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Concept: Museum


Specimens of plants and animals preserved in museums are the primary source of verifiable data on the geographical and temporal distribution of organisms. Museum datasets are increasingly being uploaded to aggregated regional and global databases (e.g. the Global Biodiversity Information Facility; GBIF) for use in a wide range of analyses [1]. Thus, digitisation of natural history collections is providing unprecedented information to facilitate the study of the natural world on a global scale. The digitisation of this information utilises information provided on specimen labels, and assumes they are correctly identified. Here we evaluate the accuracy of names associated with 4,500 specimens of African gingers from 40 herbaria in 21 countries. Our data show that at least 58% of the specimens had the wrong name prior to a recent taxonomic study. A similar pattern of wrongly named specimens is also shown for Dipterocarps and Ipomoea (morning glory). We also examine the number of available plant specimens worldwide. Our data demonstrate that, while the world’s collections have more than doubled since 1970, more than 50% of tropical specimens, on average, are likely to be incorrectly named. This finding has serious implications for the uncritical use of specimen data from natural history collections.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Biology, Plant, Natural environment, Nature, Natural history, Museum, Global Biodiversity Information Facility


One hundred and seventy-three years ago, the last two Great Auks, Pinguinusimpennis, ever reliably seen were killed. Their internal organs can be found in the collections of the Natural History Museum of Denmark, but the location of their skins has remained a mystery. In 1999, Great Auk expert Errol Fuller proposed a list of five potential candidate skins in museums around the world. Here we take a palaeogenomic approach to test which-if any-of Fuller’s candidate skins likely belong to either of the two birds. Using mitochondrial genomes from the five candidate birds (housed in museums in Bremen, Brussels, Kiel, Los Angeles, and Oldenburg) and the organs of the last two known individuals, we partially solve the mystery that has been on Great Auk scholars' minds for generations and make new suggestions as to the whereabouts of the still-missing skin from these two birds.

Concepts: Cell, Organelle, Bird, Skin, Penguin, Museum, Auk, Great Auk


Taxonomy, the science of describing and naming of the living world, is recognized as an important and relevant field in modern biological science. While there is wide agreement on the importance of a complete inventory of all organisms on Earth, the public is partly unaware of the amount of known and unknown biodiversity. Out of the enormous number of undescribed (but already recognized) species in natural history museum collections, we selected an attractive example of a wasp, which was presented to museum visitors at a special museum event. We asked 300 visitors to vote on a name for the new species and out of four preselected options, Ampulex dementor Ohl n. sp. was selected. The name, derived from the ‘soul sucking’ dementors from the popular Harry Potter books is an allusion to the wasps' behavior to selectively paralyze its cockroach prey. In this example, public voting on a scientific name has been shown to be an appropriate way to link museum visitors emotionally to biodiversity and its discovery.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Organism, Life, Species, Charles Darwin, Museum, Harry Potter


The skull of René Descartes is held in the National Museum of Natural History since the 19th c. Up to date, only anthropological examinations were carried out, focusing on the cranial capacity and phrenological interpretation of the skull morphology. Using CT-scan based 3D technology, a reconstruction of the endocast was performed, allowing for its first complete description and inter-disciplinary analysis: assessment of metrical and non-metrical features, retrospective diagnosis of anatomical anomalies, and confrontation with neuro-psychological abilities of this well-identified individual.

Concepts: Nervous system, Medicine, Brain, Greek loanwords, Skull, History of biology, Museum, Craniometry


Natural history collections are an important and largely untapped source of long-term data on evolutionary changes in wild populations. Here, we utilize three large geo-referenced sets of samples of the common European land-snail Cepaea nemoralis stored in the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. Resampling of these populations allowed us to gain insight into changes occurring over 95, 69, and 50 years. Cepaea nemoralis is polymorphic for the colour and banding of the shell; the mode of inheritance of these patterns is known, and the polymorphism is under both thermal and predatory selection. At two sites the general direction of changes was towards lighter shells (yellow and less heavily banded), which is consistent with predictions based on on-going climatic change. At one site no directional changes were detected. At all sites there were significant shifts in morph frequencies between years, and our study contributes to the recognition that short-term changes in the states of populations often exceed long-term trends. Our interpretation was limited by the few time points available in the studied collections. We therefore stress the need for natural history collections to routinely collect large samples of common species, to allow much more reliable hind-casting of evolutionary responses to environmental change.

