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Steve Brooks, Natural History Museum

The value of natural history museum collections

Abstract

The modern collections of plants and animals in natural history museums represent a neglected and largely untapped source of long-term records stretching back at least 150 years. In this talk I will highlight some of the ways these collections can be used to address questions on the response of biota to long-term environmental change. The talk will draw on a recent review of the Natural History Museum collections to assess their potential for climate change research. One of the most promising avenues is phenology. Most phenological records are based on observational data which cover the last 30-40 years. Data from museum specimens on the collection dates of, for example, adult butterflies, the flowering date of plants and birds egg collections offer the potential of extending this record back to the mid-19th century and investigating the rates of phenological change and responses to both warming and cooling periods. Comprehensive biological collections made from a particular locality at a particular time, especially collections made before industrial impacts, can provide a useful baseline against which modern and future changes in the distribution of biota can be compared. Examples of altitudinal range shifts in response to climate warming, responses to ocean acidification and data drawn from the Discovery collections of marine organisms will be used to illustrate long-term responses to environmental change. In addition to the modern collections, palaeontological collections provide a useful source of data on how organisms have responded to past environmental change over very long time-scales and during periods of large climatic shifts. Analysis of distributional change, extinction rates and changes in population genetics gleaned from ancient DNA can all provide insights into how organisms might respond to future climate change. The biases inherent in museum collections will be discussed as well as the advantages that these data can have over field collected data.

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