Why are museum collections important?

In a world where increasing information and data are now accessible online, natural history collections may appear as an archaism of a different century. It is just the contrary, however, as specimen-based collections are now more useful than ever.

A specimen represents a treasure of information from which one can extract a lot of data, and potentially even more so in the future. For instance, with a specimen you are able to take countless measurements from the external morphology but also internal anatomy (e.g. with CT-scan), extract DNA, measure the content of particular pollutants, or even test how the feathers, fur or cuticle (the external layer of arthropods) respond to light… to name just a few of the different types of data that a scientist may be interested in. Altogether this new knowledge allows a better understanding of the biology of these species, some of their threats (e.g. pollution), their evolutionary history and adaptations to the environment in which they live, and most importantly of their taxonomic classification.

This may surprise you, but the definition of a species, or more precisely how a species is being defined, is not always fixed completely, and from time to time, as new knowledge becomes available, may even change. For instance, it happens that what may have been considered as a single and unique species represents in fact 2,3,4 or even more species. Those, sometimes referred as cryptic species, are species that look alike but in fact represent distinct species that thanks to approaches using DNA, morphology or even biochemistry are teased apart. You can, thus, imagine the consequences of confusing 2 or 3 species for a single one, in terms of the understanding of their biology (if they live and use different habitats for instance), distribution and conservation for which it can be a major game changer. On the opposite, sometimes two or more species considered as distinct reveal themselves as being the same species after careful examination of the specimens and the data retrieved from them. This tricky, but absolutely seminal field of biology is paramount to understanding biodiversity, catalogue the tree of life and of course protect all of its branches and leaves (if you allow me this botanical metaphor). But to do so, access to specimens that have been properly preserved and curated is absolutely essential, and something that the digital world could support but not fully replace.

Specimen collections, while sometimes perceived as dusty relics of the past, are in fact our biobanks of the future. It is the matter of all to ensure that these mines of information, some of which we do not fully appreciate yet are protected and enhanced so that in 50 or 500 years the future generations could still be amazed by this biological heritage, the diversity of nature and have the specimens to protect or regenerate from the parts of the tree of life that our ignorance has lead us to damage.