Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Of 2016: A year of visual communication


2016 rang in with a new medium for us at SciColl: a video series! This year we jumped feet-first into video profiles of folks working with collections every day. We inquired about how they use collections, who they collaborate with, and how collections-based research is unlike any other. The stories are as diverse as the collections, and we’re looking forward to bringing you more in 2017!
  • Interested in plants and how to study the tallest trees in the forest if you can’t get to canopy? Check out The Ultimate Identifier.
  • Flies are everywhere, but these kinds of flies are often easier to find in collections than the field. Learn more in The Assassin (Flies) of Entomology.
  • What do archaeology, wildlife management and conservation genomics have in common? Check out The Archaeogenomics Equation and learn how this interdisciplinary field got started.
  • We also collaborated with our friends at Biodiversity Heritage Library to revamp one of their 2014 blog posts into a video: Monsters Are Real. Is it just us, or do these monsters seemingly come to life when animated with an appropriate soundtrack?
Looking for more? We always are, and compile the best from around the web on our YouTube Channel. Come see what we have in our playlists:
We look forward to a blog-filled 2017 and hope you’ll continue to join us!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Best Of 2016: Peeking behind the curtain

In 2016, our most popular articles included a profile of David Inouye (left) leading up to our food security workshop; the engineering behind biorepositories; and a piece about the challenge in describing new or undescribed species.

Without further ado, the end of the year “most read” list is here! Looking at the posts that captivated the largest audiences, it seems this year people were particularly intrigued by stories that pulled the curtain back on collections, their operations, and how to apply the information inside.

In Describing the Undescribed, we learned how to describe a new species with the particular challenge of ensuring you’re not re-describing an already named species. When working in small geographic areas or on a group of closely related species, collections can help researchers verify their new species and highlight what makes them unique.

In The Engineering Behind Repositories, we discussed the challenges of operating a repository. In addition to housing specimens in the appropriate containers to planning out the current collection size and its growth potential, repository managers have to worry about maintaining the right environmental conditions. Errors in technology can have a profound impact on sensitive collections and it pays to have a backup system - even if it never gets used.

Lastly, in Climate Change and Phenology, one of the keynote speakers from our Food Security Symposium explained how his work on pollinators and their ecology can be useful when working to reduce their decline and subsequent loss of ecosystem services. The importance of this work - and the work of pollinators - cannot be overstated.

Many folks also stopped by the blog to check out our new video series! We’ll recap that series and some other videos we’re paying attention to next week!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Monsters are real

Have you ever considered where the myth of monsters originated? As it turns out, the link between science and the supernatural is smaller than you may think.

Friday, October 21, 2016

In the News: Monkeys and rodents and medicine - Oh my!

Fig.1. Capuchin monkeys may have had a role in the creation of early tools. (Credit: Nature)

This week we take a look at archaeological and other earth-based research. While archaeology has traditionally been about the study of human activity, what does it mean if our primate cousins can make tools similar to those of ancient humans? That and more in this week’s round up!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A reason to celebrate: National Fossil Day

Fig. 1. Fossilized bee's nests. (Credit: Parker, et. al, 2016)

Today, Oct. 12, marks National Fossil Day, an annual event put on by the National Parks Service to raise awareness of how fossils contribute to science. So you think you want to be a paleontologist, or perhaps you just want to learn of fossils' capabilities? Here’s a bit of a primer to help you decide:

Friday, October 7, 2016

In the News: Beer for climate change and out of Africa

Fig.1. Papyrus before (left) and after (right) the Brooklyn Museum works its conservation magic. (Credit: The Brooklyn Museum)

From rock drawings preserved in place to the painstaking processes of lab-based specimen care, there’s lots to explore in this week’s round up of collections news:

Friday, September 30, 2016

Food security scientists talk collections, interdisciplinary research

Fig.1. Faith Bartz moderates the environmental stressors and benefits panel on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Participants included Muni Muniappan, Virginia Tech; Stephanie Yarwood, University of Maryland; Edna Makule, Nelson Mandela Africa Institute for Science and Technology; Maxine Levin, USDA-NCRS; and John Dickie, Kew Gardens. (Credit: Tricia Fulks Kelley)

BELTSVILLE, Md. -- Some of the world’s top researchers in food security met at the USDA National Agricultural Library from Sept. 19 to 21 to discuss scientific collections’ role in the research area.

