The Biodiversity Institute interviews Dr. Matt Carling - Associate Professor of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming, and Curator of the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates. We talk about the function of and importance of natural science collections to science and culture.
Part of the University of Wyoming | Natural History Collections interview series of podcasts produced and directed by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.
Introduction by Interviewer: [Music] This podcast is brought to you by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, fostering an appreciation of our natural world through science and education.
In this podcast, we are exploring the relevance of Natural History Collections and why are they are essential to research and the public. Let's start with some context, most of us are familiar with natural history collections from visits to museums, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, as an example, is arguably the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world. The museum displays thousands of specimens to the public and is one of the most visited Museum destinations there is, seeing between seven and eight million visitors every year. What most visitors don't realize is that when they visit they only see a tiny fraction of the actual collection held by the museum, more than 99% of the hundred and fifty million specimens in the collection are in storage, but that doesn't mean that the majority of the collections aren't used, far from it. Museum collections are used for all sorts of things, from filling in gaps in family trees and inspiring art, to research that is of broad value to science and culture. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Matt Carling an ornithologist and associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming and is also the faculty curator at the University of Wyoming Museum of vertebrates. I got to talk with Matt about his perspective as a curator of natural history collections, the University's Museum of Vertebrates, and the value and importance of keeping these collections. [Music ends]
Interviewer: Let's start with the basics, what is a natural history museum and why are they important?
Dr. Matt Carling: A Natural History Museum on some level it's just a collection of specimens, um, and if we are thinking about a natural history museum specifically, then those specimens might be animal specimens. they could be plant specimens, they could be fossil specimens if we're talking about a paleontology museum, it could be minerals if we're talking about a geology museum. So, at its core it's just a collection of specimens, but, beyond that we need to have associated data with those specimens. So for thinking about a vertebrate museum like our museum, at a minimum with a physical specimen, whether or not it's a skeleton of a rodent, or a stuffed bird specimen, or a preserved fish specimen, we need to know when and where that specimen was collected. So the geographic location, and the date, And at a minimum, that's what we need to have a useful Museum specimen. Many, but certainly not all, natural history collections, and in particular vertebrate museums, are sort of overseen, or curated, with a research-driven focus. That's not to say they're not useful in education or just public outreach, but most of them are organized and curated with a research mission as sort of the overarching goal. Museums in general, natural history museums and vertebrate museums in particular, these are incredibly important because they provide us with a record, they provide us with a record of what a place looked like at a particular time. If we are thinking about vertebrate museums like ours here at the University of Wyoming, we can go back in into the collections and we can say okay you know at this location, Sublette County in Wyoming, in, you know, March of 1962, here's the material that we have from that location at that particular place, so, that serves as a basis as a record for what vertebrates were there. Now it doesn't necessarily tell us everything that was there, because perhaps something was missed, but if something was collected at a particular time and place that's a positive record. And that's incredibly valuable, incredibly useful, because as the natural world continues to change, and the rate of that change continues to increase, it becomes more and more important to know what a place looked like at some point in the past. And natural history museums are basically our best way of having access to that information. It's a verifiable record of the presence of some animal, some plant, whatever it may be, at some point in the past, and that serves as a really valuable starting point to understand both the present, and what might happen in the future under various change, landscape use change, climate change, whatever kind of change we're thinking about.
Interviewer: So what led you to become interested in working with and curating Natural History collections?
