Dioramas, specimen jars, and stacks of books are all images that come to mind when you think of natural history museums. Museums are not just filled with primary school students on field trips but with invaluable collections. Museum curators are not just librarians cataloging their specimens but scientists and researchers helping to save species. With the number of endangered species increasing, museums have evolved into a major resource for biologists and other researchers who study genetics, taxonomy, comparative anatomy, and even behavior.
Field biologists need to understand the animals they study. They need to understand each animal’s living requirements (food, water, space, territory, and reproductive strategies), but also anatomy and physiology. It is important to understand what makes an animal jump, fly, and live without water for long periods of time. So off to the museum they go.
We have established how important museums are, but where does the museum get their specimens? One place is from us. San Diego Zoo Global has an immense and diverse collection exceeding 7,500 animals. Many of these animals are not displayed anywhere else in the US, which makes the collection unique not only to visitors but to museums and researchers. After an extensive necropsy and investigation of an animal’s death, the body may be saved for a museum.
One of the museums we work with is our neighbor, the San Diego Natural History Museum. Phillip Unitt, the museum’s curator of birds and mammals, boasts that “donations from the San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Disease Labs have given our collection a worldwide dimension it would otherwise not have.”
Phil likes to share the story of hedgehogs during museum collection tours. Hedgehogs were evolving 50 million years ago in San Diego County. Though now extinct in North America, paleontologists at the museum are able to compare the local fossilized remains to the African hedgehog carcasses received from the San Diego Zoo.
Animals are amazing in their diversity, anatomy, physiology, and adaptability. We continue to learn about them even after death. Archiving and sharing tissue samples from them provide rare and extremely valuable resources for current disease investigations and future research.
April Gorow is a research coordinator for the Wildlife Disease Laboratories, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Victor Lives On.