The Future of Natural History Collections

The primary responsibility of a museum is simply to keep, identify, and show things as a kind of act of faith, to preserve continuity for its own sake—without attempting to force the objects into or out of any context, except perhaps the simplest historical or geographical order, which would be the reflection of at least one sort of truth.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

The grand corridors of the Smithsonian were packed. It was nearing the holiday season, and Arthur had to scramble to make headway. But the crowds did not bother him. To the contrary, he was delighted to see so many members of the public sharing his fascination with the natural world. Turning left into a crammed gallery, he had reached the showcase exhibit he had specifically come to see. This was probably Arthur’s last opportunity to catch the temporary installation before returning home from his first semester at the city university. He spent several hours meandering through the displays, before leaving in a very good mood. Unbeknownst to all, museums worldwide will soon be shutting their doors to the public, and those same bustling corridors will sit in empty, eerie silence. Exhibits will idle in the gloom.

Having grown up in London, I am often asked for recommendations from my American colleagues planning trips to Europe. As a biologist, I cannot help but advocate the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I spent many an afternoon as a child. The opulent windowless hallways, teeming with fossils, pelts and gemstones, were the perfect place to distract myself from the infamous English weather – out of sight, out of mind. Of course they did nothing to distract me from my country’s abhorrent colonial history, quite the opposite in fact, and thus I feel obliged to make some alternative tour highlights for those that would rather not spend the day perusing various spoils of the British Empire.

When I try to be less biased with my assessment of my home town, I routinely turn to the art galleries as some of the greatest treasures London has to offer. The National Gallery and the Tate Modern in particular, are spellbinding. From JWM Turner, whose colorful masterpieces initiated a revolution in the world of painting, to Damien Hirst, whose formaldehyde cow slices have to be seen to be believed, the exhibits move me in ways that words are hopeless to convey. That’s the point of art after all. Attempting to analyse such great works, despite how fervently the critics opine, is like trying to catch the wind.

Yet as with the natural history museum, not everyone shares my love of such places. In the 1972 book, Museums in Crisis, institutions were accused of being out of touch with the public, out of touch with the artists, and out of touch with themselves. 20th-century art has rendered the museum obsolete the authors concluded, galleries were stagnating, and financial prospects were becoming grimmer by the day. Ultimately, the future of such institutions will be dependent on more support from the state than is currently afforded, but dwindling public support strongly disincentivizes the allocation of more government funding. If the future was bleak in 1972, it’s not exactly rosy now.

It needs to be more widely understood, amongst politicians and the public alike, that museums are not supposed to make money. Collections are expensive, and become increasingly so as they grow (and that is what collections do). The upkeep cost of biological material in natural history collections is particularly high. But like libraries and hospitals, the benefits to society these resources provide are great enough that we should support them regardless of their economic viability. The cost of natural history collections is growing, but so too is their value. Mass digitization is making museum data accessible from anywhere in the world, and new technologies are revitalizing old collections. Cryogenic facilities, seed banks, CT scanners – it is not an exaggeration to say that natural history museums are amidst a revolution. Unlike art galleries they are rapidly evolving to stay relevant, but they know their future is far from certain; with survival hanging in the balance, they’re going for broke.

Although novelty is always exciting, we must make sure not to lose the old. Monolithic treatise on a specific group of organisms that made the likes of Darwin famous are becoming harder and harder to write in a clickbait era demanding instant gratification. The fields of taxonomy and systematics are not particularly in vogue, yet these are the bedrock of the biological sciences and impossible without museum collections. Scientific collecting has fallen out of favor with the public. The killing of animals to stuff in museum draws that are already overflowing seems, at best, nonsensical to the casual observer. But such endeavors are crucial to generate long time-series of data that allow us to ask and answer some of the biggest questions concerning the natural world. The effects of climate change or industrialization for example, would not be nearly so apparent without this kind of continuous collecting. New species cannot be described without enough specimens to accurately quantify the variation within species. The museum revolution we are witnessing will fizzle out very quickly if collecting does not continue in the 21st century. Again, all of this requires considerably more money than museums are currently afforded.

Many museums in the United States charge people to get in, and whilst this helps to generate revenue independent of state funding, it also helps to perpetuate the notion that culture is something that should be reserved for the upper echelons of society. Entrance fees do nothing but foster the anti-intellectualism that is already rife in most western nations. The elitism and snobbery salient in modern art circles is well known, but scientists are not much better. Pomposity does nothing to curry favor with the masses and should be avoided at all cost. Sadly, the loss of revenue brought on by the pandemic, coupled with America’s deep-seated fear of socialist policies, makes this altogether unlikely. Indeed the tremendous financial blow dealt to museums forced to close their doors in the wake of COVID19, make it more likely that they will charge more money for entry upon reopening. Let us hope not.

