The Back Rooms of Museums: a Dusty Scientific Frontier?

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Utah outcrop. These aren’t the only places where new fossil species turn up. Credit: L. Milideo

If you love paleontology and biology, you’re probably excited whenever you hear of a new species discovered, somewhere in the world.  You might even have many a mental image of scientists in some dust-blown canyon, dental picks and rock hammers in hand, digging a find out of a rocky outcrop, or walking a jungle in field vests, binoculars at the ready.  But there have been several stories in the news in the past few years that have me wondering if scientists ought to consider excavating the back rooms of museums instead.

In some cases, a find has been unearthed, as it were, hiding in (sort of) plain site. For example, in 2007 a new species – even a new genus – of sauropod dinosaur was described based on a single vertebrae that had been sitting on a shelf for over a century in London’s Natural History Museum.  In 2013, a previously unknown plesiosaur turned up in a museum drawer in Germany.

And it’s not always fossils that appear out of the blue in a museum. Sometimes, the species is still living, like the sea snake species that was found in a jar in Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum, and is now known to be alive and well, off the coast of Australia. Then there’s the “new” Amazon tapir that was named last year. This story in Science News recounts the addition of a fifth tapir species to the scientific record – one that the local people had already noted was not like the others. Turns out there was already a specimen of this tapir available for study.  It’d been sitting for decades in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

So how does this happen? How does a specimen just sit there, surrounded by scientists for years or even decades, with no one noticing? In part, it might have to do with how museums work.  When a specimen is collected and placed in the museum’s collections, it’s assigned a number (or other unique identifier, whatever the museum uses), and other information about it is also noted. Where it was found and collected, when, by whom, etc. If a specimen is incorrectly identified (that is, assigned the name of an existing species) at this stage, it could go unnoticed if no one happens to be performing research that requires use or study of the specimen. Often, the specimen will remain on the shelf or in the drawer, next to its incorrect tag, until someone (often a specialist who would notice the one detail that makes the original identification not quite right) needing research specimens opens the drawer and gets a confused expression on her face. In the case of the sauropod vertebra, it was a graduate student; for the plesiosaur in Germany, it was a knowledgeable researcher. But there are lots of other factors that go into the publication – or lack of publication – for new species. This LiveScience story offers a useful discussion of  many other factors that can affect species publication.

So the next time you think about scientific discovery, don’t just picture the backpack-wearing, forcep-toting worker in the field. Also consider what scientific frontiers might already be waiting at the nearest museum.

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About laurenwritesscience

I'm bringing scientific news and information to anyone interested, whether you're a scientist, or just love science! My focus is earth science and archaeology but I wander quite a bit.

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