FAQ - Why keep a fish collection?

The fish collection serves a number of functions. It represents a portion of our natural world, and is the resource used for much of the research done in the Fish Section and in other research institutions.

Old style specimen jars

Old style specimen jars
Photographer: Jason Armstrong © Australian Museum

A researcher wanting to study the anatomy, taxonomy, reproductive biology or feeding habits of a particular species, can go to the collection. This saves the time, expense, and conservation issues associated with capturing fresh specimens. For many species, capturing fresh specimens is often difficult or impossible, such as those which migrate, are found in the deep sea or are endangered.

The collection serves much as a library, with specimens being loaned and returned. Unlike a library however, the collection becomes more valuable after specimens have been studied and returned. The Australian Museum Fish Collection collection is heavily utilised. In the last ten years (1990-1999), more than 45,000 fishes in over 1,200 separate transactions have been sent out of the Fish Section. Most of these were sent to researchers overseas because many of the taxonomic problems of Australian species are being solved by the international scientific community. Many other specimens are used on the premises by staff and visiting researchers.

The collection provides an historic record for each species. It can be used to document distributions, both present and past. The collection is also a repository of specimens that are used in many scientific studies. If questions arise as to what species were actually dealt with in any study, specimens placed in the collection by the worker can be examined to answer those questions.

A small proportion of the specimens are types. These scientifically priceless specimens have been used to describe a new species and bear the name of the new species. The collection of fish types at the Australian Museum is on the list of the ten largest in the world (W. Eschmeyer pers. comm.) and is of immense scientific value. The collection houses over 10,000* type specimens (nearly 2000* type species).

*Figures current June 1999.

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.

Mark McGrouther , Senior Fellow
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