Detective Work and Historical Collections

One of the big challenges of freshwater natural history is that it is hard to determine what exact animals were present in rivers before modern collections began. Preservation of pristine freshwater environments has been almost impossible as anything upstream affects everything downstream. Our zoological museums are a physical catalogue of the historical wildlife in an area and a guide for where our habitat reconstruction goals should be set.

Physical collections are fragile. It’s easy to lose data somewhere along the line and have the specimens themselves become nothing more than physical curiosities. It’s even easier to have an extensive and meticulous collection fall into the hands of disinterested heirs and be lost to us. Specimens need to be cared for properly to maintain their quality, and the longer it has been since they were collected, the less likely it is that the historical value is maintained. Occasionally these collections are saved via thoughtful preservation by some concerned individual or institution or, much less often, by a fortuitous fluke of storage through a period when, had it been accessible, it might well have been destroyed.

Hildreth Labels

A collection of old labels, now dissociated from their original specimen.

A perfect example of this kind of fortuitous preservation is represented by two collections, The Hildreth and Holden Collections, currently located in our Bivalve Collection. These two collections were discovered together at Marietta College, Ohio. Few details exist today regarding the exact discovery, but some information has been preserved. Everyone directly involved with the discovery has, as far as I can tell, passed away long ago without publishing the details of the find.

It’s a weird twisting tale and, I believe, it deserves to be informally recorded here.

Our next post will fully detail the relevance of this collection and its history, but for now let’s just set the scene…

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