Palaeontological collections don’t exist because people love looking at old bones or because salaried hoarders called curators or professors feel the urge to save every fossil they come across during their careers. Collections serve myriad purposes, including:
- Long-term preservation of historically, culturally, or scientifically important objects.
- Supporting academic research.
- Educating and inspiring the general public.
All laudable endeavours, but do these benefits warrant the often substantial costs of building and maintaining palaeontological collections? It may seem hard to justify all those cabinets and shelves filled with, for example, multiple examples of eerily similar-looking hadrosaur vertebrae. It sometimes looks like every single fossil was picked up indiscriminately and stashed away to be forgotten, like in the famous warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whenever budgets are tightened, you see high-level bureaucrats skeptically peering through warehouse doors and asking, ‘Why do we have all this stuff anyway?’
Let’s start off by recognizing that, first, palaeontology is the study of ancient life and, second, fossils are the only direct evidence for ancient life. It thus follows that archiving fossils and their associated information is essential to ensure their safekeeping and accessibility for both the present and the future, and to facilitate advancements in the field. For various historical and practical reasons, museums and universities have proven to be the best (although admittedly not perfect) venue for maintaining such collections.
Fossils are cool, but we don’t need to collect every one we come across. That’s neither the best use of our finite resources nor is it responsible. At least some of the time, effort and expense invested in collecting, cataloguing, conserving, and storing our new hadrosaur vertebrae could probably have been spent in other equally responsible ways: for example by conserving the ones that were collected 20 years ago before they deteriorate past the point of repair. The collecting that occurs is (or should be) done systematically and purposefully, but there will always be exceptions. Sometimes an opportunity arises that is too good to pass up; e.g. a coveted specimen comes onto the market or we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to collect at a remote locality. Other times, museums are compelled to accommodate unplanned acquisitions such as donations from private collectors, objects they are mandated by law or administrative decree to accept, or orphaned collections that deserve to be saved. With so many potential avenues for objects to come into a collection, it’s no surprise that the storage cabinets fill up over the decades.
It’s easy for most people to appreciate why a museum would gladly house several flashy dinosaur skeletons in its inventory, but to return to our example of hadrosaur vertebrae, why would we want to keep so many examples of those kinds of fossils? (As of October 2014, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology has about 150,000 specimens and 588 isolated hadrosaur vertebrae in its collections.) There are at least two overlapping reasons why that happens. The first has to do with variation. Unlike manufactured items, such as cars, for which every model produced in the same year is essentially identical, individuals of a biological species are inherently variable. This variation occurs even within one localized population at a single point in time; think, for example, of differences within your community between females and males, among individuals of different ages, and even among individuals of similar ages. Throw in variation that occurs among populations in different places and at different times, not to mention variations induced by injuries, disease, and other life events, and it is easy to see why multiple examples of a species are needed to provide at least a snapshot of the potential variation within each species.
The second reason has to do with the vast amount of time and geography represented in the fossil record and the large number of species that have lived in the past. For example, how many millions of animal and plant species must have lived on Earth during the 180 million years of the Mesozoic Era? Even if a collection is geographically and temporally focused (e.g. the Late Cretaceous of Alberta), documenting the taxonomic diversity from even that restricted region and interval with adequate fossil samples is going to take up a lot of storage space.
If we are concerned about the sizes of our current palaeontological collections, perhaps we should be thankful that the fossil record is so geographically, temporally, and taxonomically patchy and that it samples only a fraction of the entire history of life on our planet!