Clearly, crisis-mode for museums began long before the pandemic of 2020, and natural history museums, unlike the rather stagnant galleries, have been trying every trick in the book to retain their value to society through the 20th and 21st centuries. The public face of museums, particularly their role in education, has seen the most remarkable changes in recent years, but it is precisely this aspect of museums that has been most strongly impacted by the pandemic. As something of a Luddite, I am not in the best position to comment on museum outreach in the digital age, but from what I can gather, there appears to be more than a glimmer of hope. In contrast to art galleries, natural history museums have reinvented themselves so dramatically they are hardly recognizable from what they once were even a few decades past. It seems likely that in a few decades hence, perhaps even sooner, natural history collections will again be unrecognizable.

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and chequered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. I hope that natural history collections will continue to act as the foundation of scientific discovery. Our understanding of the natural world remains in its infancy. Ultimately, we must maintain the public’s interest in biodiversity if we are to save natural history collections. In the modern era many people are up in arms over statues and flags, but I have seen few protests concerning the plight of the museum. Whilst there are exciting programs in the works, we must remember to exercise humility in the preservation of these treasured objects. The very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.


Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.


Professor Warren Allmon identified two pillars of modern natural history museums: research values and public values. Research values include documenting biotas no longer available and present and past biogeographic distributions, housing type, voucher specimens, and (perhaps most importantly) serving as fertile places for scientific discovery and inspiration. Public values in contrast include serving as resources for identification of unknown specimens, hands-on education and the support of systematics, and (perhaps most importantly) as the depository for the final physical evidence for the history and diversity of life on Earth. Finding a balance between these two pillars is easier said than done.

Owing to the financial burden of caring for aging collections, many new “museums” outside of academia are really science centers, containing no collections of actual specimens. These modern institutions provide tremendous educational value but completely fall down with regards to the research pillar. Most of the pressing crowds that visit big museums have no idea of the distinction. Growing up in London, I spent many an hour in South Kensington wandering through the grand corridors, in awe of the giant ground sloth skeleton and Mary Anning’s ichthyosaurs mounted on the walls. These formative experiences are likely why I am a biologist, but at that time I had no idea what a museum really was – what goes on behind closed doors, the rows and rows of identical specimens and the CT scanners humming away somewhere in a dingy basement. I was either unaware of such activities or unsure of their purpose. But this is where the research value of a museum lies!  Collections that most people never see have been used to track the shifting phenologies of flowering plants in response to climate change, document the thinning of egg shells with increasing pesticide exposure, and reveal the build-up of soot in bird feathers following industrialization. If science centers are to be successful museums, they require real holdings in a collection and more research personnel to pursue scientific inquiries. This will ultimately require more funding.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, many collections housed at universities are solely concerned with research endeavors to the point that they have no public face. Without a public face, university collections have no real means of generating their own income. This is a considerable problem, especially given the ruthlessly economic business model of higher education in western society. University deans are decreasingly tolerant of providing resources for orphaned collections unless they can be justified on the grounds of providing experiential learning opportunities. Course offerings specifically teaching curation techniques and preparing students for roles in the museum sector have been developed at a handful of universities, but most small holdings do not have the money allocated for permanent staff to implement such programs. In the same way that schools with smaller class sizes always outperform schools with fewer teachers, museums with numerous staff will provide considerably more educational value than those institutions run by only a handful of employees. With adequate funding, collections on campus could flourish. Without funding, they will topple in the absence of the public values pillar and under the weight of mounting upkeep costs.

Public museums may have had to close their doors in the wake of coronavirus, but technology allows museums to strive for a much broader public reach than ever possible. Most big institutions have dedicated twitter accounts that achieve science communication beyond the museum’s walls. Podcasts, lecture series, and blog posts are now all par for the course. Museum data is rapidly being digitized and made freely available online. It is a great tragedy that we live amidst something of a revolution in the field of natural history museums, but we may not have to resources or the wherewithal to capitalize.

Providing educational value was not a priority for early Cabinets of Curiosities. The shift of natural history collections towards more formal educational settings is a rather recent development. Indeed universities still have some way to go in providing public values from collections housed on campus. Even public museums spent most of their history in the entertainment business; as a matter of course, dioramas were often sensationalized to draw in the crowds. In the 21st century we should leave the dramatics to Disney and the people that make Jurassic Park. Natural history museums have carved out a new niche, and now many are beginning to resemble classrooms, but we must never lose sight of the research value that proper collections provide. However upsetting, a key role of natural history collections in the modern age is to help document the 6th mass extinction in real time. From toddlers to undergraduates, museums represent many people’s first introduction to the natural world. The only way that future generations will do better than us is if we help them learn.


