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Rotary Happenings: Natural history museums are the libraries of the natural world

July 4, 2018
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club had a guest speaker on June 22 and she is one of our own, Dorrie Hipschman, executive director of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Her topic was not devoted to the shell museum, but was a related one, "The Importance of Natural History Museums." To name drop a few the Field Museum in Chicago, American Museum of Natural History in New York, Smithsonian and, of course the granddaddy of them all, the Natural History Museum in London.

Hipschman explained that natural history museums are the libraries of the natural world. They keep irreplaceable samples of all the life found on earth. Most of us are familiar with the display case dioramas of animals and their habitats beautifully displayed it a virtual world just inside those glass cases or display collections of unusual and exotic taxidermied animals. However, that is not all that lies within the walls of a natural history museum. Take the elevator up or down from the public rooms and you will find collections of specimens of all sorts of animals, plants, geology, paleontology and more used for scientific study, along with current and historical records pertaining to the specimens. Rooms devoted to species of preserved squirrels, birds and beetles, draws of rattlesnakes, boxes of corals, and packets of herbs and plants, you name it. If it had a presence on earth, there is a collection of the species in a natural history museum. I like this description - cabinets of curiosities.

Why? Because specimens can be studied and a baseline established. Species can be examined for changes due to natural environmental factors and human contributions to the environment. Some of the museums have what is called a "type," or the No. 1 specimen of a new life form. It is the specimen against which all other finds are measured. Hipschman reported: "There's a type for just about everything, except the para type of the American buffalo. Somehow, the Denver Natural History Museum lost type No. 1 and now its base type is American buffalo No. 2."

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Whenever a new animal is found that maybe looks like a similar species, scientists go back to the original type to study similarities and differences. Now, of course, they check DNA. What are scientists looking at? Well, here are a few things: environmental contaminants, introductions of diseases, widespread use of pesticides and DDT use, or anything that may affect and change the evolution of animals during their lifetime. When and why animals become extinct - remember trilobites and dinosaurs - and why there might be an evolution regarding changes to an animal species and their habitants? "A recent National Research Council report states that one priority of a defense plan should be to develop reference specimens and other taxonomic information for pests or pathogens likely to be used in bioterrorist attacks against U.S. agriculture," Hipschman said.

As for the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, it is a natural history museum that increases knowledge of and appreciation for mollusks and their shells using collections, programs and expertise to inspire learning, support scientific research and tell the story of mollusks' importance to people and the natural world. Hipschman said, "The museum has researchers from around the world that work with the shell museum's collection - about 500,000 specimens of 18,318 species." Mollusks are some of the most endangered animals on the planet, and the museums research can help identify the causes of natural and man-made dangers that are present and contributing toward their demise.

How very lucky we are in Sanibel to have such a prestigious natural history museum on-island. The study and research going on at the museum helps identify what is happening in our oceans and water ways and helps plan for corrections based on information garnered from scientific study done. Big plans are ahead for the museum in the very near future and Hipschman's talk helped us understand why the plans will include increasing research capabilities at the museum.

For information about the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club, visit sanibelrotary.org or www.facebook.com/sancaprotary. The club meets every Friday at 7 a.m. at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, at 949 Sand Castle Road, Sanibel; visitors are always welcome to attend.

 
 

 

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