23 November 2009

Why specimens are important

Taking photos of an animal is no substitute for taking a specimen.
Collections are needed for understanding the biology of the species and represent the first step to being able to conserve them. Nevertheless, biologists are keenly aware of the potential to disturb an ecosystem by over-collecting.

Pickled evidence for evolution
Jessica Griggs, New Scientist 20 Nov 09;
IF A snake is a reptile and an eel is a fish, why do they look so similar? This was one of the questions that fascinated Charles Darwin as he wrote On the Origin of Species, published 150 years ago next week. In the ensuing years, scientists have continued exploring the questions that he raised. The answer to this particular puzzle lies in the versatile form shared by snakes and eels - the long, sleek body that enables eels to glide through the water and snakes to slither through grassland, jungle or across sand.

Darwin's voyage of discovery continues today. The snakes in this photo were collected last year on a trip to Burma - one of the world's biodiversity hotspots - by a team from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) in San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and Burma's forestry department, which set out to survey the country's reptiles. It was assumed that many snakes found across south-east Asia were of the same species, but genetic analysis of the specimens brought back from this trip showed otherwise. Many of the snakes turned out to be previously unknown species.

As expeditions like this show, collecting and preserving did not end with the Victorian naturalists. Evolutionary biologists are keenly aware of the potential to disturb an ecosystem by over-collecting, but taking photos of an animal is no substitute for taking a specimen. "Collections are needed for understanding the biology of the species and represent the first step to being able to conserve them," says Guin Wogan of the University of California, Berkeley, who was part of the Burmese expedition.

Molecular analysis of the specimen can provide a wealth of information not available to the naked eye, the stomach contents can help determine its last meal, and when new exploratory techniques are developed the animals are there ready to be analysed.

These specimens are now on the shelves of CAS, added to the 20 million others amassed there. To mark the anniversary of The Origin, writer Mary Ellen Hannibal and photographer Susan Middleton scoured its collections to present the best preserved in their new book, Evidence of Evolution (Abrams, $29.95/£19.99).


Related link
Why have collections? at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

Where are Singapore's specimens kept?
In Singapore, our animal specimens are kept at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. From their website:
The Zoological Reference Collections (ZRC) has some 300,000 zoological specimens belonging to at least 10,000 species. The majority of the zoological specimens in the ZRC originate from Southeast Asia since 1840. Many groups of animals are very well represented in the RMBR. Some of these are among the best in the world. Most of these are irreplaceable and are priceless historical specimens.


What to see the specimens for yourself? Come for the Raffles Museum Open House on 6 Dec (Sun) 10am-4pm. More details.

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