Concepts: Time, Natural selection, Biodiversity, Evolution, Natural environment, Netherlands, Nature, Museum


Genomic research depends upon access to DNA or tissue collected and preserved according to high-quality standards. At present, the collections in most natural history museums do not sufficiently address these standards, making them often hard or impossible to use for whole-genome sequencing or transcriptomics. In response to these challenges, natural history museums, herbaria, botanical gardens and other stakeholders have started to build high-quality biodiversity biobanks. Unfortunately, information about these collections remains fragmented, scattered and largely inaccessible. Without a central registry or even an overview of relevant institutions, it is difficult and time-consuming to locate the needed samples.

Concepts: DNA, Life, Genome, Natural environment, Nature, Natural history, Museum, Carl Linnaeus


With the increase in human population, and the growing realisation of the importance of urban biodiversity for human wellbeing, the ability to predict biodiversity loss or gain as a result of land use change within urban settings is important. Most models that link biodiversity and land use are at too coarse a scale for informing decisions, especially those related to planning applications. Using the grounds of the Natural History Museum, London, we show how methods used in global models can be applied to smaller spatial scales to inform urban planning.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Natural environment, Nature, Entomology, Natural history, Museum


Along with the conventional deposition of physical types at natural history museums, the deposition of 3-dimensional (3D) image data has been proposed for rare and valuable museum specimens, such as irreplaceable type material.

Concepts: Crustacean, Crab, Decapoda, Natural history, Anomura, Museum, Hermit crab, King crab


Natural history museum collections (NHCs) represent a rich and largely untapped source of data on demography and population movements. NHC specimen records can be corrected to a crude measure of collecting effort and reflect relative population densities with a method known as abundance indices. We plotted abundance index values from georeferenced NHC data in a 12-month series for the new world migratory passerine Passerina ciris across its molting and wintering range in Mexico and Central America. We illustrated a statistically significant change in abundance index values across regions and months that suggests a quasi-circular movement around its non-breeding range, and used enhanced vegetation index (EVI) analysis of remote sensing plots to demonstrate non-random association of specimen record abundance with areas of high primary productivity. We demonstrated how abundance indices from NHC specimen records can be applied to infer previously unknown migratory behavior, and be integrated with remote sensing data to provide a deeper understanding of demography and behavioral ecology across time and space.

Concepts: Statistics, Demography, Population, Ecology, Sociology, Population density, Remote sensing, Museum


Natural history collections house an enormous amount of plant and animal specimens, which constitute a promising source for molecular analyses. Storage conditions differ among taxa and can have a dramatic effect on the success of DNA work. Here, we analyze the feasibility of DNA extraction from ethanol preserved spiders (Araneae). We tested genotyping success using several hundred specimens of the wasp spider, Argiope bruennichi, deposited in two large German natural history collections. We tested the influence of different factors on the utility of specimens for genotyping. Our results show that not the specimen’s age, but the museum collection is a major predictor of genotyping success. These results indicate that long term storage conditions should be optimized in natural history museums to assure the utility of collections for DNA work. Using historical material, we also traced historical genetic and morphological variation in the course of a poleward range expansion of A. bruennichi by comparing contemporary and historical specimens from a native and an invasive population in Germany. We show that the invasion of A. bruennichi is tightly correlated with an historical increase of genetic and phenotypic variation in the invasive population.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Evolution, Biology, Spider, Natural history, Museum, Argiope