Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Collecting the Real Thing

Worldwide Science at Carnegie Museum of Natural History   

By R.J. Gangewere

When Charles Darwin argued in 1859 that humans were descended from apes, educated people were outraged.  When Alfred Wegener proposed in 1915 that the continents were drifting apart, he was laughed at. When Stephen Jay Gould argued in the 1990s that humankind was only a tiny accident on a minor side branch of the evolutionary tree, people were upset.  

Each scientist works from the scientific collections and evidence of his or her own time, and these three theorists came to conclusions that changed the way people think about the world.  Surprises about the natural world continue in our time, and in some ways have been accelerated.  This is because in the last century research collections have grown remarkably, computers have learned to analyze databases, molecular study has taken investigation to a new level, and new areas of the world have become more accessible.

Museum research is like putting the apple back on the tree

The scientists at Carnegie Museum of Natural History are very much at the frontier of this continuous age of discovery. They collect worldwide, document  specimens scientifically, develop systematic collections, and share them with world experts.  They publish prolifically in scientific journals, are part of a global network of specialists in their field, and they ask questions about Earth history that are narrowly specific but often fundamental to our understanding of evolution and the way the world works.

One clear sign of the museum's priorities, notes director Bill DeWalt, is that a whopping 42 percent of its annual budget is devoted to research and the maintenance of its collections. Another recent sign is the development of a new position--Associate Director of Research and Collections.  This will be filled by Hans-Dieter Sues, who comes to Pittsburgh from the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, where he was vice-president with similar responsibilities. 

Internationally, Carnegie Museum of Natural History has 120 research associates and field workers who add to its collections, study its specimens, and contribute to scientific publications.  Some are from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, but many are based in research institutes, museums and universities in China, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Australia, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, and other countries.

Paleontologist Zhexi-Luo regards his research colleagues as "the best in China" when he does fieldwork in that country. Anthropologist Sandra Olsen works with the world's foremost authorities on horses for her studies of the nomadic horse culture of Eastern Asia.  Olsen's scientific colleagues from Russia, Europe and the United States assembled at Powdermill Nature Reserve for a scientific retreat in 2000--topped off by a day of horse activities in collaboration with the Rolling Rock Club. Powdermill has hosted a series of international study groups in various disciplines.  The rustic setting in the beautiful Laurel Highlands makes it an ideal retreat.

What Collections Tell Us

In today's environmentally challenged world, museum scientists are called upon to document the recent past.  What butterflies flew in  western Pennsylvania 50 years ago?  The museum can answer with tens of thousands of real specimens.  Big collections have one of their greatest values in assisting in conservation and the management of living things--in planning for biodiversity.

Museum science also redefines the ancient past.  Did birds evolve from dinosaurs?  In the Victorian era, famous naturalists such as Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin could theorize that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but they lacked today's collection-based evidence of transitional species, and the modern analytical techniques to support their arguments. Today, the museum has the fossils to make the argument.

New discoveries constantly increase our knowledge. The earliest known placental mammal species--the "Dawn mother" (Eomaia scansoria), was recently brought to light by paleontologist Zhexi Luo and mammals curator John Wible. Luo is associate curator of the section of Vertebrate Paleontology, which houses the famous collection of fossil dinosaurs that originally placed Carnegie Museum high on the list of world research museums.

Curator Christopher Beard, another vertebrate paleontologist, recently received the prestigious MacArthur Fellows award for his research into primate evolution. One of Beard's accomplishments is the discovery in China in 1995 of a 40-million year old fossil primate that he named Eosimius centennicus, in honor  that year of the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. 

The head of vertebrate paleontology, curator Mary Dawson, herself documented the first occurrence of mammal migration across the North Atlantic from North America to Western Europe. These extinct "ice mice" crossed 50 million years ago from one continent to another on a land bridge, a migration that indirectly reinforced Wegener's theory of moving continents.

The museum "conducts exceptional scientific inquiry to create knowledge of, and to promote stewardship of, Earth and its life." 

—Museum mission statement

More directly reinforcing the theory of moving continents is the decade-long work of paleontologist David Berman.  Working with colleagues in Central Germany, Berman has demonstrated similarities between animals in North America and Central Europe during the Permian period (280-230 million years ago), a time of mass extinctions and a profusion of amphibian species.  By looking at older marine fossils from over 350 million years ago, invertebrate paleontologist Albert Kollar helps document changes in biodiversity, and the global extinctions of species, all related to rising and falling sea levels. Having collections that represent long periods of time spread over great physical distances is a key to explaining the origins and variations of species.

There are ten scientific sections with important collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural history.  With some 20 million scientifically identified research specimens, this museum has a long-standing reputation as one of the world's top 10 research museums.  Despite the small size of its curatorial staff, the museum's researchers consistently publish as many or more research articles in prestigious journals like Nature and Science than do the combined faculties of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.   