Archiving the Exponential

The importance of keeping past works accessible, whether or not they are attractive to crowds or palatable to current taste, ought certainly to be the first concern of any museum, as it is of a library. Everything must be available, or it is as good as dead.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

Old museum tags are some of the most fantastical things I have ever seen. It is hard to describe the feeling to gaze upon a yellow-stained scrap of paper from the 1800s – the immaculate calligraphy, impossibly small, with a charming description of the weather on that particular morning of trapping. The tag is tied to the hind leg of an ermine (stoat), snow white in its winter colors. To ponder on the life of the animal and the collector both is all in all a delight.

More than a joy to behold, this information concerning the date the animal was collected, the location, the weather conditions, etc., are perhaps more valuable than the physical specimen itself. Modern collections that cover centuries of collecting provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand the spatial distribution of animals and how that changes through time. Particularly in recent years, now that tag data is being digitized and hosted on public online repositories, research with museum data is flourishing. In the 21st century, tag data has been used to describe range shifts in response to climate change and accurately track the spread of invasive species across the globe.

Digitization is also good simply for posterity’s sake. As witnessed in tragic news scenes, physical collections are all too at risk of being lost to fire or flood, and thus many museums are pushing to digitize specimen data without further incentives. Museums have not been in the digital data management game long, and as you might expect from such a burgeoning field, the competition is hot and things are a tad messy. Much like the early days of social media, companies are vying for poll position, offering basically the same service under a different logo. The ALA, GBIF, IDiGBIO, VertNet, SeitNet, SIB, BISON. They are all hosting sites, digital repositories for museum data of various types and specificities. Conglomerates are starting to form; Arnie will come back from the future before too long. I am not particularly one for cut throat capitalism, but the standardization a monopoly would bring seems appealing and necessary in this instance.

In the digital age, many specimens can be tied to more than just the tag. Recordings of bird calls, or videos of an animal’s behavior in its natural environment, are commonplace in the 21st century. One-off multi-million dollar grants have been used to procure expensive CT scanners, and efforts are underway at the University of Florida to digitize the tree of life. Some of the results of soft tissue scanning are truly spectacular. The scans also reveal stomach contents, various parasites, and past injuries. The aspects of a specimen’s broader natural history that can be revealed using these methods we would consider a characterization of the extended phenotype, and all of this must be cataloged and curated along with the physical specimen.

Digital data is fabulously interesting and valuable, but ruinously expensive to curate. Who’s responsible for this new financial burden? Whose job is it to make sure the subsidiary data stays associated with the original specimen? Server space is not free. Data management is time consuming. Museums have been chronically underfunded and understaffed for at least 50 years. The deficit between required and allocated funds grows with each passing year. Museums are in the hole; they need a bailout like the banks if they are to perform their duties. With so much data from natural history museums being digitized, some will argue original collections will have been rendered obsolete, and ultimately less funding should be allocated to curation of physical specimens. But more money is needed! Collections are continually being added to – that is the nature of collections, and the data we can obtain from specimens increases with each advance in research techniques. Archiving the exponential is not cheap.

In the last century, natural history museums have been concerned with the challenges of preserving a specimen’s genotype. Whilst natural history collections are new kids on the block as far as museums are concerned, they have still been around a lot longer than we have known about DNA. How do you minimize DNA degradation before you’ve discovered DNA? What could’ve been done differently in the 1700s to better prepare specimens for modern isotope analyses? Mistakes are unavoidable. The genetic material of many specimens collected over the 20th century has been lost as a result of fixation in formalin. Entire collections of fish, frogs, and salamanders – DNA-less. The potential harm we are doing to specimens is impossible to quantify or predict. Common sense leads us to minimize a specimen’s exposure to chemicals or extremes in temperature, but in other instances we store seeds and animal tissue at sub-zero temperatures in cryogenic facilities. Time will tell if we acted with due prudence.

Curators are extreme hoarders, never throwing anything away, yet constantly adding to their collections. Many modern collections are overflowing, becoming increasingly expensive to maintain with each acquisition. Despite their need for more money, funding for natural history museums has been cut. Staffing issues are salient in the 21st century, and many collections are falling into disrepair. This tragedy is juxtaposed with the scientific advances in sequencing methods and CT scanning that has added untold value to specimens housed in collections. We have known for a long time that the objects in natural history museums are more than the physical objects. We must take the same exacting approach to the storage and preservation of digital materials as we do our physical collections. Archiving living things provides literally unimaginable rewards, but also presents the greatest challenge to the museum curator. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A bird in the natural history collection is worth at least a hundred, so long as it still has its tag.