Matt Carling: That's a really good question. So I think from a very young age I was interested in the natural world, and in museum collections. I remember my parents taking me to various natural history museums when I was a kid. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in California and we went to places like the San Francisco Exploratorium, and the California Academy of Sciences, and I just thought that museums were fascinating. and then when I was an undergraduate at University of Michigan I had the opportunity to work on a research project with the curator of mammals at the museum there and he was really interested in understanding how opossums were expanding thier range northward in Michigan. He'd been finding more and more roadkill opossum throughout the state, and it seemed as though there was this sort of slow, steady march of the species northward. But in order to be able to document that phenomenon, in order to be able to understand that pattern, he needed to know where opossums had been in the state historically. And that required us digging into museum collections and trying to figure out from museum records, and museum specimens, where opossums had been in Michigan, so then we can understand when we found them in a location; was this the first time they've been found in this County? for instance. And so that really opened my eyes to some of the opprotunities museums presented from a research perspective, it also was just really fun to be able to go into the collections at look at specimens and see all the incredible diversity of animals that were in the museum cases, and in the museum drawers, and so that was really when I was first exposed to the opportunities that museums had from for the research and academic perspective. And then for my PhD I went to Louisiana State University, where they have incredible natural history museum. One of the world's best collections of birds, particularly of neotropical birds. And that just further cemented my desire to want to continue to be involved with Museum collections as part of my career. To use museum collections, and to contribute to museum collections as an academic researcher.
Interviewer: So, does research inspire the shape and direction of the collection? Or does, or can, the collection drive the shape of research?
Dr. Matt Carling: that's a really, really good question, and the sort of cop-out answer is both. And it's... I mean I'm not, I'm not just saying both because it seems simpler, right? Or it's, you know, keeps me from having to choose, but I think it's genuinely true. and so I think that a lot of museum collecting is driven by a particular research question, right? So, a scientist might be really interested in how plumage diversity in a particular species, or a particular set of species, is distributed across geographic space. And that requires going out into the field and collecting these specimens in order to try to answer those questions. But at the same time, there are so many really interesting and really outstanding research questions that originate simply from researchers looking at museum questions... or, excuse me, looking in museum collections, opening drawers, opening cases, and just spending time with specimens. Dnd if you spend time in collections, almost anyone would have questions: Why are these rodents darker in this location than they are in this location? Well, maybe someone's already answered that question, maybe they haven't, and if they haven't then looking at these patterns in museum collections can serve as a springboard to a new research project, and lead to all kinds of discoveries that perhaps never occurred to someone when they were collecting those specimens. And that's one of the great things about museum collections, is that they preserve for anyone to use for any purpose, more or less any purpose, from now, you know, into the future; decades or even hundreds of years later. And so, if you talked to do a variety of museum curators you'd get an incredible diversity of answers to that question, and I think it really is because you... it's hard to separate those two kind of components, right? What drives what, it's almost sort of a kind of chicken and an egg question, but it's really fascinating, I think because it speaks to how dynamic the whole process is.
Interviewer: What is the most exciting part about curating the collection to you personally? What do you find most rewarding about your work at the museum?
Dr. Matt Carling: ...Oh! The most exciting thing... That's another, a really good question and honestly, I think as much as our collection exists to help researchers address scientific research questions, I think the most exciting component or the most exciting aspect of working in our collection is having kids get excited about what we have. And being able to bring them up close with specimens that maybe they wouldn't be able to see in another form, right? You know there's a lot of great things about living in Wyoming, but we are sort of farther away from really big natural history collections, those tend to be concentrated in large cities, and many of them are, you know, closer to the coast. And so, being able to, even though our collection is small, being able to open up drawers and show kids grizzly bear skulls, and they can see how big it is compared to like their own skull? Or to show them just, similarities, similarities and differences between eagle, like an eagle skull and a falcon skull, or just show them owls up close! And they can really see and take a close look at what makes a species unique. That's really cool! And if if they appreciate the natural world a little bit more when they're finished, than they did before they came in? That's a success in an our opinion. We, we measure success... One of our metrics of success is, have we, have we convinced people, especially kids, to appreciate and look at the natural world a little bit more than they did before they came to visit us.
Interviewer: Does your research use the collection?
