FAQ - Why keep so many specimens?

The question has often been asked "Why keep so many specimens?".  This small page may help provide an answer.

A Slender Sunfish Ranzania laevis larva

A Slender Sunfish Ranzania laevis larva
Photographer: Chris Kenaley © Museum of Comparative Zoology

The Fish Collection attempts to cover the range of variation in structure, form, and distribution, for each fish species. The Sunfish images on this page show the major changes in structure that some species go through as they develop. In order to document the changes it is necessary to keep a developmental series from tiny larvae to adults of each fish species.

If one considers the normal variation of the human species - males and females, young and old, redheads and blonds, blue eyes and brown, short and tall, fat and thin - coupled with cultural and geographic variation, hundreds of humans from around the world would be required to give adequate representation of the species.

While few species of fishes display the variation found in the human species, we need a reasonable number, say 20-30 each from different areas throughout the distribution of the species, to guarantee we have the extremes of variation. In addition we keep examples of the largest and smallest (including eggs and larvae), as well as distributional extremes. With an estimated 5000 species of fishes in Australian waters (and around 25,000 species worldwide) it is easy to see how and why fish collections become so large.

The Australian Museum collections are part of a larger whole. The major fish collections of all seven Australian state (and Territory) natural history museums, and the CSIRO Fisheries collection in Hobart, use a common family numbering system with compatible data entry and retrieval. The total number of fishes in all Australian collections exceeds 1.8 million, and is surely part of our national heritage. With some U.S. fish collections numbering 10 million specimens, our total national collection is not large relative to our very rich fish fauna.

Further reading

  1. Liem, K.F. in Paxton, J.R. & W.N. Eschmeyer (Eds). 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Sydney: New South Wales University Press; San Diego: Academic Press [1995]. Pp. 240.
  2. Paxton, J.R. & M. McGrouther. 1991. Why so many specimens? Muse (Australian Museum News & Events) Aug -Sept. 1991:4, 11, 2 figs.

Ms Jen Cork , Senior Digital Producer
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