The Perils of Posterity

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Rot your lungs, make you choke,
See that pension go up in smoke,
but the boss don’t give a shit
Formaldehyde spill response kit

Natural history collections are treasure troves, cabinets of curiosity containing a world of magical delights. But museums have a dark side. Rickety ladders, broken glass, and hazardous chemicals; these are the perils of posterity.

As a rule, natural history collections should be housed in windowless basements. This prevents solar damage to specimens, reduces temperature fluctuations, and minimizes the available entrances for insect pests. Such an environment however, poses many innumerable threats to the safety of curators and museum staff. Here we have the crux of the issue, namely the safety of the collection cannot always be reconciled with the safety of the employees. Historically to solve this conundrum, spaces were designed solely with the safety of the collection in mind…

In modern practices, more of a balance is struck. For example, reptiles and amphibians are typically stored in fluid. Formaldehyde is by far the better preservative, but the fumes of ethanol are not nearly as toxic. Hence it is common to ‘fix’ a specimen first using formalin, before transferring it into ethanol for long term storage. As I write, the vast majority of fluid collections are now housed in ethanol. Confined spaces and vast quantities of alcohol however, is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, with the increasing strictness of modern health and safety policies, particularly with regard to fire, many older collections are no longer up to code. Add crumbling infrastructure to this volatile mixture and disasters are almost inevitable. Small natural history collections exist in a catch-22 situation, whereby they rely on public support to stay afloat, but too much publicity could spell disaster if it attracts the attention of the wrong people.

So much for the fluid collections, what about the dry stuff?

Insects pose one of the greatest threats to bird and mammal skins. To deter would be pests, many older specimens are laced with arsenic. Arsenic does a great job but the practice has stopped for obvious reasons. Much like in agriculture, as we strip back the use of chemicals, insect infestations become more common. If caught early, insect pests can be dealt with by heat treating or freezing specimens. Fumigation is still employed in extreme cases. As is often the case however, prevention is the best approach; cabinets with tighter seals and more formalized pest management plans can be as effective as a cocktail of deadly reagents. It can be considerably more expensive (again like organic farming), but that is price we pay for health.

Moths and dermestid beetles are top of the museum’s most wanted list. Both can eat their way through an entire collection in a staggeringly short amount of time. Moths will destroy a wolf pelt quicker than your favorite sweater and the beetles will munch down a carcass to the bone like something out of a cartoon. Ironically in the case of the beetles, most dermestid outbreaks originate from the museums themselves; curators often maintain their own dermestid colonies precisely because of their voracious appetites. The beetles work wonders to clean skeletal material and prepare specimens before they are accessioned into the collection. From personal experience however, I can say with great confidence that dermestid colonies should be housed in a separate building to the main collection. In hindsight that seems rather obvious.

Every preservation technique or restoration procedure has the potential to destroy biological information, thereby reducing the utility of the object for future scientific enquiry. Every preservation technique also has the potential to jeopardize the health of collections managers and curators. The balance is still being sought to make institutions as safe as possible whilst also being effective in the preservation of housed materials. For the safety of staff and specimens alike, we must err on the side of caution with our preservation techniques. Natural history collections are young enough that such techniques are still improving and methods are constantly being developed. Without public support and constant funding sources however, many museums are falling behind, with staff and specimens suffering as a result.

At present, natural history collections are more hazardous working environments than they ought to be. Money is really the only thing that would improve the situation. Unfortunately, the public side of museums, the main revenue source, has been hit hard by COVID19; it seems likely that funds to manage and maintain these invaluable collections must be sought from somewhere else. Even before the pandemic money was tight; many small collections have no full time staff and large collections are often afforded only one or two curators to oversee millions of fragile specimens. If we do not address our financial problems, the situation will only get worse – existing perils will be exacerbated and new perils will emerge.

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Or a bag of sawdust and an oven mitt,
Don’t budge on the budget, the budget’s plenty,
We’ve only got so much for 2020,
Ask for more and they throw a fit,
If not now, then maybe in a bit.
Formaldehyde spill response kit

The History of Natural History Collections

Hypotheses about past events are not susceptible to scientific proofs, and the historian can never hope to have a hypothesis certified as anything better than reasonable. They must lope along where scientists fear to tread.

~Alfred Crosby, 1972

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and checkered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. Since the pharaohs, important cultural artifacts have been collected and displayed, and since the pharaohs, access to such institutions has been largely restricted to high society. The Greeks loved a museum. That’s where we get the word. ‘House of the Muses’ is the literal translation. History, astronomy, dance, music, sacred poetry, epic poetry, love poetry, comedy, and tragedy. Sounds like my kind of place.

