Variety in a museum collection

While working in the collection or giving tours, I often find myself quoting Disney’s The Little Mermaid:

“Look at this stuff!
Isn’t it neat!
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?”

We have thousands of specimens, many of them multiples of the same species.  You may wonder what the value of having hundreds of examples of the same species is. What can we learn from multiple American Robins (Turdus migratorius) or Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) that can’t be learned from just one?

To help answer this question let’s think of the collection as a library. And each species is a single book on a shelf. Each specimen represents an individual page within that book telling it’s own story of the what, when, who, where and why it lived it’s life. As a species begins to change over time we can show that process through the multiple individuals of a species in our collections. Our collections may never be complete but as you examine trays of species you learn the story of what makes that species unique.

Now when you look at the examples of our multiple specimen species trays, try to see if you can see how we get generic descriptions or illustrations of species. Also look at how different each individual looks when compared to others on the tray.

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Stephanie Malinich, collection manager Tetrapods

About the Author: Stephanie Malinich is Tetrapod Collection Manager at the Museum of Biological Diversity and research assistant in Dr. Andreas Chavez’ lab.


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2 thoughts on “Variety in a museum collection

  1. My way of explaining this is to compare the individual variation in the bird specimens to individual variation in humans. I look at the class of (students, visitors etc.) and say… look at the person standing next to you, are they different from you? how about me? we are all different, and a complete description of humans would require more than one individual. The same applies to birds. Each individual contributes to our understanding of the entire species. And of course there is time and different generations represented too…

    • that’s a great analogy, Rich, thank you for bringing this up; it would be hard to represent “human” with one specimen

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