Lucinda McDade, Judith B. Friend Director of Research at RSABG and chair of the Claremont Graduate University Department of Botany, was a featured speaker at Biodiversity: from Evolutionary Origins to Ecosystems Function. The bicentennial symposium held in October 2012 celebrated the 200th anniversary of research at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
McDade spoke about the unanticipated uses of museum specimens (including plant specimens). From use of the Lewis and Clark plants to document the chemistry of the atmosphere above the Great Plains in the early 1800s to use of olive leaves in a funerary wreath from King Tut’s tomb along with more recently collected herbarium specimens to document the response of plants to changing carbon dioxide levels, McDade conveyed the message that museum specimens are rich sources of data that will be relied upon to address scientific and societal questions in the future.
The Treasures Within: Unanticipated Uses of Natural History Collections
Friday, October 12
Natural history specimens are real biological organisms that are preserved and stored in perpetuity, thus documenting their features together with data on the location and date of the collecting event. This combination of traits makes them absolutely essential for the uses to which biodiversity scientists put them (e.g., in documenting the morphological features and geographic ranges of taxa). But Lewis and Clark could have had no idea that their plant collections would be used—nearly 200 years later—to document the atmospheric conditions above the Great Plains in the earliest years of the 19th century using isotopes of carbon. Nor could the German plant collector Wilhelm Shaffner have foreseen that a plant he collected in Mexico in 1876 would provide DNA that would help to unravel the genealogy of the “Feathershank” genus Schoenocaulon (Melanthiaceae). E. A. McIlhenny (of Tabasco sauce fame) would have been very surprised to learn that specimens of Black Guillemots from the north slope of Alaska collected on expeditions that he led there in the late 1880s held clues in their feathers to the cause of the birds’ predicament 130 years later. The many collectors of California plants would never have been able to guess that their specimens, once databased and georeferenced, would be key to predicting the impact of climate change on the state’s highly endemic and threatened flora. These and other examples of the entirely unforeseen value of natural history specimens will be highlighted. It is certain that advancing knowledge and technology (e.g., faster and higher resolution tomographic [3D] imaging, next generation sequencing methods) will continue to build the value of existing—and newly collected—specimens.
More information at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel Univeristy Biodiversity from Evolutionary Origins to Ecosystems Functions program web page.