The importance of biological collections

Biological collections are cornerstones for the study of biodiversity and an almost endless source of scientific information. Many are those within the social networks who demand scientists to stop using ‘classical’ biological collections as they are seen as primitive tools that promote animals and plants extinctions.

We explain you why this statement is incorrect, which types of collections do exist and which are their most relevant functions.

The importance of biological collections

It is more than probably that the first thing it comes to mind when you hear someone talking about biological collections are hundreds of animals or plants dried, pinned and placed inside boxes by a fanatical collector. Yes, this type of collections exists. However, and without demonizing them (since these collectors can be very useful for science), this is not the type of collections we want to talk about and, of course, not the only one that exists.

Biological collections are systematized repositories (well identified, classified and ordered) of a combination of any biological material. Most of these repositories are deposited in natural history or science museums, but also in universities, research centers or even totally or partially in private collections.

ICM’s (Institute of Marine Sciences) Biological Reference Collections, in Barcelona. Picture by Alícia Duró on ICM’s web.
Some drawers of the Australian National Insect Collection. Picture by the Australian National Insect Collection.

Types of collections

Even though the concept of biological collection is something quite new, the collection and classification of biological material started some centuries ago with the first animals and plants collected by zoologists and botanists.

Nowadays, the term of biological collection has acquired a broader meaning:

  • Cryogenic collections

Storage of living biological material in frozen state under the assumption that it will retain its viability and normal functioning when being thawed after a long period of time. Cryogenic collections are typically used to store cells, tissues and genetic material. And even though science fiction has given us many fantastic ideas, the truth is that this method is very rarely used for preserving entire organisms.

  • ‘Classical’ biological collections

They essentially include collections of zoological museums (entire specimens or some of their parts) and herbaria (plants), among others. Some of these collections go back over more than two centuries, so ‘classical’ biological collections are considered the oldest within all types of collections. And also, one of the most valuable.

Collection of inquiline cynipids or gall wasps . Source: Irene Lobato Vila.

Most of these collections are deposited in museums or research centers and, excepting some particular cases, able to be required and examined by the scientific community as it pleases. A lot of private collectors collaborate with these institutions by transfering their specimens, which is quite common among insect collectors.

Drawers from the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution, containing thousands of insect specimens. Source: Irene Lobato Vila.

It is worthwhile remembering that transferring is subjected to an exhaustive revision and done only under contract, so institutions do not accept specimens obtained directly by the collector from illegal methods (e. g., poaching or wild animal trading).

  • Collections of biological information online

Repositories of biological information online. This type of collections has gained a lot of importance during the last years since it allows to share biological information of interest to science and technology immediately around the world. The most consulted online databases are those containing molecular data (proteins, DNA, RNA, etc.), which are necessary for phylogenetic studies and to make ‘trees of life’. Some of these databases are:

Other types of very consulted webs are the online databases of museum collections (which are of very importance to preserve massive amounts of data deposited in this institutions; remember the case of the Brazil National Museum fire) and webs of citizen science projects and collaborations, where either experts and amateurs provide information of their observations (like Biodiversidad Virtual).

Biological collections can be also classified according to their function: scientific collections (research), commercial collections (cell cultures for medicine, pharmacy, etc.) and ‘state’ collections (those created and managed for the sake of the state, like botanical garden, in order to preserve the biodiversity of a region and to promote its study and outreach).

The term of biological collections also embraces the biobanks, that is, collections exclusively containing human samples for biomedical studies. However, we will not go farer with this term.

Why are classical biological collections so necessary?

Biological collections and, especially, classical biological collections, are essential for biodiversity conservation. And no, they are not a direct cause of species extinction: the number of collected specimens is derisory compared with those lost as a consequence of pollution and habitats loss, and collections are carried out following several rules, always making sure to not disturb populations and their habitats.

Although it is true that pictures and biodiversity webs are a very useful tool for the study of worldwide biodiversity, unfortunately they are just a completement of physical collections.

So, why are these classical and physical collections so important?

  • They are a very valuable source of genetic material that can be obtained from stored samples and used in molecular studies. Thanks to these studies, we can approach to the origins and relationships of living beings (phylogeny), know their genetical diversity and the speciation mechanisms that lay behind species differentiation, or even to improve strategies to conserve them (e. g., in reintroduction and conservations plans).
  • They are a perpetual reference for future scientists. One of the basic pillars of zoological and botanical collections are the type specimens or type series: those organisms that a scientist originally used to describe a species. Types must be correctly labelled and stored because they are the most valuable specimens within a collection. The type or types should be able to be examined and studied by all scientists and used by them as a reference for new species descriptions or for comparative studies, since original descriptions can sometimes be insufficient to characterize the species.
Paratype insect (specimen from the type series) properly labelled and deposited in the entomological collection of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C. Source: Irene Lobato Vila.
  • Regarding the previous point, classical collections allow to study the inter and intraspecific morphology (external and internal), which is sometimes impossible to assess only with pictures.
  • Classical collections contain specimens collected from different periods of time and habitats, including extinct species (both from a long time ago and recently due to the impact of human activity) and organisms from endangered ecosystems.  As habitat destruction continues to accelerate, we will never have access to many species and the genetic, biochemical, and environmental information they contain unless they are represented in museum collections. The information these samples provide is essential to investigate how to slow or mitigate the negative pressure on still extant species and ecosystems.
  • They provide us past and present information about geographic distribution of different organisms, since each of them is usually stored together with data about its locality and biology. This kind of information is very useful both for ecological and evolutive studies, as well as for resource management, conservation planning and monitoring, and studies of global change.
  • They are an important tool for teaching purposes and popular science, since people get directly in touch with samples. Pictures and books are undoubtfully essential for outreaching, but insufficient when they are not complemented with direct observations. Both visits to museums and field trips are basic tools for a complete environmental education.
At the end of the course each year,  thousands of students visit the collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Some of them may even visit the scientific collections. Source: Irene Lobato Vila.

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Do you still think biological collections are unnecessary after reading this post? You can leave your comments!

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