Modernized storage will protect a celebration


image: Modernized steel storage at the Institute of Biodiversity and the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History will protect one of the world’s largest collections of mammal specimens for scientists, academics, students and the public in the future.
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Credit: Jocelyn Colella

LAWRENCE – The world-renowned mammal research collections at the University of Kansas’ Institute of Biodiversity are getting a major upgrade thanks to a $ 646,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Pest-contaminated wood cabinets and drawers from the 1960s – woefully inadequate to keep out insects that can damage important scientific specimens – are now being replaced by modern stainless steel cases and aluminum drawers built by Delta Designs in the nearby town of Topeka.

The modernized storage will protect one of the world’s largest collections of mammal specimens for scientists, academics, students and the public long into the future.

KU’s Biodiversity Institute holds 279,936 mammal specimens dating from 1866. Moving them to improved storage is no easy task. Or, more precisely, “it’s crazy,” according to Jocelyn Colella, curator of mammals at the Biodiversity Institute and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU, who is leading the project with the head of the collection Maria Eifler.

“KU has the second largest academic collection of mammals in the Americas,” she said, “and it is the fifth largest collection in the Americas overall. “

Colella’s team includes graduate students from EEB and MUSE as well as retired mammal curator Robert Timm, who now serves as BI’s research affiliate. However, the KU researcher said most of the staff moving the specimens to improved storage were women.

“We have a small fleet of museum studies students, museum interns, and undergraduate and graduate students, both paid and volunteer, who are helping to make this whole transition possible,” he said. she declared. “Right now, we are physically moving cases, using our strength as women; literally, because our team is mostly made up of women. Next, we will transcribe the data.

Throughout the transfer process, Colella and her team digitize the data on each specimen and fill in data gaps that may have been missed by previous generations of researchers. Students will verify and record specimen tag information in the Museum’s Specify database, which links to the wider scientific research community through GBIF, iDigBio, BISON and VertNet.

The KU researcher said the mammal collection is a treasure trove for researchers who use specimens to understand evolutionary biology and the process of species diversification.

“It’s easy to see things as they are now, but it’s hard to measure change without physical documentation of the past,” said Colella. “Scientifically, it’s one of the best things we get from collections – an objective way to measure change over time. And as the change accelerates, we are able to see how rates have changed, allowing us to make informed forecasts and decisions for the future.

Since the tissues of specimens collected decades ago can still be analyzed genetically, their preservation for future analysis may even have implications for tackling potential epidemics in humans, as well as for tracking the spread of invasive species.

“Until recently, no one had really looked to museums for public health research. I think a lot of people don’t realize that there is this whole museum background that is involved in some really cutting edge research. This aspect of our work is less appreciated by the public because they don’t see it, ”said Colella. “For example, mammalian tissues can contain viruses that can infect humans. For public health purposes, it is increasingly possible to develop screening methods that allow us to access this data and this is part of my research program: every mammal has parasites and pathogens that enter also relevant to our understanding of diseases that impact human health. ”

As part of the project, the importance of scientific collections will be the subject of a new public exhibition currently designed and planned for spring 2022 by students and exhibition staff from the Institute of Biodiversity. The exhibit will highlight research stories that illustrate how collections are essential to solving issues of societal interest, including the recognition of emerging pathogens, traceability of the origins of invasive species, and species conservation through genetic management.

“The museum does a great job of highlighting the importance of biodiversity, the variation we see in life, and I want to make sure this new exhibit highlights some of the other super advanced aspects of museums, like how whose museums connect with modern science and modern engineering and modern conservation, “Colella said.” In addition to documenting species diversity, we have new genetic techniques that allow us to examine historical diversity , from historical skins, to identify the variation that was present in these populations in the past. There are now ways to actively seed this variation in living populations today to help species retain the variation that ‘they could have had if their range had not been reduced to a small island or if their habitat had not been destroyed.

Additionally, the KU researcher hopes to select specimens when moving to new repository that can be included in the exhibit to highlight ways in which engineering projects can draw inspiration from the structures and mechanics encountered. in nature.

“We are studying robotics and the use of bats as models to ‘transform the wings’. When bats fly, their wing membranes are flexible, not rigid like an airplane – and that’s a very difficult thing to design, but it makes bats incredibly maneuverable, ”said Colella. “There are scientists who use the morphology of bat wings and make similar materials to build flying robots. The same thing happens with wind turbines, which are modeled on the fins of whales due to their unique fluid dynamics. “

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