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Small collections

Importance of Small Museum Collections
Hillary Moore, 2013

Natural history museums provide us with an almost unperceivable amount of information. Together, the data meticulously written on every single label of each specimen paints a mosaic of the earth’s eras that have come, gone, and evolved into the planet we know today. Most people may think they are mainly used for field trips sites and a way to get out of the house for the afternoon, but many resources come from these collections that are accessed by people in an array of fields each day. They educate, engage, and inform our public, give background information for conservation and agricultural efforts, help with land-use management, and the very important field of pharmacognosy (Lane, 1996).

There are dozens of well known large natural history museums, like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., but really it’s the small collections that give us detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna of local communities. Smaller collections tend to not have much of a budget to run on, and usually the curator is also one of the major contributors to the collection. Small-scale museum curators work many hours on different aspects of their collections each week. This experience with the specimens allows them to become a local biota expert of sorts. Systematists who have extensive knowledge on such a wide variety of organisms are important because they provide a reliable source for species identification. Unfortunately, this field appears to be a dying art of truly knowing and understanding the natural world and its ecosystem processes on more than just a textbook level (Snow, 2005).

Radford University’s museum collection is home to more than 10,000 local and regional organisms collected and contributed majorly by current and emeritus professors and alumni. Visible displays provide students and the community with the opportunity to interact with the specimens they are studying or just curious to know more about. A number of Radford University’s biology professors use the museum specimens to display unique morphological traits they discuss in lectures.  A few classes heavily influenced by the availability of our collection are organismal biology, general zoology, vertebrate zoology, and ecology and adaptation. Students who are visual learners can benefit significantly when being able to physically compare adaptations and species traits in class rather than just looking at slideshow photos.

Radford’s museum gives students a chance to directly contribute to a collection, as well as learn the basics of taxidermy, and formal specimen mounting. Dr. Karen Francl, the curator of the collection and a biology professor at RU, works with any organisms available and in good condition, even road kill! However, it’s important to add specimens legally through the use of state salvage permits. She helps the students correctly identify the organism, and teaches them how to display them by stuffing, mounting, and preserving it. Plus, if it’s a new or less documented finding, some of their work could get displayed, and even published (e.g., Francl and Meikle, 2009). This is a great opportunity and learning experience for the students and it helps the collection grow too.  

Our public collection also allows the area’s younger students to take a peek at critters they may not have gotten to see before in the wild. Over 50% of the University’s collection has been photographed and recorded digitally, and will soon be available on the museum webpage for more widespread public access. A number of specimens are set aside for educational kids’ events, like the City of Radford’s Vulture Day, where a table of pelts and skulls are available for kids to hold, identify, and learn about.

Radford University’s biology collection has been valued at a $450,000 worth and proudly displays a unique bird egg collection of over 500 eggs (figure 1 and 2). Believed to have been collected in the 1920’s, these preserved eggs are a valuable and irreplaceable asset to the museum (“RU Natural History,” 2008). A few other valuable avian species in the collection are the Southern Cassowary (vulnerable), the Red-crowned Crane (endangered)(figure 3), and the Greater Prairie Chicken (vulnerable) (IUCN Red List, 2012). Because these birds are in declining populations it would nearly impossible to replace them.

Together the thousands of small museums around the globe play a large role in preserving the earth’s steadily declining biodiversity. Some preserved organisms are extinct in the wild, and many have declining wild populations. Physical specimens of both extinct and extant species are important to have because we can still learn from them. Using tissue samples, we can genetically trace evolutionary lineages,  while detailed field notes and labels let us know where declined populations used to be found, their habitat preferences and requirements, as well as suggested ecological roles (Lane, 1996).   

Literature Cited
Francl, K.E. and D.E. Meikle. 2009. A range extension of the hispid cotton rat, Sigmodon hispidus, in Virginia. Banisteria 33:54-55.

IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>.

Lane, M. A. (1996). Roles of natural history collections. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, (83), 536-545.

"RU Natural History Collection Includes Rare Species." (2008, September 20). Radford News Journal, p. 6.

Snow, N. (2005). Successfully curating smaller herbaria and natural history collections in academic settings. BioScience, 55(9), 771-779.