Blog

Message in a bottle

By: Erinna Ford, Category: Science, Date: 12 Jun 2015

Scientists worldwide can access the Museum’s collections through specimen loans.

Old specimen jars from the fish collection

Old specimen jars from the fish collection
Photographer: Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Of more than 18 million objects in the Australian Museum collection, less than one per cent is on public display, but the majority is available for research, outreach and education purposes.

That’s why the Museum (like many other natural history museums) operates a worldwide specimen loans program. Hundreds of specimens every year are sent across the globe to assist scientists with research, with others loaned for exhibitions.

‘Scientists have always shared material and knowledge’, says Dr Steve Keable, of the Australian Museum Research Institute, who manages the Museum’s collections of marine invertebrates.

‘It’s not only the specimens themselves but the information about them that's critical for understanding the ecology of natural world and the links between species – that’s why we make the Museum’s collection records freely available online.’

Managing specimen loans is all in a day’s work for Dr Keable and his team. The loans process begins with a request to the collection manager. If the specimens, often preserved in jars of ethanol, are available, they are packaged securely and shipped using regular postal services.

By loaning specimens to researchers in distant institutions, the power of the collection is greatly magnified, and the investment in sending loans is repaid many times over by the new knowledge and greater understanding that results.

Museum researchers also borrow specimens from around the world – it’s a two-way street, and specimens are like the natural history museum’s version of library books.

As just one example, Dr Keable cites a workshop held at the Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef in 2005.

A group of 20 marine biologists attended the workshop to collect and classify the Reef’s amphipods (small, bottom-dwelling marine crustaceans). On returning to their home institutions, the participants continued their research using samples borrowed from the Australian Museum collection.

They published the results in 2009, culminating in a 5-cm-thick special edition of the journal Zootaxa which described over 100 new species and increased the number of amphipod species known from the Reef by over 500 per cent.

‘To be able to increase the knowledge of a group of animals, as this study did, is pretty spectacular’, says Dr Keable.

Details of how to search and access the Museum’s collections are available here.

Erinna Ford, Communications Intern

Further reading

JK Lowry & AA Myers (eds), 2009. Benthic Amphipoda (Crustacea: Peracarida) of the Great Barrier Reef. Zootaxa, 2260: 1–930.