Natural history museums; Use ’em or lose ’em

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels and one of my favourite concepts is the Unseen university library. For those unfamiliar with those books, the library operates on the aphorism that “Knowledge is power”. Ergo:

l space

which is all to say that large quantities of books (magical and mundane) warp time and space around themselves, opening a portal to L-space. The “L” stands for “library” and it links all libraries everywhere and every when across the multiverse. The result is that virtually any bookshop could become infinite.

Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

To slide obliquely onto my actual topic, there have been a couple papers published recently about the relationship between ecologists, taxonomists, natural history museums and open access. The first postulates that the primary datum of the ecologist is usually thought to be the measurement or count of a species. In other words, some number. But, in reality, a measurement has been made long before that, at a much more basic level: that ecologist has designated that organism as a particular species.

Now, the term “species” is to biology as the term “language” to linguistics: our every-day use of the term obfuscates the sheer number of often-incompatible definitions. Deciding when two animals are two different species and when they are the same comes down to probabilities a lot more often than you may think and, when philosophies change, it’s not unheard of for one scientist to completely overhaul a taxonomy (the classification of different species). I am no taxonomist but I did visit some sheet-web spider collections in the South Island over the last month and when looking at some of the older specimens (old as in <1900s), there was the odd species label which arched the eyebrow.

But in every other respect, these visits were fantastic

The point is that every time an ecologist looks at a plant and decides “Oh that’s an X”, that is an interpretation. So the authors argue that, in addition to open access to numeric datasets, it is imperative that ecologists make any physical samples available. Natural history museums seem like a sensible place to store these.

The second paper supports this notion but acknowledges that natural history museums often lack the resources to take these ecological collections. And by resources I mean a) curators, b) space and, c) capital which kinda determines the previous two. Given this, the authors argue that a cultural shift needs to take place within ecology. Not only do ecologists need to start storing their samples in collections but they also need to be more supportive of natural history museums, whatever form that support takes.

Because support is needed. I’ve been a member of the Entomological society of New Zealand for three years and, in that time, members have been called upon twice to make submissions in defence of members facing the employment axe (or at least the employment shave). In both cases, these other members were taxonomists and curators of significant insect collections who had fallen within that immense shadow which hangs over natural history research nowadays.

(The shadow’s called “Perceived irrelevance” and apparently I wrote a bit about it in a previous life (read: pre-PhD)).

Discworld Unseen University stamp

So to bring things back to my laboured Terry Pratchett introduction [“It’s our party we can do what we want”], it would be fantastic if we could have collections which were are infinite in size, fully integrated across space-time (hello, internet) and curated by a single highly skilled orangutan paid in bananas. But we can’t so instead we have to lend support to taxonomists and natural history collections when opportunities arise and make use of collections and experts when appropriate. If an ecological sample is too large to store, subsample representatives of key taxonomic units, deposit that and remember to acknowledge which institution is holding that sample.

Take home message: Give a taxonomist a hug and drop a sneaky fiver in their pocket.

(Take home message 2: Don’t)

(Take home message 3: I mentioned visiting museums to measure spiders which makes this count as a PhD update)