Keystone WILD! Notes
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WINTER 2007-2008

collections, like their specimens, starting to disappear

classifying, maintaining millions of plants, animals costly for museums everywhere


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No one will find the ring pink mussel, aka the golf stick pearly mussel, in Pennsylvania’s streams any more. Nor the orangefoot pimpleback pearlymussel. Search long and hard in the state’s waterways, and you won’t find the rough pigtoe.

But ask Tim Pearce, and he can pull those mussels off the shelf as easily as a can of peaches at the market. “We’ve got a tremendous collection,” said Pearce, who maintains about 1.8 million specimens of mussels, clams and snails at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “It’s very heavily used.”

collection of butterflies

These are some common Pennsylvania butterflies collected by T.R. Peale near Philadelphia circa 1833-1834. Image used with permission from the Academy of Natural Sciences
(click on photo to see
full-size)

Freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of species in North America. Nearly 70 percent of all species are considered endangered or otherwise imperiled. Some have already gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

Which—only a flight of steps away—Steve Rogers has whole steel drawers full of. Early settlers report that the birds were so numerous that flocks would blacken the sky for days at a time. They were, nonetheless, extinct by 1914. “People used to buy this many in a grocery store in New York and you would go home and eat them for supper,” said Rogers, collection manager for birds and reptiles at Carnegie.

Today, these remnants of Pennsylvania’s past are tucked away in drawers, cupboards and jars at the Carnegie and a handful of other museums in the state.

The Carnegie alone has millions of specimens collected from Pennsylvania, as well as around the world, over more than two centuries. They include everything from land snails that measure less than a millimeter across, to the skins and skeletons of West African elephants.

Across the state, at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, 17 million specimens dating to Lewis and Clark are being held, including the world’s largest collection of crickets, grasshoppers and diatoms (a type of algae).

Other museums, many at universities, hold their own vast collections: millions of insects carefully mounted on pins; hundreds of thousands of plants dried and mounted on paper; as well as a host of stuffed animal and bird skins; frogs and snakes packed in jars of alcohol; and much more.

Beyond the dinosaurs and high-profile exhibits that make up the public facade for most museums are collections documenting discoveries almost from the time the first settlers arrived and naturalists combed the landscape looking for what was “new” in the New World—and the world as a whole.

The yields from that fieldwork often ended up in museums, where the flashiest species went on display. In the back rooms, scientists labored to identify, catalog and preserve the millions of other specimens. The experts in systematics—the scientists most able to distinguish one species from another—arose from museums.

Over the years, maintaining ever-
growing collections became a financial drain. Storage requires huge amounts of space, all of which needs heating and air conditioning to protect the specimens. “Just maintaining the space of our collections here at the academy is probably on the order of half a million dollars a year,” said Gary Rosenberg, vice president of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

Some worry that museum collections could become as threatened as some of their specimens. “Museums are having a tough time transitioning from traditional museum study,” said John Rawlins, who oversees the invertebrate collection at Carnegie. “Every major museum in the country is underfunded, struggling and not doing well.”

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