Education empowers people, and museums, like libraries, prevent the covering up of history. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The Christians knew this, and hence tried to put a stop to museums. The only history worth knowing was the Word. Desecrating cultural objects is a classic move of religious fanatics, and this is a testament of the power these objects hold, and the threat museums pose to authoritarian rule. As DuBois notes, there is always an element of revolution in education. An afternoon in a museum can be more revealing than a decade’s worth of schooling, but before we start fawning over these things, we should spare a thought for how museum collections typically arise.

In the awkwardly named ‘Age of Discovery’ indigenous histories were eradicated as a matter of course. A lot of theft was going on too. Artifacts were pillaged from all over the world and hoarded in private collections. Cabinets of curiosities emerged across Europe during the renaissance and flourished for centuries. Oxford University holds apocryphal claims to the first public museum; the collection of Elias Ashmole was donated to the institution and put on display in 1683. As I write, the collection is alive and well, receiving almost a million visitors a year. European expansionism went unabated throughout the ensuing centuries; during the enlightenment period vast holdings began to be amassed in public and museums and private collections across Europe. With the advent of the 19th century, colonialism ushered in a new era of collecting, and only now do natural history museums enter the fray.

Natural history collections are comparatively young simply because preservation of organic material is far more challenging than the preservation of paintings or sculptures. Preservation techniques have only blossomed in the last few centuries, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that advances coincide with European overseas expansion. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. We have been fermenting alcohol since ancient Mesopotamia, but concentrates specifically distilled to preserve animals have much more recent origins. William Croone of the Royal Society pickled two puppies in 1662 to demonstrate proof of concept. Formaldehyde did not emerge as a commercial preserving agent until the 1890s. Modern methods typically dictate that the specimen is first fixed in formaldehyde, before a step up procedure to gradually transfer to stronger ethanol dilutions, but best practices regarding storage environments, dilution strengths, and buffer solutions are still being argued. Moreover, best practices will likely be context specific: delicate specimens, like fish eggs or frog tadpoles are permanently kept in formalin because it is the better preservative, whereas tissue samples that will be used for genetic analyses are placed directly into ethanol because formalin would degrade the DNA.

Reptiles are much easier to preserve than either fish fry or amphibian larvae. In a time when circumnavigating the globe took months, the ability of reptiles to go long periods without water proved extremely useful. As a result, reptile collections housed in museums are often extensive. Lizards in particular are a seafaring bunch.  Anoles and geckos now have pan global distributions because they make such good stowaways. Museum collections of anoles from various islands have helped to reveal some of the foundational principles of evolutionary theory and shape the laws of biogeography.

Giant tortoises in contrast, proved too delicious to survive long journeys at sea. Hapless individuals stored on their backs provided fresh meat for homeward bound voyages. Indeed it took several trips before even a shell survived the journey to be formally accessioned into a collection. Giant tortoises used to occur on many more islands than the Galapagos, and over-harvesting is largely implicated in their decline. With predicted sea level rise, giant tortoise may one day be driven to extinction in the wild, and specimens housed in collections will be all that remains. Let us hope that history proves me wrong.

History is very important. It tells us that we are not always the good guys. Libraries have been burned, and cultural collections have been ransacked, but sometimes this is matched by the vicious means by which such collections are amassed. Although museums have suffered with a PR problem for time immemorial, their value is incalculable and grows exponentially. These institutions hold immense educational power, but we must acknowledge their roots, and understand the public stake in museum collections. Natural history collections are the foundation of the biological sciences. Darwin’s and Wallace’s generation was the age of exploration, and therefore the age of collecting. Good old fashioned `smash and grab` imperialism. We have assembled these tremendous collections largely by force, the very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.

Curators in Crisis

Welcome to the blog series Plight of the Museum!

Without natural history museums, the biological sciences would still be in their infancy. With the help of museum collections, we have identified and described 1 million of the potential 10 million species on Earth, laying the foundations for all subsequent scientific inquiry.

Dwindling public support and chronic under-funding however, make the future of museums far from certain. If we are to safeguard these precious institutions, we must extol the incalculable value of such collections and the myriad wonders they harbor.

In this series of essays, we will explore the history of natural history collections, threats to their continued survival, and the drastic measures that some have taken to stay current in the modern world.

As always, strap in!

Epilogue: How to Save Our Species

The note for the future is co-operation based on mutual understanding and respect. I suggest the essential is a continuing and continuous collaboration in which nature conservation has the double role to play: that of providing the scientific guidance relative to humanity’s place in the ecosystem, our position against the background of the natural environment, coupled with the special task of fostering the pride of the public in the native fauna and flora and so of making due provision for their conservation.

Sir Dudley Stamp, 1969

Should we Save Species?