Scientific Collections International, or SciColl, a global consortium devoted to promoting the use and impact of object-based scientific collections across disciplines, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted the three-day event. The symposium allowed researchers from across disciplines to talk about the ever-increasing demand on food and how collections-based research can help in the challenges of feeding billions.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The answers are hidden in history

Kristen Gremillion
“Somewhere in human history we seemed to have switched to a need to increase yields of crops,” said Kristen Gremillion, paleoethnobotanist and professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University.

Through fieldwork and the study of museum collections, Gremillion documents just that: the domestication of plants. The work - advanced by Bruce Smith, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution - allows researchers to look at patterns of variation and plant origins and determine how human behavior affected what was grown. Results come from the study of archaeological materials and ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Climate change and phenology

Fig.1. David Inouye studies phenology and climate change’s effect on pollinators, such as bees, hummingbirds and flies. (Credit: David Inouye)

When David Inouye looks out the window of his Colorado home, he’s looking at the mountains. He’s traded in the D.C. suburbs for this view, which also happens to be his office.

The professor emeritus of the University of Maryland has worked at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory throughout his career, focusing on phenology and climate change’s effect on pollinators. Inouye specifically studies hummingbirds, bumblebees and flies. He has collaborated on other projects studying butterflies and solitary bees. As a graduate student in the 1970s, Inouye began to study how the timing and abundance of flowering of plants changes from day to day, year to year. With 30 plots to study during growing season and gathering data from 120 different species, the study has been ongoing.

Friday, September 2, 2016

In the News: Citizen science at the forefront

Fig.1. Citizen volunteers learn about Mississippi River fish species. (Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

Investigating and understanding the world around us has always sparked the curiosity of scientists and non-scientists alike. Luckily, these days you don’t need to have a degree in science to contribute to research in nearly every discipline. Many programs have been developed to capture the wonder and data at the fingertips of citizens - and there’s no sign of this trend slowing down.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

NPS celebrates a century

Fig.1. Historic photos from through the years. (Credit: National Parks Service)

Today, the National Parks Service celebrates 100 years. Beyond free admission to all 400-plus parks across the country from today until Aug. 28, there are a bevy of other facts you might not have known about the scientific endeavors of NPS, its parks and their admirers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The engineering behind repositories

Fig.1. Specimens in a freezer. (Credit: Sarah Pack)

“Those (refrigerators) heat up, (samples) die. You can lose your sample if things don’t work properly,” said Phil Baird, former vice president of operations at the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC).

At Harvard’s McLean Hospital in 2012, that’s exactly what happened. When freezers shut down at the hospital without triggering alarms, 150 brain samples, banked to study autism, decayed.

“... Up in Boston a few years ago, they had thousands of autism brain samples, and they weren’t properly set up and monitored. And the power went out and they lost them,” Baird said. “Having a repositories isn’t just plugging in a bunch of freezers.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Maryland's hidden treasure

Fig.1. Sara Rivers-Cofield displays a part of the
MAC Lab collection. (Credit: MAC Lab)
Sara Rivers-Cofield always planned on pursuing archaeology. Her background prepared her for it. She bagged a bachelor’s in history and anthropology at Murray State University and a master’s in applied anthropology at the University of Maryland. She landed a position working in collections after doing seven years of fieldwork.

After working on a conservation assessment at Historic St. Mary’s City, Rivers-Cofield found herself in the “right place, right time” when there was an opening at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab) at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in St. Leonard, Md.

Rivers-Cofield is curator of federal collections at the MAC Lab, a repository for archaeological finds recovered from land-based and underwater projects conducted in Maryland.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Food security workshop registration now open

We are pleased to invite you to register for our symposium, Stressors and Drivers of Food Security: Evidence from Scientific Collections. The symposium will be hosted by the US Department of Agriculture at the National Agriculture Library in Beltsville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., Monday to Wednesday, 19-21 September 2016.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Describing the undescribed

Fig. 1. Chiloglanis kerioensis, one of the species Hank Bart and colleagues discovered in Kenya. (Credit: R.C. Schmidt).

Henry “Hank” Bart, director of Tulane University’s Biodiversity Research Institute, had never done research in Africa, much less visited the continent, before 2008. Now after intense suckermouth catfish research in Kenya over the past few years, Bart is looking to continue his work there.