Dr. Matt Carling: Yeah! Quite a bit in fact, and so one of sort of the driving forces of my research program is to try to understand how... How things change over time, and one component of that is understanding kind of the mechanisms that keep closely related species from interbreeding with one another. So if we have to closely related bird species in this case, but it could be mammal species, it could be plant species, could be fish species... If we have to closely related species, whose geographic ranges overlap sometimes those species might interbreed with one another, sometimes they don't. And trying to understand what factors contribute to whether or not these species interbreed or not, is really important in understanding how, how biodiversity is maintained. And we actually use museum specimens to try to understand whether or not the forces that help keep species unique, help keep species separate, have changed over time. So one of the great things about studying birds is that there are these really incredible series of museum specimens that have been collected, you know, over the past 100 years! And we can actually go back to those museum specimens and use them to learn things about ecological and evolutionary processes as they operate today. At the same time we might be going out into the field collecting new specimens, so, then who knows? You know? Twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years from now, someone could use those specimens to continue to investigate questions about how things have changed over time. And so we actively use museum specimens in our research. And then as we generate new specimens, we hope that folks will find them useful, you know, far into the future.
Interviewer: You talked about using the collection to track changes over time. Can you speak a little bit about how changes in technology over time have changed the way researchers use the collection?
Dr. Matt Carling: Yeah. This is another really good question, and we can think about that question from a couple of different perspectives. One is how technology allows museum collections to be more widely known, and then the other sort of component is... We can think about how technology kind of allows us to extract new information or new bits of data from the specimens that we already have. So everything about, sort of, access. One of the things that we think is really important is that our collections are known and then hopefully useful to as broad of a research community as possible. And one of the ways that we do that, or one of the ways that we try to ensure that, is by depositing our specimen data in online databases. And we use a particular sort of online databases are kind of our first level portal, but then that database is mirrored to a variety of, really Global databases that link data from natural history museums, and perhaps just observational records, to create a mechanism, to create a sort of landing page for anyone in the world who might be interested in records of species at a particular time in a particular place. So, for instance, one of the biggest databases that we are a of part of is called GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. And this is a consortium of, of collections, of data providers, and what someone can do is if they can go to GBIF and they can enter a species name, whatever it is that they're interested in, and because GBIF has linked databases from thousands of data providers, someone can learn information about specimens or observational records belonging to their species of interest from collections all across the world, and then they can immediately download those data. They can find out more information about those data, and maybe just downloading the data in GBIF if is enough, and they can go off and do their research project, or you know, move on to another step of, of whatever they're interested in. Or they may say "oh! you know here are some records of some ground squirrels at the University of Wyoming and I wanted to take some measurements of the specimens", and so then they can send us a request, and we'll take a look at the request and if it meets our approval then we might send them specimens, and they can use the specimens that way. And so... it's really, again it's really important to us, to make sure that all of our specimens are in these online databases so anyone in the world can know about them. And then if they're useful, they can contact us for more information and perhaps use them in their research. And so, of course, the power of the internet makes that a lot easier. The other component, or the other aspect of technology and how it is increasing the utility of specimens, is that there continues to be the development of tools that allow us to extract data from specimens, specimens that are older than than the techniques. And so there's a couple of really good examples that are particularly relevant to vertebrate museums. One is being able to extract DNA out of museum specimens and then we can sequence that DNA and use it for all kinds of interesting research questions. But what is really incredible, what's really remarkable, is that, we can extract DNA out of museum specimens that were collected well before the structure of DNA was even described, before we even had a really good understanding of the basic building blocks, the basic structure of DNA. And so, that's really exciting because we can go back to museum specimens that are a hundred, a hundred and fifty, or even older, extract DNA, and compared those DNA sequences to specimens that were collected yesterday! And so we can have this perfect sort of apples to apples comparison to look at, I mean in one sense, to look at evolution in in real time. to think about how DNA sequences have changed from a time point hundred years ago, to now. That's really powerful. And, and advances in DNA sequencing technology have made that a lot easier. And allowed us to sort of open up all these new windows into understanding evolutionary processes that would be a lot more difficult without these advances in DNA sequencing technology. Similarly, we can extract stable isotope data from museum specimens. And again, similar to advances in technology in DNA sequencing, there continue to be refinements and new developments in and stable isotope ecology. And so we can extract, we can extract stable isotope data from museum specimens that are more than a hundred years old, and compare that to stable isotope data that are collected today or last week; and really be able to investigate questions that perhaps in the past we could only do sort of indirectly. And now we can make these direct comparisons across time because of changes in technology and the continued development of new technologies to extract data from old specimens.
