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Museum collections reflect species abundance in the wild

New research published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution compared museum collection specimens to abundance in the wild. The research was the collaboration of 19 scientists from the United States and Europe. The researchers analyzed 1.4 million field observations and 73,000 museum records, comprising more than 22,000 species.

Surprisingly, the study showed that museum collections, despite almost never being standardized, are a good measure of species abundance in the wild. 

“We can use this relationship to predict the relative abundance of species in the wild when field collections are not available or even possible,” said study lead author Nicholas Gotelli of the University of Vermont.

“It also means that we can estimate the relative abundance of species from earlier decades, even for species that are currently very rare or possibly extinct.”

The study was initiated in 2019 when two other researchers collaborated with Gotelli to analyze Florida ant records for the past 60 years.

“The Florida ant dataset offered an amazing window into the past and suggested that non-native species have gradually become ecological dominants over of a span of many decades. But I was concerned that a reviewer could knee-cap the entire analysis by simply questioning whether museum specimen records are related to species’ abundance in the field,” explained Gotelli.

Not only does the new method offer a new tool for conservation scientists and ecologists, it upholds the importance of museum collections and a type of science often overshadowed by more ‘advanced’ techniques. 

“This is really exciting,” said study co-author Corrie Moreau of Cornell. “This is another example of the scientific importance of museum collections. I bet the people collecting these specimens decades or centuries ago had no idea all the ways they would be used.” 

The tool, although useful and powerful, does have some important limitations. It seems that extremely rare species are overly represented and extremely common species are under represented in collections. This is basically because it’s more exciting to collect something rare and less interesting to collect something very abundant.    

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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