Our climate is changing. Since the 1950s, the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice have decreased, the sea level has risen, and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased.

As our climate changes, the biodiversity of our planet is increasingly threatened, as is our way of life. Natural history museum collections represent an amazingly valuable window into biodiversity and it’s changes over time, but how do researchers use these collections to understand past, current and future climate change?

On 8th November 2013, the Australian Museum Research Institute held its first seminar on the role of natural history museum collections in understanding the effects of past, present and future climate change. On the day presenttations from Australian Museum Research Institute scientists Dr. Dan Faith, Dr. Dave Britton, Dr. Pat Hutchings, Dr. Don Colgan, Dr. Mandy Reid, Dr. Dan Bickel, Dr. Ross Pogson and guest speaker Prof. Craig Moritz (Australian National University).

These presenters discuss a wide range of topics around natural history collections and climate change, including the role museum-based phylogenetics in interpreting species loss, the use of museum records to assess the effects of a warming ocean on marine life in the Great Barrier Reef and the role of biodiversity informatics in understanding and conserving biodiversity.

Also see Australian Museum Trustee and University of NSW Dean of Science Merlin Crossley’s article in The Conversation about our seminar “Right at the museum: collections give clues on climate change”.

Videos recorded 8 November 2013

What can museum collections tell us about climate change?

Collections are made, maintained and developed with a view to documenting biological diversity over time but how do researchers use these collections to understand the complex issue of our changing climate?

In this introduction to the seminar series, Dr Brian Lassig, Head of the Australian Museum Research Institute, outlines the role of museum collections in providing a key resource for those seeking to answer questions about climate change. The talk summarises the current data on climate change and provides the broad context for the more focused videos that follow in this 8 part series.

The future of museums and biodiversity research

Dr Craig Moritz illustrates how the early 20th Century collections of Californian birds and mammals amassed by Joseph Grinnell at the University of California, Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, USA, have enabled insights into species response to 100 years of change.

Resurveys of distributions, recollecting of specimens and subsequent analyses of phenotypic and genetic diversity has revealed both common patterns and idiosyncratic responses of species. More importantly this "Grinnell Resurvey Project" demonstrates that carefully curated museum collections provide a unique, physical record of species' and population histories that be interrogated in increasingly diverse ways and to address new questions.

The extent to which museum collections are useful in understanding impacts of climate change

"It should not be surprising that collections are a key source of information about climate change impacts, particularly when we want to assess the impacts on biodiversity (the wide variety of living things, rather than, say, a single species)." Two of Dr Dan Faith’s current climate change research activities highlight such integrative approaches, and the broad utility of Museum work linked to collections.

Natural science collections support climate change research

There is no question that natural science collections are vital resources for climate change researchers. However, museum collections were not collected with climate change research in mind. There are often big gaps in time series, collections from single localities are not repeated over time, the absence of species at a given location and time is not recorded, and the taxa targeted by collectors may not be useful to researchers.

Can we improve the development of collections to better support climate change research? What resources are needed to do this, and what might be the benefits and costs of this approach to collection development? This presentation by Dr Dave Britton aims to generate objective discussions about the future development of museum collections.

Museum records demonstrate range reductions in Brachidontes rostratus

The distribution of species along coastlines can be regarded as approximately one dimensional, that is, linear along the coast with little breadth of distribution. In practice, this significantly enhances the application of museum records to questions about species' ranges. In particular, the records can demonstrate range reductions given reasonable provenance accuracy, and adequate contemporary surveys. This approach has been used to reveal a range reduction in the mussel Brachidontes rostratus, whose distribution characterises the Peronian-Maugean boundary. This reduction is a warning that many other species whose northern range ends at this boundary are at risk of being lost from New South Wales as a result of climate change.

Studies of species distribution change which can be attributed to climate

A recent study looked at distributions of several marine invertebrate groups along the east coast of Australia based on Australian Museum collections. After reviewing the available data molluscs were selected for study because of the volume of their records in the collections and their relatively stable taxonomy. Significant shifts in distribution were found that can be correlated with changes in climate. Dr Pat Hutchings discusses these findings and the continued need for appropriate experts to assess which species may be useful for studying climate change.

Climate change and Montane biotas

Global warming associated with climate change is predicted to drive many montane habitats/ biotas to progressively higher elevations as they track similar climatic zones.

Dr Dan Bickel has been participating on an IBISCA- sponsored survey of Mt Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea, with intensive sampling at eight sites at 500 m intervals, from 200 m - 3700 m. The study will help provide a baseline to study how montane biodiversity will be affected by climate change. There is an argument for establishing a similar but on-going baseline survey in New South Wales, and the Museum collections provide a vital component of such work.

Malacology collections and climate change research

Museum collections hold a wealth of information that can be used to examine the effects of climate change. Dr Mandy Reid discusses how climate change impacts on marine molluscs may be revealed using museum collections.

Increasing global temperatures are likely to affect mollusc distributions, with ranges for colder-adapted species shifting southwards, or for terrestrial molluscs, lattitudinally. Range shifts can be determined based on historical known distributional ranges as determined from our collections. Another serious threat to marine molluscs is ocean acidification, which makes it harder for molluscs to form their calcium carbonate skeletons, resulting in reduced growth rates. Shelled molluscs are likely to become smaller at a given age or completely lose the ability to form exoskeletons. These changes are already evident for some mollusc groups in Australian Museum collections.

Geoscience collections and climate change studies

In the late 1970s the Australian Museum gained the rock collection and field notes from James Lambeth's 1947- 48 expedition to the sub-Antarctic Heard Island Volcano. A new study on this collection by a PhD student from the University of Tasmania is using isotope and other analysis methods on these rocks to find clues to former ice and sea-levels to reconstruct recent climate changes.

Limestone caves are 'time vaults' which preserve climate data within their calcite speleothems. Measurements of Uranium/Thorium/Lead isotopes, luminescence and palaeomagnetism can give ages, while oxygen & carbon isotopes can correlate to rainfall, warmer/colder periods, and surface vegetation data, over a several 1000 to about 500,000 year time period, to reconstruct recent climate history.