Nearly a foot of rain in less than 24 hours. That’s the record documented from the  gauges at our salamander ponds. This part of the Florida Panhandle is known for its tempestuous weather, particularly during hurricane season. The locals are not afraid of the alligators or the cottonmouths, they are afraid of the lightning. Us herpetologists must be pretty brave, because we again find ourselves soaked to the skin trying to save species.

As I bend down to snatch a saw palmetto to use as a makeshift umbrella, I notice a pine woods tree frog perched atop one of the broad fronds. Unlike myself, this ebullient creature is relishing the afternoon storm. Indeed many species do in these coastal forests. Oak toads are calling in the distance and a stink pot turtle clambers through the undergrowth by my feet. The plants and animals in this part of the world are adapted to extraordinary change; episodic fires and flooding are just some of the environmental challenges they must overcome. For the conservationist, the challenge is how to restore and protect such dynamic landscapes.

Can we save everything? 

More than a million species are threatened with extinction. That’s what scientists tell us. The giant panda, the California condor, the great crested newt; by and large conservation efforts focus on species. But should they? Trying to save a million of anything sounds like a tall order. The cost of rescuing California condors from the brink of extinction amounted to well over $1,000,000 per bird. Bald eagle recovery programs invested $4,000,000 every year for half a century to safeguard the future of these iconic animals. If we carry on at this rate, we will run out of money before we even get to the frogs. And the frogs aren’t doing so hot. Species-level conservation is prohibitively expensive.

The extinction of a species captures the public imagination however, more so than the loss of a gene or an ecotone, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining our narrow focus. The loss of the dodo is tangible. It is also relatively easy to see that the loss is irreversible (barring any breakthroughs in genetic engineering). Thus how we communicate the 6th mass extinction, and in turn how we combat it, is typically along species lines. I fear we will not be able to escape this questionable approach until the public have a better understanding of the synergistic properties of living things. No species is an island.

Nature exists on many scales, from cells to ecosystems; what level we decide to view the natural world is largely based on preference and training. In antiquity, we used to think species were immutable. A horse is a horse, of course. With that kind of philosophy, current conservation practices might make sense. But such a static view of the world around us has not really been tenable since Darwin. Nature doesn’t stand still. Evolution is inherently dynamic; animals compete, generations pass, lineages are lost. Living things occupy space, and hence necessarily occupy time. The arrow of time has not been fully explained by the physicists, but it definitely exists. Attempting to preserve a freeze frame of nature as we currently see it is a fool’s errand. Moreover, no part of the natural world is untouched by man, and thus it seems rather concessionary to accept things how they presently occur.

So what alternatives do we have? Where should we shift our focus to better capture the dynamic communities we are hoping to maintain? What scale of conservation is most economically efficient? Back in the 1970’s James Lovelock argued that the world should be looked at as one big super organism, with the currents of the ocean acting like a circulatory system, and the great northern forests acting as lungs. The Gaia hypothesis as it is known has fallen in and out of favor since its conception, but at the very least it provides a useful thought exercise. What good is it to save a handful of charismatic megafauna if we proceed to chop down all the trees and drain all the wetlands? Whilst modern recovery plans typically include some component relating to the habitat requirements of the species in question, the continued focus on captive rearing, reintroductions, and population regulation is telling. The landscape nowadays more closely resembles an abattoir, as opposed to Eden; we release animals to their inevitable fate.

At best guess there are between 2 and 10 million species on the planet. As such the loss of any one species, whilst lamentable, cannot be considered cataclysmic. As a biologist it pains me to say this, but I am also a statistician, and the numbers don’t lie. Sometimes it is better to use our heads, not our hearts. In contrast, there are, at most, 20 recognized biomes on the planet, from tundra to tropical rainforest. To lose a biome would be beyond tragic. And such is not out of the realms of possibility. Longleaf pine forests now only occupy 3% of their former range. Heathland has all but been converted to agriculture across continental Europe, and the unique early-successional habitat only survives at a few intensively managed sites in Britain. Nature is not what it was, that much is obvious, but if we inefficiently address one species at a time, we risk losing the forest for the trees.

The public are sold on species. The logo of the World Wildlife Fund is a giant panda, not a patch of pristine bamboo forest.  And public perceptions are important. Funding for conservation is inextricably tied to public support. We risk losing the public’s backing however, if we continue to be so wasteful with the money they so generously provide. Eventually the expense will no longer seem justified. In the grand scheme of science, conservation biology is an extremely young field; we are still figuring things out. Yet it is also a crisis discipline, and as such a lot of the learning must happen on the fly, through trial and error. It will never be perfect therefore; the best we can hope is that it’s sensible. Should we save species? Certainly. The fate of humanity is contingent upon the preservation of the natural world. But perhaps we should save species indirectly, through management of the land, and restoration of community dynamics. Perhaps the Endangered Species Act should be supplanted with an Endangered Ecosystems Act. I’m not sure. Nobody is. I told you this shit weren’t easy.

