Scientific Specimens Are Going Online, But Much Remains Hidden In Storage

Read the full story from NPR.

More than a billion biological specimens are thought to be stashed away in museums and universities and other places across the United States — everything from dead fish floating in glass jars to dried plants pressed between paper to vials of microbes chilling in a freezer.

Until recently, it’s been hard to for researchers to locate all the potentially useful stuff scattered around in storage, even though caretakers say these treasures are like time machines that offer an unrivaled opportunity to understand global change.

“I can go into a shelf and grab a jar off the shelf and look at a river in someplace in southeast Asia in the 1800’s,” says Randy Singer, who is in charge of the fish collection at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, which has over three million preserved fish. “I can know exactly what the fishes were eating. I can know about the chemical composition of the water they lived in.”

For scientists to pull out detailed information like that, however, they first have to know that a particular specimen even exists. In 2011, the National Science Foundation started handing out grants as part of a ten-year push to bring old-fashioned collections into the Internet age. One of the goals was to put specimen records online and into a searchable portal called iDigBio.

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