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  • Collection specimens
    Over 20 million
  • How old is the collection?
    190 years old
  • Scientific research
    10 collection areas
  • Over 100
    AMRI staff

The Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) specialises in taxonomic and systematic research of the museum's natural science collections.

Taxonomy and systematics comprise the describing, naming and classifying of nature, and studying its origins and interrelationships. This type of research is essential for environmental assessments. It forms the basic building blocks of the study of nature, and is a key science on which many others depend.

Natural science collections can be compared with libraries, but are made up of specimens and objects rather than books. Specimens and objects are regularly borrowed, studied and returned. Unlike libraries, the information from each new study is added to the records, enriching our knowledge and understanding of the objects and specimens in the collections.

The museum's collections reduce the need for scientists to collect new specimens or objects when conducting research. This is especially important when research is focused on endangered or vulnerable species. The collections are of increasing importance in a changing world where our natural environments are being rapidly degraded.


Why collect specimens?

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.

Definitions of specimen types

Allotype – A term designating a specimen of opposite sex to the holotype.

Cotype – A term no longer used. Formerly used for either a syntype or paratype.

Holotype – The single specimen on which the taxon was based or the single specimen designated as the name-bearing (or primary) specimen.

Lectotype – A syntype later designated as the one name-bearing type specimen.

Neotype – The specimen designated as the name-bearing type of a nominal species or subspecies for which no holotype, or lectotype, or syntype, or prior neotype is believed to exist.

Paralectotype – The type specimens remaining after a lectotype is designated.

Paratype – Specimens of the type series other than the holotype.

Primary types – Holotypes, Syntypes, Lectotypes and Neotypes

Secondary types – Non-primary types such as paratypes and paralectotypes

Syntype – Each specimen of a type series (of equal rank) when no holotype or lectotype has been named.

Type – A term used alone or as part of a compound term used for a kind of specimen or taxon.

Type series – The original name-bearing specimens used to define a species-group taxon.

Type species – The (nominal) species that is the name-bearing type of a genus or subgenus.

Non-Types

Chirotype – This term is sometimes used to refer to type specimens before the manuscript is published. When the paper describing the species is published, the specimens are no longer chirotypes but become true type specimens (see above).

Genotype – This term has been used incorrectly for the type species of a genus.

Plesiotype – This term has been used for a specimen illustrated in a publication. These are not type specimens. Plesiotype was sometimes used by G.P. Whitley, one of the most famous of Australian ichthyologists. Whitley worked in the Australian Museum Fish Section from 1922 till 1964.

Topotype – This term has been used for specimens collected from the type locality after the original description of the species.

Reference:

  1. Eschmeyer, W.N. (Ed). 1998. Catalog of fishes. Special Publication, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. 3 vols. Pp. 2905.
  2. Hoese, D.F., Bray, D.J., Paxton, J.R. & G.R. Allen. 2006. Fishes. In Beesley, P.L. & A. Wells. (eds) Zoological Catalogue of Australia. Volume 35. ABRS & CSIRO Publishing: Australia. parts 1-3, pages 1-2178.

Why keep old specimens?

The Australian Museum natural science collections are over 175 years old. The oldest specimen is a species of duck called a Northern Pintail, Anas acuta, (A.7080) collected in 1828.

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.

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.

Distribution by collection data - what does this mean?

Museums estimate the distribution of animal, plant and mineral groups by building collections that include information about each specimen, including what species it is, where it was collected, as well as when, how and by whom. This is used for many purposes ranging from looking at relationships between species, to conservation planning activities such as selecting new areas for National Parks or for development applications. The Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museums (OZCAM) website performs this function for many users, including scientists, land managers and planners.

Natural history collection databases that have been made web accessible and integrated with mapping technology - such as Google Maps - make it very easy for people to understand the distribution of a particular species. All of the known locations from which that species has been collected can be shown on a map. However, the distribution of the species based on this collection data is only an estimate, as it shows just those locations where that species was actually looked for and found. There may be many other places in which a species occurs but has not yet been collected or recorded.

One way to overcome the limitations of collections in estimating a species' distribution is to model its environmental niche (the position it occupies in its environment). This involves using existing known locations of a species to define what type of environment that species has already been found in and then suggesting other locations where the same conditions exist. Websites such as OZCAM enables users to do this.

OZCAM

What is OZCAM?

OZCAM is a web based system for accessing and analysing biodiversity distribution that currently enables access to around 1 million records from museum databases around Australia. The OZCAM website was developed by the Atlas of Living Australia.

By working with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), OZCAM will greatly increase the amount of biodiversity data available to users for mapping and analysis.

How does OZCAM work?

OZCAM provides tools for accessing and analysing biodiversity data. It enables visualisation of data through a map interface and provides analytical tools for helping planners and scientists to investigate biodiversity distribution and explore possible climate change impacts on biodiversity. By pioneering web delivery techniques for biodiversity data, tthe ALA and OZCAM teams are broadening access to both biodiversity information and innovative methodologies for analysing it.

How can OZCAM be used?

Scientists, planners and land managers need to study, understand and sustainably manage biodiversity. They can use OZCAM to:

Discover what species have been collected in an area.

create reports and maps

view related images and information for species

download the data for use in desktop applications (eg for site assessments)

Find and map where species have been collected

  • search by common or scientific names
  • find where and when a species was recorded/collected
  • create a map of where a species has been found
  • overlay point locations on a range of information layers

Find images of and information about species

  • search by species names
  • include in reports

Predict the environmental niche of a species using current and future climate scenarios

  • screen capture a map of the predicted area
  • how might a species range change from climate change
  • Identify the most important areas at which to carry out biodiversity surveys
  • choose locations requiring biodiversity survey based on what environments have inadequate survey coverage
  • download the coordinates to a spreadsheet

Atlas of Living Australia (ALA)

The Atlas of Living Australia provides tools for researchers and others to access, combine and map data on Australian species.

The Atlas project is a partnership between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian natural history collections community - as the Australian Museum - and the Australian Government.

The Atlas offers

  • A page for each Australian plant, animal and fungi with photos, descriptions, distribution maps and observations.
  • Lists of scientific and common names for Australian species.
  • Identification keys and tools,
  • Information on the specimens in Australian collections at museums, herbaria and other institutions.
  • Mapping tools to analyse and visualise biodiversity and environmental data and trends.
  • Information and tools for citizen science projects.
  • Tools to track biodiversity and ecological environmental changes over time.
  • Open source tools to download and use.
  • Australian nodes of international biodiversity databases and tools.



Collection areas


Discover our exciting volunteer programs and how you can contribute to science research

DigiVol volunteers complement the work of Museum Collections staff and research scientists by capturing images of specimens, objects and archival materials and then recording label data into digital form. This work helps us to better understand, manage and conserve our precious biodiversity.

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