Preserving our scientific and cultural heritage is the core business of museums but this means so much more than simply storing, for posterity, specimens and objects.
The South Australian Museum is not only the custodian of state and national collections, but also has a legal and ethical responsibility to ensure that we know as much as we possibly can about our collections and that we make the collections and associated knowledge accessible to as broad an audience as possible.
This can be a challenge when caring for millions of specimens. These amazing collections are not static. They are in constant use – being selected for exhibition, being available for research by scientists both in the museum and around the world, used as teaching tools… the list of uses to which our collections are put is long and diverse. The collections are also naturally expansive. A museum specimen does not just capture a moment in time in a particular place, but is part of a geographical and temporal continuum that allows us to understand how our world has changed over time and allows us to predict the effects of future change.
A wonderful example of how significant, useful and challenging our collections can be is illustrated by the museum’s entomology collection. It contains more than two million insects, largely collected in Australia, but includes specimens from all over the world, acquired over more than 150 years.
Insects are one of the most diverse and abundant groups of organisms on the planet. Their small size, short life cycles and large and diverse populations mean that insects are very adaptable to environmental conditions. This has led to extraordinary taxonomic diversity, which poses a challenge to scientists. To date, around one million species of insect have been described, that is, recorded in a scientific publication and named according to international convention. However, there is still an enormous amount of work to do. Estimates of the numbers of total insect species in the world vary wildly, from four million to as many as 80 million. But even with the more conservative estimates, this still means that we are less than a quarter of the way through knowing and understanding the insect world.
But why does this matter? Insects are far more important than many people realise. They play an integral role in plant pollination and seed dispersal, and can be extremely destructive in agricultural environments. They play an important part in nutrient recycling, leaf litter decomposition and soil turnover. They are a major part of the food web, at the top of some food chains, and making up the majority of other food sources for many vertebrates, including fish, mammals, reptiles and birds. They play a huge role in the health of animal communities, through the spread of disease, or alternatively, predation of other insects and parasites.
Naming and understanding the insect world helps us preserve and understand biodiversity. It helps us talk to other scientists about ecosystems, and track changes in the environment. We cannot study what we don’t know about. In many environments insects are understood to be keystone species, with the loss of their critical ecological function able to cause the collapse of whole ecosystems.
The South Australian Museum plays a significant role in understanding insect behavior, diversity and adaptation, caring for a large collection of insects that we make available to all kinds of scientific researchers, including scientists who identify and describe new species – the taxonomists. Our collections are in constant use, with many out on loan to scientists around the nation and the world. We are part of a global network of public collections that care for the name-bearing specimens that form the basis for our understanding of the zoological world. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature enforces the lodgment of these specimens in public collections so that they will be cared for in perpetuity and be accessible to anyone who wants to contribute to the world of taxonomy. Here at the South Australian museum, we care for approximately 8700 such specimens, known as holotypes, together with over two million specimens that are the record of past and current insect biodiversity across Australia and beyond. We take our responsibility to care for this collection for the future very seriously.
Such responsibility can throw up some interesting challenges. As it turns out, there is a particular insect, Anthrenus verbasci, (commonly know as the Carpet Beetle) which just loves to eat other dead insects. This type of insect cannibalism is a common problem throughout entomological collections worldwide which provide a smorgasbord of mealtime delicacies for Anthrenus and the general climactic conditions we enjoy here in Adelaide are perfect to encourage these pests to thrive. Part of our challenge in caring for our insect collections is to preserve their long-term future including the prevention of them being munched on by the tiny but voracious carpet beetle. To this end, we have recently commenced the complete re-fit of the museum’s entomology collection facility with emergency financial support from the South Australian Government. This has involved the relocation of 1.2 million pinned insects to deep freezers, which will kill all pests, and their eggs and larvae. Construction on the new collection facility will start this month, and we will work to create a clean, pest-free environment, with best practice in integrated pest management preventing further incursion. This should help to ensure that our insect collections are available for taxonomic and other researchers for the next 100 years and beyond.
Relocating 1.2 million specimens is obviously a logistical challenge but has also presented an incredible opportunity to make the collection more accessible to the global research network. Since June 2011 a team of volunteers has been working to create digital photographs and databases of our holotype specimens from the insect collection. This dedicated group have photographed nearly 6000 specimens to date, and are preparing to make them accessible online. Creating a digital database and photographs of these holotypes will also make them easier for researchers to find, which can only speed up the process of taxonomy, and aid research in global biodiversity. At a time when we know that human activity is causing species loss at an alarming and accelerating rate, when our country and the world faces biosecurity and food security challenges on a daily basis, and at a time when understanding disease transmission and control continues to be one of the most pressing issues facing us today, anything that we can do to make research in these fields more efficient is of paramount importance.
Professor Suzanne Miller is the Director of the South Australian Museum