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No Specimen Left Behind: Publishing the Academy’s Biological Collections Data Online

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Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, academy collections, Academy History, museum specimens

Created: 4/28/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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There is a secret side to the Nature Museum. Behind the butterflies, behind the dioramas, behind the turtles and frogs and snakes, the museum has an offsite collections facility filled with nearly 300,000 natural history specimens. Wander through these collections and you might come across a Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) collected in 1889 by an astute citizen who purchased the pigeon from his neighborhood meat market. You might see a specimen of the Southern Rock Vole (Microtus chrotorrhinus carolinensis), which was used in 1931 to describe this species for the first time. You also might turn up a sparrow prepared just last month by one of the museum’s dedicated taxidermy volunteers. The Academy’s collections help us explore past biodiversity, as well as gather and preserve evidence for future generations.

Drawers containing specimens of the extinct Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon.

So how do you get to this hidden side of the museum? Well, that’s a problem we’ve been trying to address. The Academy has an ethical duty to preserve and provide access for our specimens, but our collections facility isn’t really designed for drop-in visitors. You could email our friendly Collections staff, Dawn and Erica, but they are only two people and don’t always have time for guests. Instead, we worked with VertNet, a project funded by the National Science Foundation to bring together specimen data from collections across the country, to publish all of our mammalogy and oology (bird eggs and nests) specimen data online. It’s not quite the same as exploring the collections in person, but being able to search through our collections online is a great first step.

VertNet Screenshot

Try it for yourself at www.VertNet.org. As of mid-April, we have data from 4,643 mammal specimens and 9,075 bird eggs and nests published on VertNet, as well as on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and iDigBio (two other projects that bring together natural history specimen data). On the VertNet homepage, you can search for specimens with our collection prefix (CHAS) by going to “Search Options” and entering CHAS in the “InstitutionCode” box. See if you can find the oldest specimen, or the specimen collected farthest away, or your favorite mammal or bird species!

Type specimen of Southern Rock Vole

We are currently working hard to make data from our ornithology (bird) and herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) collections available on VertNet also. Eventually, you’ll be able to access all of our specimen data online, including images. After all, these aren’t the Academy’s specimens—they’re yours. We’ve just been taking care of them for the past 150 years, and will continue to do so for the next hundred.

 

Erica Krimmel
Assistant Collections Manager

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