Ask a biostratigrapher where they would normally start their research and I would wager that very few of them would say ‘in a museum’. But museums play a key role in palaeontology and biostratigraphy and to illustrate this I have put together 10 reasons why they matter.
- Types. Museums hold the specimens that define fossil species, the building blocks for biostratigraphic schemes. The holotype specimens are usually the most important but specimen repositories can contain a range of relevant specimens and samples from the type sections where these species are defined.
- Age range. Museums contain comparative examples of the same species that can help to define the stratigraphic distribution, and provide reference points for #5.
- Geographical ranges. As well as defining the time periods for which a relevant species is present, museum collections can help with evaluating the geographical distribution of species. Widespread species make the best biostratigraphic markers.
- Environmental ranges. The environmental distribution of a species can be evaluated by comparing with other materials, whether that be other fossils of known environmental range or samples that can be studied for comparative material. The best biostratigraphic markers are usually marine species or are found in a wide range of environments so that their stratigraphic ranges are not significantly affected by environmental changes.
- Evolutionary changes. Combining details of stratigraphic age, geographical and environmental distribution, allows interpretations of evolutionary lineages.
- Reference for collecting more material. Museum collections can be a great pointer for future fieldwork to inform biostratigraphic research. I know of several successful major grant applications that resulted from finding exceptionally preserved material in museum collections and proposing fieldwork to collect more material.
- Archives of material from localities that no longer exist. Some collecting sites no longer exist as they have become overgrown or have been covered over during construction work for buildings, roads, or rail lines. Museums provide a way to preserve data from such sites.
- Destructive analysis is possible. Comparative samples are sometimes available to reprocess and provide details of assemblages related to specific material. Occasionally destructive geochemical studies on museum samples can provide further information about environments or ages. Museums have their own policies on sample analysis — many allow isotope studies, for example.
- Archives of previous studies. Archiving collections in museums is a way for scientists to validate their work or allow re-interpretation in the light of future research.
- Easily available online resources. Most museums now provide online records: usually information relating to collection, acquisition, and identification of items. Increasingly, images of important taxa are also being made available.
These are all good reasons for using museum collections in palaeontological and biostratigraphic research. So what is preventing scientists from using these collections? Are there misconceptions? Are researchers aware that sometimes sample material is available for restudy or that destructive techniques can be applied to museum specimens to release important information about them? Perhaps the wealth of freely available electronic publications featuring high-quality images of biostratigraphically important taxa render referring to type materials unnecessary?
I am a museum curator so it is no surprise that I advocate the use of museum collections. However, I also believe that the responsibility of ensuring that people use the collections lies with those who manage them. Providing information and images online to researchers, advocating the collections, and facilitating access are important ways forward.