9 May 11 study 2
Museum collections are about permanence. They are about the permanence of documentation of a time, place, and ultimately of an artifact or specimen of any sort. This information of time and place and object allows academics to interpret the specimen in context. Natural history museums, the type of museum where has been my experience, document the natural world. I am a herpetologist, specializing in amphibian taxonomy. If you've ever noticed in field guides or museum or zoo, those unpronounceable scientific names that accompany the illustration or display, well then you know me. I'm the guy (or one of them, anyway) that conjures those unpronounceable names and ascribes them to species newly discovered by science. My career has been built helping to catalog the amphibians of the world and bringing taxonomic order to the world by following the simple edict of "one species - one name."
Museum collections are also about discovery - that most joyous of scientific endeavors. Eureka, I have found it! Museum displays allow the public and students to discover more about the world about them. Museum research collections allow historians and scientists of all sort to discover new objects and, with them, new insights into their academic endeavor. Because museums dutifully time-stamp everything, then everything can be evaluated in its appropriate historical context. This is very important for cultural perspectives; for example, something such as art or literature considered "obscene and vulgar" in 1934 may seem benign now. Without that time-stamp, the cultural context is diminished. The same is true in the sciences of paleontology and anthropology, as it is of crucial importance if Tyrannosaurus rex pre-dated or post-dated some other dinosaur, or when and where Neanderthal humans made their exit from existence. Did the overlap geographically and temporally with our own species, Homo sapiens? These all are interesting and important questions about the history of our natural world. As much as I was enthralled with the "discovery" aspect of my career, I never foresaw the aching poignancy of the museum time-stamp in my career that is now apparent.
I have spent half of my career working in natural history museums, and all of my career closely associated with them as a constant user of those collections. I mostly study Central American frogs, having named about three dozen new species of them. Museum collections allow me to compare the anatomy and DNA of specimens from, for example, southern Mexico and northern Nicaragua side-by-side on my lab bench. Are they the same, or are they different?
Really, that's all I do every day.
There is no other way to do this sort of science.
For my research, the importance of specimens is all about sample size as it is impossible to distinguish individual variation from species-level differences without an adequate understanding of basic levels of individual variation, including real patterns of geographic and sexual variation. The date of collection of these specimens was never of any particular importance to me, until I started to notice that the specimens in the jars represented populations that no longer exist in the wild. They are gone, and all we will ever know of them is these preserved specimens. This was sobering enough, to realize that there no longer are Horned lizards in my hometown of Poway, California, when my boyhood memory and the museum record clearly indicate they were common there until the late 1970s. But, the same reality took a major leap for the worse, when I realized that the same museum shelves I wander every day held specimens of entire species recently gone extinct. Extinction is the very embodiment of permanence. In reviewing the thousands of frog specimens that I have considered in my career, I found that I was naming new species not based on eureka moments in the rainforest, but based on preserved specimens of species that have very recently gone extinct. These specimens were collected during my own lifetime, and by herpetologists I have met; I have a temporal connection with these specimens, even if I did not collect them myself. I never had poignant moments in natural history collections, until now, because the samples there were always intended to be mere subsamples of ongoing, renewable, timeless, vibrant populations in nature that were collected merely to help us catalog the Earth's wondrous biodiversity. Paleontology collections, we all know, represent the extinct past of our natural history. Paleontologists may yearn for the time-travel experience to see their study subjects alive, but I doubt they feel much emotion in cataloging that biodiversity based on fossils. After all, it's clear that humans played no role in that mass extinction. Now I have emotions about natural history collections.
My career transitioned sharply a few years ago, when I realized that museum specimens collected as recently as the 1980s are "the new fossils" as they represent entire species that have gone extinct within our lifetime. Dozens and dozens of them. Suddenly and awfully, that dutiful museum time-stamp became a simultaneous epitaph, representing the last time this species was seen alive on the planet. No longer did the specimens on the shelves represent ongoing, vibrant populations in nature. As I discovered species new-to-science among them, I sensed that my career of discovery had taken a morbid turn. I needed a name for this new twist in my career in taxonomic discovery. The term "paleontology" literally refers to ancient times, so that would not work. I finally settled on the term Forensic Taxonomy, because that is what I am now doing - assigning a name to recently deceased victims/species. At the scene of a murder, it seems that one of the first priorities of the crime investigation professionals is to determine the name of the victim. This crucial piece of information does not, of course, change the fact that they have been murdered, but it is important nonetheless. I guess that's what I do in my career anymore - assign names to recently extinguished species of frogs. I know it is important, but it is not the joyful experience of discovery that I envisioned when I embarked on a career in amphibian taxonomy. I am a Forensic Taxonomist. I am not a Paleontologist.
The crisis of global amphibian extinctions is very real, and it is of scope and scale that certifiably qualifies it as a mass extinction event, comparable to the history of dinosaurs or the Pleistocence megafauna such as Wooly Mammoths. When I first met Tracy Hicks in the mid- 1990s, I told him that our biodiversity surveys and collections were essentially "running in front of the bulldozer" to document populations being vanished by the never-ending expansion of humanity. I did not anticipate those endeavors translating into Forensic Taxonomy. I am grateful for Tracy's work to give us natural historians a novel perspective on our collections, our efforts, our careers, and allowing us insight into our own perspectives on obsessive collecting and annotation, and the very notion of permanence. Little did we know that taxonomy would become the new paleontology. Tracy Hicks' work helps give us much needed perspective.
Dr. Joseph Mendelson