As I wave a chainsaw through the tangle of vines, and the bulldozer rolls through a patch of gum trees in the dry the wetland basin, I wonder what a passer by might think of us. They might assume we were quite mad. It is Florida in July after all. We’re doing heavy manual labor in conditions that by midday resemble the surface of Venus. They might not realize we are conservationists, desperately trying to restore ecosystems to their natural state. They might not realize we are here for the salamanders.

Taking a breather from my weed-whacking, I survey the uplands. Flatwoods salamanders can travel over a mile from their natal wetlands into the surrounding forests. That’s where they are now. Scanning, it is clear to see the benefit of last winter’s burn; the mid-story is no longer an impenetrable mess, the herbaceous ground cover is starting to re-sprout. Unfortunately the ponds were full of water when the blaze swept through, so remained largely untouched by the flames. Prescribed burns need to be conducted in all seasons if they are to effectively substitute for wildfires. Too many ineffectual winter burns, and wetland basins will quickly become overgrown and start to fill in. That is the situation we find ourselves in with the chainsaws, the bulldozers, and the Floridian sun. 

Once the brush is cleared and the duff removed, bluestems, pipewort, and sundew will return to the wetland basin.  Once the vegetation has become established, the dragonflies and damselflies will begin to investigate. Crayfish will colonize and waterfowl will frequent. If the pond is appropriately situated, frogs and newts will find it eventually. Flatwoods salamanders are classic umbrella species. By catering to the greedy ecological requirements of one particularly spectacular amphibian, we are saving as many species as we can.  

How to Save a Number of Species

Mathematics is the language of nature. If we are to have any chance of conserving the natural world, we must be fluent. In recovery plans for threatened and endangered species, delisting criteria typically involve achieving x number of individuals or populations. IUCN red list categories are largely determined on count based metrics. Biodiversity hotspots are demarcated based on the number of species present in a given area. I will always tell people I study snakes, sharks, and salamanders, but at the end of the day I am essentially just a glorified statistician.

Ecological statistics seek to find a signal amongst the noise, a definite pattern amongst the chaos. And living things can be pretty chaotic! Biology is the youngest of the sciences, but concerns itself with the most challenging puzzles posed by the universe. Indeed Carl Pantin scathingly opined “a physicist is a person who only tackles the easy questions on the examination paper set by nature.” Amen, brother. A platypus is far more complicated than a particle or a protein, that’s for sure. When faced with such formidable mysteries, it is important to walk before we can run.

If we count all the animals of one type, we call this population abundance, and how this number changes through time can be extremely informative. An overall declining trend, if steep enough, would qualify a species for endangerment status. This would subsequently trigger legal action that mandates federal funding to be invested in the species’ attempted recovery.  Alternatively, we can document where an animal occurs and where it is absent. Even with this simple binary data, we can create species distribution models that predict whether the animal is likely to exist in places we have yet to look. These models can also help us to map the spread of an invasive disease, or predict the success of conservation reintroduction efforts.

If we want to get more complicated, we can tally all the different types of animals; this gives us a measure of ‘species richness’. So far we have managed to elucidate that tropical rainforests have a higher species richness than the arctic tundra, but we are still not quite sure why; differences in ecosystem stability or productivity represent our best guesses. Again how this number changes over time can be extremely informative. Whether you are situated on the equator or at the poles, if habitat is destroyed, some species persist whilst others are immediately lost. Much can be gleaned from the predictability of such changes in species richness. In conservation the numbers are always our guide.

Given the pervasiveness of mathematics in ecology, it has always surprised me as to how statistically averse some biologists can be. Particularly in applied fields, mathematical competency often leaves a lot to be desired. To some extent it makes intuitive sense. Most people are attracted to these fields as a result of childhood experiences – camping, fishing, or hiking say. The love for the outdoors is what drives them; the love for the abacus does not come naturally, if at all. But if you are to have any chance of understanding living things, you must first understand numbers. 

Inadequate statistical training stems from the way we teach mathematics at school. To hear children complain that it is somehow dull or irrelevant to their lives is lamentable indeed. The same is true of history. History is everything that has ever happened. Yet if you ask most people, they will tell you history is boring. Clearly it is not history at fault, merely our ineffectual teaching methods. Pedagogical techniques must improve lest we stultify children. If students are permitted the freedom to apply mathematical logic to problems that actually interest them, if students are able to study history of their own choosing, their value will become self-evident. Indeed, very little instruction will be necessary.

