Orphaned Collections and the Taxonomic Dilemma

By October 8, 2023Biodiversity, News

Over the course of the last 150 years or so, universities and other agencies collected specimens, often as part of field classes. Some of these specimens eventually formed individual collections, and sometimes those collections would amalgamate into museums with multiple collections. As time has passed, priorities for universities and other agencies changed, and professors retired and those collections were often viewed as burdens by administrators. The result is that there are fewer and fewer museums that can hold and care for collections, and fewer places that can train the next generation of scientists.

Thanks to the support of the university and COSAM, The Auburn University Museum of Natural History has bucked the trend of small museums shuttering. Instead, we are now one of the museums that takes in orphaned collections. In the past year, we took in fishes, reptiles, and amphibians from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, Southern Illinois University, and a fish skeletal collection from Roanoke College (the latter is still fine, but needing to get rid of some of their larger specimens). The fish collection alone added about 10,000 jars for about a 13% increase in the number of jars that we curate. As curators, we love to add to our collections, and if it makes the collections receive more use, amalgamation can be a good thing for us. However, training opportunities are decreased. Universities teach the next generation of students in biodiversity, and museums are often the first place where these students learn.

We are currently in a taxonomic crisis. There remain tremendous segments of our biodiversity that have not been described, but there are fewer places that can train future taxonomists. As we degrade our environment, we are losing some species even before they can be described by scientists. We can never know the importance of those species in understanding our world, and they could take with them genes and microbes that could lead to the next generation of medicines or other breakthroughs. At AUMNH, we are proud to keep up the tradition of training future naturalists, but we wish that we could do so amongst a larger group of peers.

A part of the Southern Illinois University Fish Collection awaiting cataloging, labeling, and placement within the collection.

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