Biodiversity collections are well used in the endeavor to illustrate changes in the environment over the recent and not-so-recent past. But can other scientific collections further describe the changes on our planet over longer timescales?

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How do you study Environmental Change in Scientific Collections?

We at SciColl - like many other institutions, governments and individuals - are concerned with the apparent changes to our environment over the recent centuries. As a result, there is a heightened interest among environmentalists to research these changes. Scientific collections offer a unique resource to aid in this effort.

Biodiversity collections, especially those held in natural history museums, can contain specimens and biodiversity records that go back decades, if not centuries. Many of the most famous expeditions of the 19th century returned with now infamous stores of plants and animals. In the early 20th century, naturalists began more methodically surveying regions for biodiversity. And as technology evolved over the 20th century, our ability to collect, preserve and maintain specimens allowed for the continued expansion of collections.

In the context of global environmental change, many of these historically collected specimens and samples can be used to compare with more recently collected material. Studies can investigate changes in biodiversity, species richness, species range, species habitat preferences and a host of other topics over timescales longer than the career of a single scientist. What’s more, comparisons can be made with the fossil record to put the science of the current age into the context of prior epochs.

But - that’s not all. Another group of samples frequently used to investigate global change are cores - mainly ice cores and sediment cores. These samples, by virtue of the methods by which they’re created, offer a look back in time from a single core. While the biodiversity collections do not significantly overlap in time with cores, paleontological collections do.

Major Partners: Natural History Museum London

The Natural History Museum London (NHM) is one of the largest repositories for biological and mineralogical collections. The NHM Climate Change Working Group produced a landmark study and several papers on the use of natural history collections in environmental change research (Johnston et al. 2011; Lister et al. 2011; the ‘London Collection Protocol’ Scientific Initiative Fund Report). The NHM volunteered to lead the proposed Environmental Change workshop and conference as part of the NHM research initiative on Origins and Evolution and as part of its SciColl membership responsibilities.

Two-day Conference, NHM London

Evaluating and predicting change in the global environment is the largest scientific and policy challenge of our time. Forecasting the effects of future change depends on our understanding of changes in the past. Natural history and other scientific collections - such as core, soil and genetic libraries - offer relatively underutilized or rarely integrated sources of critical evidence about the past. These collections hold the potential for refining our understanding of how natural systems respond to environmental change.

Breakout session at SPNHC2014

SPNHC, NatSCA, Museum Wales agreed to have SciColl and NHM London host a breakout session at their annual meeting. This will allow us to begin the discussions outlined in our September event with the natural history collections community.

Scientific Collections and Environmental Change

SPNHC Website

  • 16.10 Unlocking Evidence: Scientific Collections and Environmental Change Ellinor Michel & Eileen Graham EC1
  • 16.25 TBD Mark Spencer EC2
  • 16.40 DOAD, NODE and NANODe: integrating ostracod collections and databases for environmental change research applications David J. Horne & Judith Price EC3
  • 16.55 Investigating the impact of late Quaternary environmental changes using ancient DNA from collared lemming Selina Brace, Eleftheria Palkopoulou, Love Dalén, John Stewart & Ian Barnes EC4
  • 17.10 Forgotten molecules, long lost records Matthew Collins EC5
  • 17.30 Discussing Evidence: Scientific Collections and Environmental Change - Panel Discussion and Audience Participation Eileen Graham & Ellinor Michel EC6


Though not collected for toxin analyses, lichen collections in herbaria have been used to document increases in airborne lead levels.