Mathematics is the language of nature, but the majority of us continue to exhibit willful aphasia. In modern society, the absurdity of numbers associated with the wealth gap and overpopulation is matched only by people’s indifference. Statistically speaking, indifference is not acceptable. The same is true for the preservation of the natural world. Statistics makes clear the scale of the crisis faced. An area of forest the size of South Africa has been felled in the last 30 years. Since the 1970s, a third of all wetlands have been drained and global CO2 emissions have doubled. There are over 5,000,000,000,000 pieces of plastic in our oceans. But we must never forget that statistics, whilst grimly capturing the 6th mass extinction in real time, also help reveal the inner workings of the splendor around us. From the flowering dates of daisies to the march of emperor penguins, from the height of laurel pine to the clutch size of cod, each is numerical precision. Not every biologist needs to be fluent in mathematics, but at the very least, each should know some basic vocabulary that permits some semblance of a conversation with the biosphere. If not, we will continue fumbling about the forests, deaf, dumb, and blind.

How to Save a Species in Theory

Agency reports claim a million species are at risk of extinction. The handful of conservation success stories are overwhelmed by news of continued logging activities and wetland drainage. Backward environmental policies remain the norm. But the psychologists tell us to be positive! The doom-and-gloom approach doesn’t work apparently. The passengers on the titanic don’t like to be informed how cold the water is going to be. It really puts a downer on the party atmosphere. If you are looking to curry favor with the masses, you will fare much better if you sell the myriad benefits ecosystems provide, or extol the majesty of nature. We live in the age of spin after all.

One of my favorite positive terms in conservation is ‘adaptive management’. It is reminiscent of Orwellian newspeak. What it really means is that we have no idea what we are doing, so it will take a few goes before we get it right. Conservation is a crisis discipline. Many species have already disappeared. Many management decisions are implemented so belatedly as to be redundant. Whilst it is true that we haven’t figured everything out yet (spoiler alert, we never will), it is also true that inaction is no longer an option. It hasn’t been for some time. Adaptive management accommodates learning on the fly; as we improve our understanding of the natural systems we are hoping to save, we refine our management practices accordingly. Adaptive management is an exercise in humility.

The early years of sea turtle conservation were a complete disaster. Although well-intentioned, efforts were at best futile, and at worst destructive. Our first seemingly sensible idea was to recover eggs from nests to incubate in controlled conditions, in the hope of increasing hatching success / reducing nest predation. Sea turtles however, like many reptiles as we now know, exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination. We were unwittingly creating and releasing nothing but males, and it doesn’t take a scientist to work out where that situation will lead: total sausage-fest. On discovering this SNAFU, we adapted our management, whereby fencing to protect nests in situ is now the dominant practice. A step in the  right direction, but it is time to adapt again.

Turtles are long lived, and females can lay hundreds of eggs each year. Thus there is a lot of redundancy built into the life-cycle. Mass mortality of young does not jeopardize the health of the population appreciably, and indeed the natural history of these animals is specifically designed to accommodate lots of eggs/hatchlings being eaten. As mammals with very low reproductive outputs and high offspring survival, we struggle to reconcile the idea that juveniles are dispensable. But in sea turtles, as well as haddock, toads, and oak trees,  this is the case. These species can afford catastrophic reproductive failure; they assume it is going to happen, and hence lay thousands, sometime millions of eggs in their lifetime.

The Achilles heel of such ultra-fecund animals is often increases in adult mortality. In the case of sea turtles, the real reason for their decline was too many mature females colliding with boat propellers, or getting tangled in fishing nets. For every female that dies of unnatural causes, you lose perhaps 50 years of egg-laying potential. Moms are precious. For the same reason, an oak tree is far more integral to the forest than any acorn. For species with this kind of life history, conservation will get the most bang for its buck if it can target older individuals. Unfortunately in the case of sea turtles, beaches are much easier to access than the open ocean; turtle-excluder devices have been introduced to some modern fishing practices, but the emphasis of conservation efforts remains largely on nests and hatchlings.

The cuteness of baby turtles undoubtedly also plays a role in this bias. Members of the public are willing to volunteer to help the babies, and even if hatchlings are released to their certain death, and no discernible improvement to the population occurs, it makes people feel good about themselves. Attitudes are difficult to change, but the success of conservation needs to be taken more seriously. All the baby sea turtles in the world will scarcely make a dent on population recovery; we have known this since the 1980s, but the word is still not out. Perhaps it is our fault, scientists’ fault, for not better communicating our theoretical understanding of life-histories to the public. Regardless, forty years of ineffectual management is not something we can afford for every species on the brink of extinction. If we don’t improve, conservation successes will appear nothing more than a speck – a small leathery shell cast adrift amidst an ocean of failure. But like I said, we’re told we need to be positive.