Biological Collections Are Vital to Preserving Species in the Face of Climate Change
Our nation has a rich heritage in such collections, which are held at about 1,000 scientific research institutions such as universities, natural history museums, and botanical gardens. What are in these collections? They consist of such things as the skeletons and skins of mammals, birds and reptiles; fossils, tissue samples, and fish and spiders preserved in fluid; dried plants and fungi glued to stiff paper or stored in boxes; and tiny organisms on microscope slides. Although no one knows exactly, we estimate that there are approximately one billion preserved specimens in the U.S. that have been gathered by scientists and explorers since the 1700s.
When most people think about biological collections, they probably envision the stuffed bear they saw on a school trip to a museum or the creatures that came to life in Night at the Museum. The general perception is that while such things are mildly interesting, they are largely irrelevant to our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Similar to the core samples of Antarctic ice that allow climate scientists to reconstruct Earth's past atmosphere, biological specimens provide the only hard evidence we have about what organisms lived where in past times and where they live now. This information is key to just about everything we need to know about how to preserve life in the future.