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Roles of Natural History Collections

Meredith A. Lane
Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden
Vol. 83, No. 4 (1996), pp. 536-545
DOI: 10.2307/2399994
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2399994
Page Count: 10
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Roles of Natural History Collections
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Abstract

Natural history collections have always contained a wealth of data: genetic and phylogenetic information stored as an inherent part of the samples of organisms themselves, and biogeographic, ecological, and biographical information stored in the labels that are affixed to them. Together, a preserved organism and its label are a scientific specimen that has great intrinsic value. Separately, the label is a piece of paper with meaningless inscriptions upon it, and the plant, spider, microbe, mushroom, or bird, though carefully preserved, is just so much dead organic matter. Natural history collections are the repository of the vouchers for the documentation of what we know about the diversity of living things-what species exist and where, what their habitat requirements are, what ecological associations they have with other species, what useful biochemical products they might generate, and who collected them and has studied them. Before the advent of computers, natural history collections were physical databases from which geographic or ecological analyses and reports could be extracted by human visitation and transcription, usually a laborious and time-consuming task. However, such analyses are invaluable for land-use planning, pharmacognosy, conservation biology, range management, forestry, agriculture, and a host of other applications, including scientific studies of the ecology and systematics of the species being examined. Computerization of label data makes such reports on distribution and ecology of species more readily available to potential users; they add value to the data. Interconnecting the databases brings robustness to the information that natural history collections can provide to policy-making bodies; appreciation of robust data will lead in turn to appreciation of the collections from which those data were taken. Interconnectivity requires that collections personnel abandon competition in favor of achieving a common goal: the discovery and description of the world's biota.

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