised to make these resources more accessible to researchers and natural history enthusiasts. Genetic data, three-dimensional scans of preserved animals, pictures of pressed plants and digitised field notes are being uploaded to online databases from natural history museums everywhere.

In India, this process of digitisation is in the early stages. Pal said easy access to information in natural history museums is a major hurdle for researchers in the country. “This may be because there is a lack of proper digitisation of catalogues, specimens and associated metadata. It is essential to carry out standardised digitisation protocol across museums, and also to train museum staff and researchers in modern tools and techniques to carry out this humongous task smoothly,” he added.

Maintaining natural history collections is a demanding task on an everyday basis as well. Barve said the sheer number of specimens in museums can pose a challenge. For example, changes in taxonomy can quickly translate into an astounding amount of physical reorganisation in museums. Curators have to control temperature and light, and ensure that storage areas are fumigated on a regular basis. In a tropical country like India, it is even more important to monitor temperature carefully to prevent specimens in collections from degrading.

Some of the ornithological collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. Photo: Sahas Barve

“Both digitisation of specimens and proper maintenance of collections require regular funding and support from all bodies concerned. Hence, it is important for people to understand, value and support natural history collections as these might be the last reserve for many endangered and also some extinct species,” said Pal.

There is a strong case for preserving specimens in museums – even those of common species like the red-whiskered bulbul. For many scientists, these collections are invaluable, and they recollect memories of working in these museums with much enthusiasm.

“I have always had a lovely experience at natural history collections both within India and abroad, without exception. I have had great support from the people who work there, and they are always very open to researchers coming in to examine the collections,” Krishnan said. “In India in particular, visits to the BNHS collections have been very helpful to my research, and working in those collections is intellectually very stimulating.”

Priyanka Hari Haran is an ecologist and writer who enjoys communicating science and stories from the natural world. She tweets at @PriyankaHariH. Vijay Ramesh is a PhD candidate at Columbia University who uses historical and contemporary data to monitor bird diversity and ecosystem health in the Western Ghats. He tweets at @vjjan91.

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