“I’m just an intern” is the classic catchphrase of those in an organization who feel that they are making no real impact. But at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum I am proud to say, “I am an intern”. The museum is full of wonderful people doing amazing work and I look forward to coming in amidst all the craziness of my final year of college. But you already know how great the Museum is (you wouldn’t read the blog of a place you didn’t like).
I work in the Collections Department and my job is to strengthen the data associated with the bird egg collection and add geographic coordinate locations to specimens. I interpret old labels and notes about where and when the egg specimens were collected written by the collector and digitize the data into an online database. I convert the often-vague location descriptions into exact, standardized coordinate data. This information tells the story of the egg specimen and adds a great deal of value to the physical object. This work has opened my eyes to the importance of robust museum collections and the impact that my work can have on the conservation and ecology world. In order to accurately conserve biodiversity, we must attempt to predict the future, and the best way to predict is to look to the past. The bird egg collection has specimens collected as early as the 1860s and from all over the world. Predicting becomes much easier when data can be compared over a longer time span and trends can be seen more clearly.
When you see the Academy’s six cabinets full of bird nests and eggs, you might wonder “where did all these eggs come from?” Egg collecting was a popular hobby of the 19th century but was also a part of scientific expeditions. Collecting, especially of egg specimens, was not an easy task. Climbing trees and fighting the elements were common. One ornithologist even braved enemy territory during a war to secure a rare bird egg.1 Egg collecting has fallen out of favor as laws have been put in place to prohibit it. Many of these eggs collected historically are now a part of scientific collections. While collectors may not have realized the importance at the time of collecting, these historic specimens and the information that accompanies them is immeasurable to ornithologists and oologists today.
One study2 by Jörn P. W. Scharlemann compared the date eggs were first laid and the climatic conditions. Using data that spanned over 150 years, Scharlemann was able to conclude more confidently that as temperatures increased, birds laid their eggs earlier in the year. Now we can predict that as our Earth continues to warm, birds will be laying their eggs earlier and earlier, which can cause changes in egg production and population dynamics.
Phenology, the timing of cyclical life events and how they are changed by climate variations, can influence populations, food webs, and ecosystem services. Different species and different life events respond to changes in climate in different ways. Birds often time the laying of their eggs with the food source for the offspring: insects. If birds lay their eggs earlier as temperatures increase, this may lead to mismatched phenology with insects, affecting the survival of the clutch. Plants are one determinant of insect phenology, so understanding the rate of phenological change for all species can give us a better understanding of the ecological implications of climate change.3
In this study, Scharlemann estimated the laying date based on the clutch size and the egg incubation phase. Entire clutches are not always collected or can be lost over the years (which can sometimes make for a fun “museum scavenger hunt” through the collections!) and the incubation stage is not easily determined. The data on the original collecting cards written by the collector is just as valuable as the physical specimen. This also creates one of the most frustrating aspects of working with historical data. A collector in the 19th century could never imagine me, in 2020, reading his notes to input on a computer. Things that may have been clear, like cursive handwriting, or language that was common may not have withstood the test of time, making interpretation difficult. But I know that the work I put in can lead to novel conclusions in studies that change how we view our natural world.
Historic collections can give insight into more than just biological life history. It can aid in tracking viruses, environmental contaminants, habitat loss, biodiversity, and much more. Understanding the spread of a disease is critical and can be done by understanding the demography and dynamics of the vectors, or carriers, of the disease. Mosquito collections from as early as 1914 are being studied to understand the transmission of West Nile virus and could potentially lead to a vaccine.4 Museum collections were also used in the 1960s to understand the effect of the pesticide DDT on bird populations. By creating a timeline of bird eggshell thickness from 1880 to 1967, researchers could see a clear decline in shell thickness that coincided with the introduction of DDT. Thin eggshells decreased the likelihood of survival of the hatchlings.4 This study would have been almost impossible without the help of preserved museum egg specimens, and without it, some species could have gone extinct.
The dawn of the internet has changed the industry of museum work. Different web platforms, like Arctos and GBIF, allow our abundance of information to be accessed by scientific researchers and curious minds alike. This would be unimaginable to museum curators even 50 years ago. Researchers can now compare datasets from all over the world without needing to handle physical specimens and wait for a loan from a museum. The repositories of locality data, along with powerful georeferencing tools, is priceless to researchers in fields like species distribution modelling.5 In “The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society” by Andrew V. Suarez and Neil D. Tsutsui, they say, “Although the future payoffs of wise investments are impossible to predict precisely, failure to support museum collections is the most certain way to eliminate any benefits.”4 Our collections can have unimaginable benefits in the coming years, so we must keep detailed and rich records to ensure that any future use is possible.
1 Golembiewski, Kate. "The Lost Victorian Art of Egg Collecting.". (2016) . https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/the-lost-victorian-art-of-egg-collecting/475476/.
2Scharlemann, J. Museum egg collections as stores of long-term phenological data. Int J Biometeorol 45, 208–211 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004840100098
3Visser, M.E., te Marvelde, L. & Lof, M.E. Adaptive phenological mismatches of birds and their food in a warming world. J Ornithol 153, 75–84 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0770-6
4Suarez, Andrew & Tsutsui, Neil. (2004). The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society. BioScience. 54. 66-74.
5Marcer A, Haston E, Groom Q, Picó F, Escobar A, Uribe F (2019) Uncertain Geo-Uncertainty: Ecological research and public biodiversity data repositories. Biodiversity Information Science and Standards 3: e34826. https://doi.org/10.3897/biss.3.34826