The Collector's Passion, and Impact

It's no surprise that research collections reflect the passions of the scientists.  Some men are happier with their collection of shells than millionaires are with their dollars, said a Victorian writer.  This is especially true when the collections have many "type" specimens (or "holotypes"). These are the original examples used to identify each unique species, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History has thousands of them, including famous dinosaur type specimens like Tyrannosaurus rex and Diplodocus carnegii.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History's collections often have unforseen impact.  The freshwater shells collected by the museum's Arnold Ortmann a century ago are now regarded as the gold standard for identifying the species that once lived in western Pennsylvania's unpolluted rivers and streams.  This is critical to modern conservation efforts in the region.  Another long-range impact developed in Peru in the 1990s, when Carnegie Museum anthropologist James Richardson III collected shellfish and fish remains from ancient coastal settlements.  This, in turn, led to conclusions about the origins of El Niňo, the ocean-atmospheric system that produces catastrophic rains, warmer temperatures, and coastal flooding.  Richardson also recently solved one of the greatest mysteries in western Pennsylvania archaeology - what happened to the Monongahela Indians who had disappeared from southwest Pennsylvania by 1635?  On the basis of tree ring data, he and his colleagues have proposed that drought destroyed their agriculture, forcing them to leave the area.

The head of the section of Mollusks, Tim Pearce, can give examples of  how collected species are used to further "bio-prospecting"--the identification of certain species with economic value.  One example is a tropical marine snail that produces a chemical 100 to 1000 times more powerful than morphine, without the side effects.  This chemical might have medical value as a pain killer and is currently in clinical trials.  The practical value of collections is found not only in medicine, but also in industry, conservation and entertainment. 

In all this research, the passion that unites museum scientists is that their work is collection-based. Curators are hired because they can grow, support, defend, and share their research collections, says John Rawlins, associate curator of Invertebrate Zoology.

Research collections evolve over long periods of time--making them different from some university and private collections, which reflect the focus of one collector, or an institutional mission.  Museum collections and research are also a hotbed of educational experiences for young people, who are the collectors and scientists of tomorrow.  One spectacular educational exhibit, Hillman Hall of Minerals & Gems under mineralogist Marc Wilson is known internationally as one of the top three mineral exhibits in the country.

Focusing the Research

Collections have special strengths.  The museum's Curator of Birds, Brad Livezey, notes that he curates one of the best scientific collections of bird skeletons, but that the greatest collection of bird skins in the United States is at the American Museum of Natural History.   Entomologist Chen Young collects and researches craneflies, one of the world's important insect food sources for other life forms, and a key indicator of unpolluted streams.  The museum's cranefly collection is one of the top two in North America for specimens from around the globe.

The Anthropology collection at Carnegie Museum of Natural History emphasizes New World material--North and South America--and  pre-European material (before 1700) in western Pennsylvania.  Thus, Anthropology curator David Watters points out that when an "orphan" collection seeking a new home is offered to the museum, he judges its value by the section's research needs and goals.

The different states of development in each field of research can be seen by the questions that scientists ask.  In some fields, the age of discovery is past, and the age of interpretation and analysis dominates. Since there are few new living birds or mammals to collect and describe, ornithology and mammalogy turn more easily toward theoretical analysis.   John Weins of the section of Amphibians and Reptiles is one scientist who seeks the answer to theoretical questions such as why there are so many species prolific in the Earth's hottest zone.  Is there something there that promotes diversity of species, or is there conversely something in the colder temperate zone that reduces diversity?

Other fields, like paleontology, botany, malacology and entomology, find the age of discovery still booming, with abundant numbers of new species yet to be discovered and described.  In entomology, experts face a future in which potentially millions of new species await scientific description.


In the fall of 2002, experts from Carnegie Museum of Natural History begin a worldwide effort to inventory and collect fauna such as insects, plants, fungi, earthworms, and snails remaining in Haiti and Dominican Republic--two of the most threatened environments of the world.  Most of the vertebrates such as mammals and birds are already known.  This three-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the scientific experts from Carnegie Museum, entomologists John Rawlins and Chen Young, will supervise the inventory in partnership with the Smithsonian and Harvard University.  Hundreds of scientists from all over the world will participate.

All these scientists will focus on identifying and describing specimens, and building collections.  In short, they will be in the field using the irreplaceable techniques of museum science.  As Director Bill DeWalt says, “The great natural history museums are a kind of ‘library’ of Earth and its inhabitants.  I personally feel a tremendous responsibility to preserve and protect that library for use by both scientists today as well as scientists of future generations.”   




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