This post has been updated.
The curators of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Louisiana-Monroe got grim news this March from the school's director: The museum's research collection had to be moved out of its current home. The reason? The space was needed for expanded track facilities.
The curators were given 48 hours to find a new place on campus to store the collection — something they weren't able to do. Now they must get another institution to take their several million specimens. Their hard deadline was July, when the track renovations were slated to begin. And if the collection wasn't moved by then, curators said, it would be destroyed.
The news raised alarms in the close-knit museum collections community. Faced with rising costs and competing priorities, dozens of small institutions have been forced to give up their specimens in recent decades.
The ULM collection includes some 6 million fish specimens collected by ULM ichthyologist Neil Douglas, one of the leading experts on the fish of Louisiana, as well as half a million native plants. It is an important record of biodiversity in northern Louisiana — a region that stands to see significant environmental impacts as a result of climate change.
But as of July 3, right on deadline, all 6.5 million specimens have found new homes. The plant collection will go to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, a non-profit research center in Fort Worth. Insects will be taken in by Mississippi State University, and the reptile and amphibian specimens are headed to the University of Texas at Arlington.
The museum's famous fish collection will be cared for a consortium of universities headed by Tulane, according to local paper the News-Star. None of the specimens will be destroyed, ULM Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael A. Camille told the paper.
— John Overholt (@john_overholt) March 29, 2017
Robert Gropp, co-executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and policy director for the Natural Science Collections Alliance, said that smaller collections like this one offer unmatched insight into the history and fate of specific ecosystems.
“Sometimes those collections might be the world-class collection for that specific geographic area because that’s where those researchers spent their careers collecting specimens,” he said. “They’re snapshots of the history, of the genetics and biodiversity, and what lived where and how they interacted. You can't go back and collect those again.”
“To see an institution seemingly walking away from a research enterprise or even an educational enterprise, when these are in fact really informing modern research questions around climate, public health and life in general,” Gropp continued. “It's disappointing.”
ULM Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Pani told the News Star, that the university can no longer afford to keep the collection, which is not open to the public but used for faculty and student research. The collection includes specimens stored in flammable alcohol, so it has to be housed in a building with a sprinkler system. But now that running facilities are being updated to meet national track and field standards, there's nowhere else for the specimens to go, he said.
“Unfortunately, the fiscal situation facing the university over the years requires us to make choices like this,” Pani said.
In an email to The Washington Post, Pani said that he has asked the biology faculty to scale down the collection so it will fit in a classroom. The remaining specimens will be better preserved at an institution with more resources to care for them, he said, adding that the university will try to make sure that remains in Louisiana or at least in the southeastern U.S.
The museum itself will remain on campus and open to the public, Pani said, but its planned expansion has been postponed for two years.
The situation has sparked anger from the scientific community, which has seen this sort of thing happen before.
— Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) March 28, 2017
Not to mention the 3.3 million specimens who were sacrificed for science. These were meant to be studied in perpetuity, not to be thrown out
— Prosanta Chakrabarty (@PREAUX_FISH) March 28, 2017
Most of the 1,800 or so natural history collections in the United States are smaller, highly specific collections like the one at ULM. Faced with budget cuts and competing priorities, institutions have been forced to pare back.
“The great majority of these are hanging by a thread,” Michael Mares, director of the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, told Nature in 2015. “They have nobody to care for them.”
Last year, the National Science Foundation temporarily suspended its Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which helps pay to organize, maintain and catalogue biological collections. The program has since restarted and is accepting new funding applications. But the NSF's future is unclear — the $7.7 billion agency wasn't even mentioned in the fiscal 2018 budget proposal that the White House released this month.
When budgets are cut, research specimens and staff are often the hardest hit. These collections are not on display, and much of the public wouldn't notice their disappearance. But they house about 99 percent of natural history specimens nationwide. They are where most museum science happens.
More than 100 North American herbaria — research collections of dried and labeled plants — have been lost since 1997, according to a 2015 report in Nature. The number of curators at several major museums has declined significantly in the same period. When the Field Museum in Chicago fell into debt several years ago, it slashed millions of dollars from its research budget. In 2013, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden laid off several researchers, suspended its science program and donated its 330,000-specimen herbarium elsewhere.
These research specimens — and the curators who study them — have immense scientific value, said Larry Page, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. They are the basis for almost all taxonomic research and are vital to understanding changes in the health and distribution of species. Collections-based research has resulted in the discovery of new species and has helped save creatures on the brink of extinction.
“In a period of rapid changes in the environment and climate, specimens in natural history collections serve as the benchmark for gauging the impact,” Page wrote in an email. “The loss of such large and valuable collections as those at the University of Louisiana at Monroe would be a tremendous tragedy to science.”
It's rare for a collection to be thrown out entirely; another institution usually steps in to save it. But Gropp, the American Institute of Biological Sciences co-director, noted that consolidation of collections means more and more specimens are being studied and cared for by fewer people with fewer resources.
“The system as a whole is being stressed,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the number of herbaria that have closed since 1997. More than 100 institutions have closed across North America, not just in the U.S.