Friday, July 22, 2016

In the News: Biodiversity in Beer and Nut-cracking Monkeys

Fig.1. Some beer labels now display Genebank accession numbers. (Credit: Ove Fosså.)

A powerful DNA tool holds the answers to crop population genetic variations, and archaeologists discover tools that monkeys used to get their nut fix. That and more in our science news roundup.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Archaeogenomics Equation

What do you get when you mix archaeology, ecology, wildlife management, and conservation genomics? No, this isn’t a tagline similar to a duck-in-a-bar joke. What you have is an emerging field of studying called conservation archaeogenomics.

At the forefront of this work are Robert Fleischer and Jesús Maldonado, both of the Center for Conservation Genomics (CCG) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and National Zoo. The purpose of archaeogenomics is to use genomic methods to learn how humans impacted the environment over time, and Fleischer and Maldonado use this information to make recommendations for conservation.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Greatest Hits

Fig.1. Museum in Pennsylvania (Credit: Michelle J. Enemark, 2011) and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault 
 (Credit: Mari Tefre, Global Crop Diversity Trust, via Flickr

Editor’s Note: After two years of exciting and engaging work, staff writer Adele Crane will be leaving Scientific Collections International for graduate school in Arizona. Out of 214 posts garnering more than 34,500 views, Adele chose some of her favorite articles.

From a small natural history museum in Pennsylvania to a seed-bank built to survive doomsday scenarios, collections reside all around the world in many forms. My work over the past two years with Scientific Collections International (SciColl) has been to chip away at only a fraction of the specimens and samples out there, exploring a slew of topics from microbes in your backyard to moon rocks - and on rare cases, even both!

When we initially started the blog, we wanted to connect collections to disease research and response. Articles on cross-disciplinary and novel approaches to outbreaks would lead up to SciColl’s very first workshop on Emerging Infectious Diseases. The workshop was indeed timely, coinciding with the Ebola epidemic in Africa, and it highlighted the need to make this type of active outreach ongoing, instead of sporadic.

Perhaps as a preface to the type of work I will pursue in graduate school, my favorite articles were a fantastic education on how to bridge unique specimens with historic and current disease research. To break down the broad topic of “emerging infectious diseases,” we focused on smaller case studies of known and relatively unknown pathogens that affect millions around the world:

  • Disease Collections and How They Can Save the World: In 1976, a broken vial of blood transported in luggage from the Democratic Republic of the Congo found its way to the young Belgian scientist, Peter Piot. The blood carried one of the most feared pathogens in current disease research. 

  • C. Miguel Pinto, the Disease Detective: A conversation with C. Miguel Pinto in our very own museum explored the cross-section of disease research and classic taxonomy, in which basic evolutionary principles are tested. 

Fig.2. Plate of microorganisms that were cultured from the soil
(Credit: Julia Stevens)

Over the course of the blog, we looked beyond case studies and current research challenges. How can ancient specimens inform future problems? There are many examples where collections were used to further important research in areas like environmental change and food security.

When we take a step back, the larger impacts of educating the next generation of scientists or bringing countries together to protect biodiversity are extraordinarily important. After working with SciColl, I am grateful to have gained that perspective and I hope to hear many more of these stories in years to come:

  • Microbes and Middle Schools: Citizen science has the ability to reach both students and researchers in powerful ways. Collections that not only support invasive species studies but engage middle schoolers in science are a cornerstone of ongoing work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. 

  • Seeds for the End of the World: Seed banks preserve both biological diversity and cultural heritage. Banks around the world, from Peru to Norway, are working to provide a future for agriculture and historical practices. 

  • Smart Collecting: A New Collecting Culture: What began as a short discussion in our Emerging Infectious Disease workshop turned into a larger conversation about a “collecting culture” that could be improved for museums and biobanks alike.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Save the Date: Food Security Symposium

We are excited to announce the symposium “Stressors and Drivers of Food Security: Evidence from Scientific Collections,” which will bring together researchers and experts on scientific collections across disciplines to address issues regarding food security. This symposium will be held September 19 to 21 at the National Agriculture Library in Beltsville, Md., and will be hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Scientific Collections International.

