Promoting a Sense of Continuity
by Richard H. Zander, Curator of Botany, Feb. 19, 1997
Science is based the Enlightenment principle that Society can solve many difficult problems with the aid of Reason through the examination of Nature. The collections in natural history museums exist to provide samples of nature from many localities over a long time span. The value of a substantial time horizon in sampling Nature is obvious in studies of geology and of fossils–animal, plant and human, but this is also true for other natural history collections. Examination and interpretation of such specimens allows scientific inferences to be made about long term changes in the environment.
Study of time-related changes in nature can be done, for instance, by finding a 5000-year-old tree and measuring variation in the size of its rings, or finding an Ice Age man preserved in the ice of a glacier. Unlike human fossils–you can look in his pockets. There are, however, few opportunities in nature to examine in detail long-term changes in plants and animals without a sampling program. The natural history collection maintains actual samples of nature from different times and different places. Each species retains time-related information about the environment in different ways. Certainly evolution of species occurs in response to past environmental changes, and we can now study evolutionary change with computer-assisted programs. Plants and animals in collections store information in their genetic attributes, in the ways they grew in response to the environment, in the soil that clings to specimens, the microorganisms that coat them, the elements gathered into their substance during their lives, in the information on the labels, and in fact, like the Ice Age man, we can look in their pockets.
Over a long enough period, changes in nature greatly affect society. Examples of studies using natural history collections include the well-known studies that examined eggs of birds and found that DDT in the shells was correlated with increasing fragility of eggs. A study of sulfur-dioxide air pollution examined lichens, a kind of fungus that grows on rocks and trees, which are very sensitive to this kind of pollution. Mapping the geographic distribution of lichen species around centers of pollution has shown how prevailing air currents send pollution across population centers; the lichens substituted for expensive air pollution sampling machines. Mosses have been used in prospecting for gold and uranium in Australia; some species accumulate these heavy metals from the moist soil on which they grow.
Now, let's talk about lawn mowers. Suppose you see a short plant and a tall plant, and they both are otherwise the same kind of plant. The short one is growing in a lawn, and the tall one in an unmowed field nearby. You don't have to be a scientist to make the immediate intuitive inference that the short plant has been mowed by a lawn mower, especially since it is easy to see many other examples of short plants in lawns and taller plants of the same kind in nearby unmowed fields. There are, however, many other kinds of mowers and reapers in Nature, most of which we don't understand yet. We can't intuitively identify and comprehend them.
A museum scientist approaches Nature through techniques of analysis and synthesis. First, we ask "what are the differences between organisms." Every organism is different, even if only in being in a different place than another otherwise identical organism. Once differences are analyzed, we synthesize. We ask what are the dependent variables? What differences always occur together?
For instance, everybody knows that certain otherwise identical plants are short in lawns and tall elsewhere. Through our experience living in cities, we can also correlate lawn mowing with size, and can make predictions about the size of plants and where they grow in cities. We can chose to mow or not to mow.
But changes in Nature like crop failures leading to famine, plagues that decimate populations of humans, plants and animals, and worldwide climate changes leading to glaciation or desertification are examples of mowers and reapers we do not understand.
Through analysis of organisms in space and time we can make correlations that allow scientifically testable hypotheses about Nature's lawn mowers: we are blades of grass in Nature's lawn. These studies are based on the long time-line involved in natural history collections. Collections are the primary tool that scientists use in dealing with long-term changes in the natural environment. Samples in the collections are unique records of historical processes we now poorly understand, and are immensely valuable. We are part of a network of natural history collections institutions that support research worldwide. Some have many millions of specimens and large curatorial staffs, but all are important. No research on New York State plants or on the organisms of my research specialty can be really adequate without consulting the extensive representations of these plants in the Clinton Herbarium. The Buffalo Museum of Science is participating in the Flora of North America project, a multi-volume, multi-institutional effort, which will allow the easy identification of all species of flowering plants, ferns and mosses in North America. We are loaning specimens to other researchers, and are borrowing them for study because two scientists at the Museum were invited to write treatments of some of the genera. This is a high-profile use of the collections, but there are also more than a hundred smaller scientific publications generated just in the past 25 years that make use of the plant collections here.
How much is a specimen worth? Analyses of how much each specimen is worth for insurance purposes are various. Let's start with the cost to us. The University of California at Berkeley has estimated that preparing a plant specimen for a museum collection costs about $7.00 just for supplies and labor. According to the proposed Costa Rican All Taxa Biological Inventory, identification by an expert costs about $20.00, bringing up the cost to $27.00 each specimen. Another estimate, from Australia, gives the average cost of curating a herbarium specimen at (US)$11.79, of identifying it at $5.98, of databasing it at $2.08, of preparing it at $12.45, giving a grand total of $32.30 each. Thus, the Clinton Herbarium, which has about 110,000 specimens, has cost in today's dollars about $2,700,000 to $3,300,000. To this we must also add the cost of cabinetry, and annual heating, air conditioning, curator's salary, and so on for maintenance. It takes 10 years to train a scientist in systematics, and 10 years to train a museum curator, sometimes done at the same time, sometimes not, which are additional costs. What do we get for this societal cost? What intrinsic value have the collections?
