On biodiversity, museums and breadth

May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDBD from here on in). Many people will take the opportunity today to give some thought to the richness and diversity of life on earth, as well as how much we still have to learn about it. But for those of us who work and play in biodiversity science, everyday is IDBD (in that sense, I guess it’s a little like Valentine’s Day).

Down here in the museum, I’m reminded every day of the enormous number of insect species, their great variability, their role in ecosystems, and the impact that a changing world has on everything from their genes to their community structure. I’m also reminded of just how many undescribed species of flies are sitting here waiting for some attention from me.

Natural history museums are the single easiest place to connect with biodiversity. Whether insects, plants, fossils, preserved vertebrate specimens, macrofungi, or any of the many other branches of the tree of life, a walk through the displays or the collections is a reality check on just how much wonderful diversity there is, and how much remains unknown and undescribed. Of course, this is just one of the many roles that natural history museums, and their invaluable specimens, play in research, management and education.

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about the importance of specimens. That discussion was mostly started by a paper published in Science that condemned the practice of scientific collecting as a factor in extinction. The authors of the paper just don’t seem to understand what museums or biodiversity scientists do. Unfortunately, this paper, despite its weak and misinformed arguments, will probably get considerable mileage among a community of people who condemn collecting, collections and museums as cruel and archaic; people who generally do not bother to find out how collecting actually works, and people who apparently fail to consider that their daily actions probably kill far more organisms than scientists (I’m looking at you, automobile grill). And that’s a shame.

For those who like a little balance in their science, some of us (well, 123 of us) have just published a response in Science to the original paper. And it’s a happy coincidence that it’s coming out on IDBD. It’s a short piece and I’m proud to be part of it.

I’m proud of it because I think it makes a compelling argument about the importance of specimens and collections to address a wide range of research questions.

I’m proud of it because it helps, I hope, to dispel silly misconceptions about scientists and collectors perpetuated by the authors of the original Science paper.

Mostly I’m proud of it because of the sheer number and diversity of authors who jumped into this undertaking within days of the original publication. The authors on this response represent a great breadth of excellent biodiversity scientists who span geographic regions, large and small institutions, and taxa of interest. But more than that, it’s a group of people who span generations. Some of my co-authors on this paper are people who I have read and admired since I was an undergraduate student, reading about their work in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. But at the other end of the scale, one of my co-authors was an undergraduate student in my classes here at McGill who sat through my lectures in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, with a pretty diverse range of perspectives and interests. But there are some important things that we all have in common:

We understand the critical importance of strong and vibrant natural history collections.

We understand that preserved specimens are a priceless data set for research.

We understand that museums matter.

Happy IDBD everybody.


Rocha, LA, A Aleixo, G Allen, F Almeda, CC Baldwin, MVL Barclay, JM Bates, AM Bauer, F Benzoni, CM Berns, ML Berumen, DC Blackburn, S Blum, F Bolaños, RCK Bowie, R Britz, RM Brown, CD Cadena, K Carpenter, LM Ceríaco, P Chakrabarty, G Chaves, JH Choat, KD Clements, BB Collette, A Collins, J Coyne, J Cracraft, T Daniel, MR de Carvalho, K de Queiroz, F Di Dario, R Drewes, JP Dumbacher, A Engilis Jr, MV Erdmann, W Eschmeyer, CR Feldman, BL Fisher, J Fjeldså, PW Fritsch, J Fuchs, A Getahun, A Gill, M Gomon, T Gosliner, GR Graves, CE Griswold, R Guralnick, K Hartel, KM Helgen, H Ho, DT Iskandar, T Iwamoto, Z Jaafar, HF James, D Johnson, D Kavanaugh, N Knowlton, E Lacey, HK Larson, P Last, JM Leis, H Lessios, J Liebherr, M Lowman, DL Mahler, V Mamonekene, K Matsuura, GC Mayer, H Mays Jr, J McCosker, RW McDiarmid, J McGuire, MJ Miller, R Mooi, RD Mooi, C Moritz, P Myers, MW Nachman, RA Nussbaum, D Ó Foighil, LR Parenti, JF Parham, E Paul, G Paulay, J Pérez-Emán, A Perez-Matus, S Poe, J Pogonoski, DL Rabosky, JE Randall, JD Reimer, DR Robertson, M-O Rödel, MT Rodrigues, P Roopnarine, L Rüber, MJ Ryan, F Sheldon, G Shinohara, A Short, WB Simison, WF Smith-Vaniz, VG Springer, M Stiassny, JG Tello, CW Thompson, T Trnski, P Tucker, T Valqui, M Vecchione, E Verheyen, PC Wainwright, TA Wheeler, WT White, K Will, JT Williams, G Williams, EO Wilson, K Winker, R Winterbottom, CC Witt. 2014. Specimen collection: an essential tool. Science 344: 814–815.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On biodiversity, museums and breadth

  1. Pingback: 100 days of Twitter: reflections of a somewhat senior rookie | Lyman Entomological Museum

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