Friday, July 1, 2016

SciColl presentations at SPNHC and GGBN

We were pleased to attend the SPNHC and GGBN meetings last week in Berlin. We look forward to continuing the conversations with our many colleagues and other collections champions!

If you weren’t able to attend SPNHC, those sessions were recorded. Find them all on iDigBio’s site. David presented in the Collections for the Future session on Thursday afternoon and Eileen presented in the second DemoCamp session on Friday morning.

Our GGBN talks weren’t recorded, but we’ve uploaded the slides for David’s Thematic, Demand-driven Sampling: Economics of Three Strategies, his presentation for GGBN, and Scientific Collections, Food Security and Emerging Infectious Diseases, which he presented at SPNHC.  Eileen’s A Global Registry of Scientific Collections: Striking a Balance Between Disciplinary Detail and Interdisciplinary Discoverability presentation are also uploaded. They can also be found in GGBN’s document library. (If you would like an account, send a request to:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Origin(s) of Outbreaks

Fig.1. Color print of Aedes aegypti mosquito
Credit: Emil August Goeldi, 1905

On Monday, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared a yellow fever epidemic in three provinces, including the heavily populated capital of Kinshasa. The current outbreak has killed more than 300 people in Angola and depleted the world’s vaccine stockpile to protect people in Angola, DRC, and Uganda. Although the outbreak is largely confined to central Africa, scientists worry about its potential spread to Asia, where 2 billion people live in areas infested with the disease’s vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Public health officials do not yet know which factors led to this event becoming the deadliest yellow fever outbreak since 1971. Whether the virus became more virulent or it came in contact with new populations, the question of why now sits at the heart of every outbreak. To answer this question, scientists are teasing apart the genetic and environmental factors that make a disease tick. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

SPNHC/GGBN 2016, in Berlin, Germany

SciColl is excited to be attending the 2016 meetings of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) and the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN). We’re in Berlin, Germany for the week attending sessions and visiting one of our partner organizations, the Museum für Naturkunde.

  • David Schindel, SciColl’s Executive Board Chair, will present a keynote address at GGBN, Thematic, Demand-driven Sampling of the Tree of Life: Barcode of Wildlife Project, on Wednesday at 9:00.

  • Eileen Graham, SciColl’s Program Manager, will moderate a GGBN Plenary session, We Can’t Save Them All: Assessing ex situ Conservation Across Time, Technology and the Uncertainty of the Future, on Thursday starting at 13:30.

  • David will present Scientific Collections and Food Security: Their Role in Predicting and Protecting Our Future Food Supply at SPNHC on Thursday at 16:40.

  • Eileen will give a live demonstration of GRSciColl in the SPNHC DemoCamp session on Friday at 10:20.

  • Eileen will present A Global Registry of Scientific Collections: Striking a Balance Between Disciplinary Detail and Interdisciplinary Discoverability at GGBN on Friday at 11:45.

We look forward to seeing many of our colleagues in Berlin and sharing the highlights on Twitter and back here on the blog.

Bis bald!

Friday, June 17, 2016

In the News: Creating Art and Spreading Hope

Fig.1. Humpback whale breaching in Stellwagen Bank National
Marine Sanctuary (
Credit: Whit Welles/2008)

Amidst fears for the planet’s future, these artists and marine biologists have a clear message of hope. From an active campaign to spread the word, to art that engages children and researchers, we can celebrate the biodiversity and beauty of our oceans. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mercury in a Time of War

Fig.1. British sailors towing warships toward the besieged city of Canton
in 1841 during the 
First Opium War (Credit: Edward Hodges Cree)

Since industrialization, mercury levels in our oceans have tripled. This toxic heavy metal is one of many pollutants that can be seen in environmental records as a testament to human activities in the past. A recent article published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found a new type of environmental record that measures mercury levels in the seawater through time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

In the News: NSF Funding Back on Track

Fig.1. Research on migration, disease, and agriculture depend on a sound collections infrastructure
 (Credit left to right: Joi Ito/2008 pic. cropped, Paul Fürst/1656, Marie Hale/2010)

A critically important source of funding for collections in the United States has been reinstated. Though the program is still under evaluation, this money will go towards the preservation of specimens and infrastructure. This week in the news, we read about this program, as well as research projects underway around the world that depend on collections to further understand human disease, migration, and agriculture.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Brave New World

Fig.1. Cannabis sativa. (Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library)

In a laboratory, just outside downtown Portland, Mowgli Holmes and his team at Phylos Bioscience are embarking on a brave new world.