Interviewer: Do you know what the oldest collection is? Is there a collection that might be considered the oldest?
Dr. Matt Carling: That's a great question, and I don't know. There are natural history collections in Europe that have specimens that are hundreds of years old. Yeah, I'm not, I'm not sure how old the oldest ones are. I believe that the first natural history museums date from the 1700s. And then if specimens that were, you know first deposited in those very early collections, so long as they're carefully preserved and well-curated, they should be useful today. So I don't, I don't know the exact answer to that question but certainly a couple hundred years old. And we know that there are well-preserved specimens, individual specimens that are a couple hundred years old, and we aren't talking about, you know, fossils, preserved prehistoric remains, these were things that were collected, two hundred and fifty, three hundred years ago and are still in natural history collections and are center still useful today.
Interviewer: To close the interview I have a speculative question for you. What would the scientific project look like if we didn't have collections?
Dr. Matt Carling: What would the scientific process look like if we didn't have collections.... It would be, it would be diminished. It'd be less than it is now. And that's not to say there wouldn't be incredible, fascinating, outstanding research being done, there would be. But there are so many cool discoveries that are only made possible by museum collections that as a whole the scientific enterprise, the scientific research process would be, it would be lessened, it wouldn't be as exciting, it wouldn't be as vibrant, it wouldn't be as dynamic, as it is without museum collections. And that gets back to this question, the question about sort of, the value of of museum collections. There are lots of answers to that question. One is to serve as a source of inspiration. Just opening, opening museum drawers and looking at specimens opens up endless possibilities and there's not really, there wouldn't really be an analog or a corollary to that process without museum specimens. You know there... You can think about, "oh well it's so easy to take pictures of animals, or plants, or landscapes, or habitats, or ecosystems, and you know you can use as a source of inspiration; and that's true, those can be incredibly inspiring. But, we don't have photographs that go back as long as museum records go back into the past. And we don't have... I mean it's just there's something about the physical nature museum specimens that even the best photograph can't replace. And so, as a source of inspiration there's really no analogue... to thinking about what things were like in the past and what new ideas might that generate in someone just by, just by looking in a museum, in museum cases, and museum drawers. And then the second component is that even if you thought of these really incredible questions, in the absence of looking through museum drawers, there are some questions that would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to answer without museum collections. And so those, those questions would just be unanswered, unaddressed in the absence of museum collections.So we can think about things like, I mean even understanding how the shape of birds wings have changed over time as forest and land-use practices have changed, we couldn't answer that question without museum specimens, even if someone was wondering, "hey you know the amount of forest and sort of, where forest landscape are distributed in the northeast of the United States, that's changed a lot over the last century, century and a half right? and so lots of forests were cut down when there were all these farms and ag land in the northeast, but now in the past few decades there's actually been an increase in forested land in parts of the northeast, and so researchers are wondering, what if any impact has that had? And it turns out, the shape of birds wings that live in those forested landscapes has actually changed over time, over the last hundred fifty years, and it correlates really well with changes in landscape use and the amount of forest cover. You couldn't answer that question. Even if you, even if you're curious about that question you couldn't answer it without museum specimens. And that's an example of this great paper that published in the Journal of Ecology a couple of years ago, where a researcher was just curious and went to a bunch of museums and just measured bird wings, over time, and found that they had changed and that they had changed in a way that made sense with changes in landscape use. [Music] And so, incredible science can be done without museums, it's done all the time without museums, but both as a source of inspiration, and as an actual source of data, museums provide a component of a dynamic and robust scientific enterprise, that if they didn't exist it would be lessened, and you know, we'd all, we'd all, be a little bit less informed, and we would all miss out on an exciting understanding of the natural world.
Conclusion by Interviewer:
This concludes our interview with Professor Matt Carling, curator of the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates. This podcast was produced and directed by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the University of Wyoming Natural History Collections Alliance. [Music ends]