Why keep old specimens?

The Australian Museum Collections are over 100 years old.  The oldest specimen is a species of duck called a Northern Pintail, Anas acuta, (A.7080) collected in 1828.

The only Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) to have been collected in Australia

Jaynia Sladek © Australian Museum

With large collections occupying expensive storage space, it has been suggested that the collection should be culled of old, redundant or unnecessary specimens. That task is not as easy as it sounds. For each species a core number of individuals is required, plus all the extremes of size, development, distribution and even time. To determine which specimens could be culled is very labour intensive.

While the database contains a considerable number of records, we are still a long way from having everything databased.  The publication records for each specimen have been added for very few of the specimens. The many problems associated with removing and destroying 'unnecessary' old specimens from collections will not be easily solved in the near future. In fact the oldest specimens may be the most valuable for some studies.

Old museum records provide baseline data about the past species composition of a region. These data can be particularly useful when examining newly degraded habitats. There is even the potential to use museum specimens of extinct species like the Thylacine (the Tasmanian Tiger) in research that may one day see this species live again.

The value of retaining old specimens was clearly demonstrated by the work of Dr Carl Ferraris of the California Academy of Sciences, who visited the Australian Museum Fish Section in May-June 1999. In his three weeks of research, supported by a Visiting Collection Fellowship, Dr Ferraris worked on the historic collections made by Dr Francis Day during many years of field work in India and the surrounding region during the 1860s, 70s and 80s.

Until Dr Ferraris' visit, the collection was believed to contain 102 of Day's type species. By detailed research with old records and old specimens, Dr Ferraris 'uncovered' an additional 57 of Day's type species in the Fish Collection, increasing the size of the known Day type collection at the Australian Museum by over fifty percent. These scientifically priceless specimens are now housed in the type collection and are available for research.

Clearly the collections are for long term use, not to be "improved" with periodic clean outs or garage sales.

Further reading

  1. Paxton, J.R. & M. McGrouther. 1991. Why so many specimens? Muse (Australian Museum News & Events) Aug -Sept. 1991:4, 11, 2 figs.
  2. Whitehead, P.J.P. & P.K. Talwar, 1976. Francis Day (1829-1889) and his collections of Indian Fishes. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series 5(1): 1-189, pls. 1-4.


Mark McGrouther , Collection Manager, Ichthyology
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Tags fishes, ichthyology, old, specimens, collections,