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With funding for museum collections in peril, new species await discovery and names that may never come

The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums

Christopher Kemp
University of Chicago Press
2017
272 pp.
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Biologists name about 18,000 new species each year. However, only about 20% of the species on Earth are named, and many are disappearing before they are identified. Naming new species is critical to increasing our understanding of complex ecosystems—especially given declining biodiversity. Without a name, even sentinel, endangered, and threatened species will go unnoticed. Unbeknownst to many, thousands of new species each year are identified from existing specimens in museum collections.

At a time when funding for natural history collections is under siege, Christopher Kemp’s The Lost Species, which champions the irreplaceable value of these collections in the identification of new species, is a refreshing endorsement of both biodiversity and curatorial taxonomic expertise. Kemp shares stories of specialists who use their expertise to recognize new species among the numerous uncataloged and misidentified specimens in natural history museums across the world, from the raccoon-like olinguito discovered in the Chicago Field Museum’s mammal collections to the Ohbayashinema aspeira, a new species of parasitic nematode discovered in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (Because many museum collections were assembled by natural historians and explorers, sometimes centuries ago, errors based on outdated or incomplete information are prevalent.)

Despite the expansion of DNA barcoding and major efforts to digitize collections, recent reductions in curators with taxonomic expertise from museums around the world pose problems for the naming of new species. “[I]n 2001 the Field Museum had thirty-nine curators. Today there are twenty-one,” writes Kemp. Likewise, “[t]he National Museum of Natural History … has seen a loss of curators from a high of 122 in 1993 to a current low of 81.” The Natural Science Collections Alliance called attention to this problem decades ago, but it is reassuring to see it raised in a book written for a broader audience.

GERD LUDWIG/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

This tray of parrots, identified as black-capped lory, is one of many collections available for taxonomic review at Berlin’s Natural History Museum.

The story of Sven Kullander, an ichthyologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, lends support for the long-term curation of collections. In 2015, Kullander named a new fish species—the pike cichlid—from a specimen collected by Swedish biologist Douglas Melin and colleagues in the 1920s. The cichlid had been described by Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon basin 160 years earlier, but Wallace’s specimen was lost when the ship he was traveling aboard caught fire and sank in 1852. “The distinctive color pattern of female Crenicichla monicae is very evident on Wallace’s drawing and enabled us to identify it as the spotted species in Melin’s collection,” Kullander recalls.

Kemp’s interview with the coleopterist Max Barclay reveals how much work is required to demonstrate that an animal represents a new species. Barclay oversees the 10 million beetle specimens in London’s Natural History Museum’s collection, which includes more than 200,000 type specimens and about 60% of known beetle species. Given that a beetle might belong to any of 180 possible families, and one family may include between 20,000 and 30,000 possibilities, the museum’s beetle collection has proven essential to identifying potential new species. “Identification is a process of elimination,” Barclay tells Kemp. “[I]f you make the identification correctly—you’ve knocked out almost an order of magnitude.… Eventually you get it down to a manageable number.”

Barclay has described and named about 20 new beetle species and notes that about 1000 novel species are identified in the collection every year. He observes that when a specimen becomes part of a collection, it begins its life as a representative. The late conservationist George Rabb might have referred to them as ambassadors.

Kemp ably demonstrates the vital role that natural history collections and curators with taxonomic expertise play in the documentation of new species and ultimately in the preservation of biodiversity. These collections require maintenance to ensure the preservation of specimens and documentation for the next generation of taxonomists, who will discover more new species. It is my hope that The Lost Species will engender broader public interest and support for these efforts.

About the author

The author is executive director of the Association of Science Museum Directors, Springfield, IL 62704, USA.

  • Bonnie Styles

    Christoper Kemp’s book, The Lost Species, reinforces the importance of preserving biological collections at natural history museums and supporting curators with the taxonomic expertise to recognize a new species when they see it. Kemp’s interviews with taxonomists across the world demonstrate that unrecognized new species are present in natural history collections, and not just in those assembled in the distant past. The collections and the curators with the taxonomic expertise to identify species are critical to the documentation of biodiversity and the understanding of complex ecosystems. Ironically, funding for collections and curators has declined at many museums. At the same time, human actions continue to lead to the loss of species and declining biodiversity. Museums are in a unique position to document and preserve biodiversity and increase public understanding and engagement in these endeavors.

  • cjkemp1

    Thanks for the great review, Ms Styles! I really appreciate your careful and generous reading of the book. I consider it my love letter to museums, and my earnest claim to their enduring importance. If it helps increase support for collections, or even just one small collection somewhere, I will consider it a success.

    • Bonnie Styles

      It was a pleasure to review your book.