Hoarding Good Ideas

Researchers gather around a table full of herbarium sheets and botanical samples in the Botany Department Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Herbarium photo, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Natural history collections around the world are suffering neglect. A group of leading curators, scientists and scholars in Italy recently made a plea to protect specimens that date from the birth of the idea of natural history collections themselves. These collections are a treasure trove of discovery. It is estimated that as many as 40% of the yet to be described flowering plants on earth may already be sitting on an herbarium sheet waiting for a botanist with sufficient knowledge of a genus and family to recognize, describe, classify, and name them. What is more tragic is all the species unknown to science that have not yet been collected at all and the decline in a serious effort to do so.

The recent piece in Nature magazine makes these points but does not address the greatest threat to natural history collections: an erosion in understanding why such collections matter, not only among the public but particularly among professional biologists. There is a dangerous complacency that technology — molecular sequencing and digital imaging in particular — are and will continue to make physical specimens in museums and herbaria less relevant. This is simply false and one of the great follies of our time.

Climate change gets all the headlines but is not the greatest threat facing humanity. I do not minimize the enormously disruptive potential of climate change but we can, with enough money and effort, adapt to climate change over a matter of a few human generations. The coming mass extinction of species will require millions, more likely tens of millions, of years for natural selection to overcome and repopulate the planet with a diversity of plants and animals.

Specimens in collections tell us many things impossible or difficult to read from DNA or from digital images of specimens. They do not merely tell us the path and chronology of evolution — things that DNA-based phylogenies have the potential to do — they tell the fascinating story of evolution in detail, revealing the amazing transformations in evolution that leave the observer incredulous. Only with this knowledge can we make intelligent decisions about what to prioritize for conservation. And in these adaptations are irreplaceable clues about efficient ways to meet challenges of survival on a rapidly changing planet. There are no replacements for such knowledge and we are standing idly by as many of the best biomimetic models for our future disappear when they are available to us literally for the taking.

Our generation has the opportunity to make this the golden age of biodiversity discovery, discovering and learning about more species in a short period than has been done in all human history. Our generation is the last with the opportunity to preserve permanent evidence of the diversity whose demise we are witnessing. We cannot do so with fashionable technologies. The best and surest way to preserve evidence of the origin and history of life on this most biologically unique planet and insure that we have options to adapt and save ourselves in a sustainable way is to overcome the political correctness of ignoring natural history, taxonomy, and collections and to do what we alone have the last chance to do: grow and develop natural history collections to be a reflection of the biological diversity of earth as it exists early in the Anthropocene of the 21st century.

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About qdwheeler

Quentin Wheeler is the 4th president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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