In an article in Biological Reviews, Australian Museum Senior Fellow Dr Graham Pyke and Stanford Universitys' Professor Paul Ehrlich, author of the best-seller The Population Bomb, discuss the increasing use of biological collections in museums and herbaria to address environmental and ecological research issues.

Traditionally, biological collections have been used widely for taxonomic and systematics research – that is, for describing and classifying species and understanding their evolutionary relationships.

X-ray of frog
X-ray of frog with deformed frog with right leg missing. Image: Graham Pyke
© Australian Museum

With a growing interest in environmental and ecological issues within both the scientific and general communities, Dr Graham Pyke and Professor Paul Ehrlich have been exploring the scope for biological collections to answer other kinds of research questions.

‘Over about the last 20 to 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in the annual number of published scientific articles that report or discuss the use of biological collections in relation to ecological and environmental issues’, said Dr Pyke.

Pyke and Erlich identified about 400 publications since 1985 that used biological collections from museums and herbaria to answer ecological questions. These covered areas as diverse as deciding on criteria for selecting areas for conservation, the decline of species, and biogeographical and climate change questions.

Reporting their findings in Biological Reviews, they discuss current limitations of biological collections and suggest how they could be acquired and managed to become even more powerful research tools.

Graham H. Pyke and Paul R. Ehrlich. 2010. Biological collections and ecological/environmental research: a review, some observations and a look to the future. Biological Reviews, 85(2):247-66.