“We’re creating the first genetically defined collection that has ever been,” he said. “... We know less about it than any other crop.”

That crop Holmes is referring to is cannabis, and that collection he and his team of genetic researchers have been working on the past couple of years is an extensive genomic dataset. Holmes and his group will expand upon the "draft" genomics work previously done.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Brief History Camels (And Humans)

Fig.1. Dromedaries in Israel (Credit: Wilson, 2011)

For the past 3,000 years, single-humped camels, known as dromedaries (Camelus dromedarius), have provided an important source of food and transport to desert communities. The origin of the domesticated dromedary, however, remains relatively unknown. A recent article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals some clues as to where and when humans started to depend upon these animals.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tale of Two Beaks: Darwin and the 21st Century

Fig.1. HMS Beagle in the Strait of Magellan (Credit: R.T. Pritchett, 1900

On 11 May 1820, the HMS Beagle was launched from the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames. Out of three voyages around the world to survey both land and sea, its second and easily most famous voyage cemented the ship’s role in history, thanks to the efforts of a young passenger named Charles Darwin. Now, nearly 200 years later, scientists have returned to the same birds that came to symbolize Darwin’s work in a study that captures evolution in action.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A 4.5 Billion-Year-Old Mystery

Fig.1. An artist’s concept of two celestial bodies the size of Mercury (left) 
and the Moon (right) colliding (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, 2009)

Long before an asteroid hit Earth, killing off all non-avian dinosaurs, a much larger object crashed into our planet. This object, called Theia, is thought to have collided with proto-Earth around 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists think that a glancing blow shaped our early planet and created the Moon out of Theia’s remains. A recent article published in Science, however, may overturn this hypothesis regarding the formation of the Moon.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fossils and our Future Climate

Fig.1. 40 million year old fossil planktonic foraminifera from Tanzania 
(Credit: Paul Pearson/Cardiff University)

According to a study published this week in the journal Nature, tiny fossils from 53 million to 36 million years ago may help to predict the future of climate change. This research, led by scientists from the University of Southampton and partners around the United Kingdom, sheds light on the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and climate during an ancient period in Earth’s history known as the Eocene Epoch.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day 2016: Soil and Sand

Fig.1. Earth Day promotes efforts to protect the planet and the life it holds, from microbes on a plate to huge ecosystems (Credit, left to right, top to bottom: Julia Stevens, Christine Zenino/2009
Laura Cochrane/Mills Park Middle School, Acropara/2011)

On April 22, 1970, a celebration of the first Earth Day kicked off the modern environmental movement. Now, 46 years later, we are dealing with some of the hottest months on record, melting ice sheets, bleaching corals, and more.

However, recent and ongoing research projects offer hope for mitigating climate change challenges. Researchers are using scientific collections - from sediment cores to coral fossils - to understand ancient changes in our planet’s atmosphere and surface. This past year, our blog has highlighted efforts by earth scientists to use lessons from our past to preserve Earth’s future. Read to learn more about these studies and how people around the world are working hard to protect the planet:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Seeds of Scientific Progress

Fig.1. This Chinese seed drill (left) and Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill (right) were both drawn by animals
(Credit: Chinese Seed Drill, Tien Kung Kai Wu/1637Tull Seed Drill, Jethro Tull/1731)

Editor’s Note: Our Food Security Symposium has been postponed until September 2016. Please email us at with any questions or join our mailing-list for routine updates on the new symposium. 

Around 1800, the world's population reached one billion people. In less than 50 years from today, that number is projected to reach 9.7 billion people. Although this rapid increase in population size can largely  be attributed to health, sanitation, and farming innovations in the 20th century, it has roots in the Industrial Revolution.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Millet and the Agricultural Revolution

Fig.1. Professor Martin Jones with millet in north China
Credit: Martin Jones)

Editor’s Note: Our Food Security Symposium has been postponed until September 2016. Please email us at with any questions or join our mailing-list for routine updates on the new symposium. 

Millet’s Long History

Recent research suggests that common millet (Panicum miliaceum) - often used as birdseed today - may have bridged the gap between nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures and agrarian societies in Neolithic Eurasia, holding possible lessons for current food security challenges.