Let's go back to the time frame. Collections are not fungible–they are not like money in the bank. Value is harvested each year through the involvement of the specimens in scientific work, in their value in epidemiology, diagnostics, parasitology, agriculture, resource management and biotechnology. Their day-to-day use in exhibits and teaching are of course important, but it is their scientific importance to succeeding generations that is their real value. They can be used to help answer the now-critical questions: "What has happened to the environment?" and "How can we prepare for the future?" They can answer questions we do not even know how to ask yet. Collections are more than descriptions of nature in libraries, they are bits of nature, themselves. Perhaps the DNA of species in the collections can be used to recreate these species sometime in the far future, after they are extinct in the wild. There are 2 million species now known. An estimated 10 million are yet to be discovered, while E.O. Wilson estimates about 27,000 are made extinct each year. Will we find in our collections, some day, a species as important as the blue-green alga from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park that provided the all-important enzyme now used for modern genetic research? The act of collecting often yields value. The recent discovery of a perennial corn species in Mexico, which is resistant to seven types of common corn viruses has allowed viral resistance to be bred into four commercial lines of a crop worth $50 billion annually. The recent discovery of a new tomato species in the Andes allowed an increase of soluble contents of hybrid fruits, a discovery estimated worth $8 million annually.
We are buying predictive knowledge about nature, including long-term environmental safety, when we support collections. The vision of the founders of the Buffalo Museum of Science is to provide continuous samples of nature that succeeding generations can use to help understand the powerful natural mechanisms that affect their environment. The longer the time frame, the more valuable the collections in devising predictive inferences.
Myself and my predecessors, George Clinton, David Day, John Cowell and Charles Zenkert, are a line of curators that contributed to these collections, maintained them, and harvested information for use in scientific studies. We did and are still doing this under the support of Museum Directors beginning with Charles Linden, Augustus Grote, and Julius Pohlman, and ending with Donald Herold, Ernst Both and Michael Smith. Successive presidents of the B.S.N.S., beginning with George Clinton, George Hayes, Lucien Howe and David Day, and ending with Herbert Darling, Clifford Awald, Richard Dopkins, Ernst Both and Michael Smith have been working with members of the Board of Managers, beginning with Society founders Albert Chester, Charles Winne, Theodore Howland, Leon Harvey, Coleman Robinson, Charles Farnham, Charles Wadsworth and Charles Marshall and ending with yourselves, to develop a firm societal and financial base for the scientific and educational activities of the Museum. Numerous Museum support staff form an unbroken line back to the beginnings of the Society. The public, our visitors, members and benefactors, which are the ultimate financiers for our activities, are not just the people who are now living in western New York, but also those that have extended their support all the way from the mid-1800's. You can see yourself as part of this vision and of these long time-lines of responsible citizens, as engaging in a critically productive not-for-profit activity that has already spanned lifetimes and is intended to do so indefinitely.
Doing science and harvesting new knowledge from the collections is an on-going activity. There is no way one scientist can find out more than a small amount of what there is to know about his/her Museum collections in a single career. But the longer a collection exists–and the Clinton Herbarium is the ninth oldest herbarium in the United States–the more valuable it is for the wealth of information it contains. Each year the collection increases with added specimens and the science harvest increases. This is where the vision and multi-lifetime dedication of those associated with the collections comes in. We are maintaining natural history collections for the succession of concerned people to come, when a large proportion of the species alive now will have become extinct. We are developing the collections for the use of the people of the twenty-first century and beyond. In fact, we have a jump on other institutions, since our Society was established relatively early, in 1861. We can, for instance, present our successors with a thousand-year data base of continuous samples of Nature as soon as the year 2861. Preparing and providing for the year 2861 is merely a high aim, not a laughable impossibility. It is our high aim, and few other persons who are not associated with natural history collections can share this sense of continuity.
Comments on the "Truths" of George Davis
published in the ASC Newsletter
A good summary of the importance of collections for further reading is given by George M. Davis, 1996, "Collections of Biological Specimens Essential for Science and Society," in the ASC Newsletter 24, pp. 77-78, 88-90. This is a summary of a talk this museum scientist gave to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors when the extensive collections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County were threatened because of perceived lack of funds to properly maintain them. Though representing the oldest collections institution in the United States, established in 1812, Dr. Davis' comments are rather different than mine in emphasizing the present-day benefits of his very large institution.
Truth One, that "the purposes of collections of organisms are to document the species diversity throughout the world and for research based on species diversity." This is true for the B.S.N.S., in the long-term sense I have detailed above.
Truth Two, that "collections of national and international scope are indeed greatly used for diverse ends." This, too, is true in the short term. The medium-sized collections, such as that of the Buffalo Museum of Science, however, in the long-term, are used by a succession of scientists with different interests both on staff and through loans to other scientists. The diversity of uses is thus equivalent given the long span of existence of a well-curated collection.
Truth Three, that "in the past two decades the entire field of species diversity research has come to rest on relatively few collection-based institutions...." This is self-serving nonsense. Dr. Davis is from one of these large institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and though his institution is indeed deserving of copious grant funding because scientists everywhere use a large institution's collections through institutional loans, there is plenty of research being done on biological diversity at smaller institutions like ours. Smaller institutions have to work hard to gain needed funding while fighting political roadblocks like this sneaked in as "truths."
Truth Four, that "collections of national and international scope require first-class systematists. There is now severe competition for these first class minds as there are too few world-class authorities." This is misleading. There are few world-class authorities, true, and the numbers are getting fewer because there are few jobs for their students. Most new positions in universities are being given to ecologists, gene cloners and other laboratory types. Universities expect large influxes of money from indirect cost subsidies associated with large federal grants. Systematists seldom need large numbers of laboratory assistants or expensive equipment. Museums remain the major opportunity for a systematist to do research on biological diversity, and museums should not be satisfied with less than the best staff. The public must count on museums, not universities, for continued collections-based research.
Truth Five, that "collections that have been growing for a century or more, and which are well curated to a modern standard and are accessible, serve to solve problems of importance not only to science, but to society." This is true for us, especially in the long-term.