Out of the dark: why collections matter

Fossil aquatic insect (corixid) from the Orr collection.

In a storage room of my department were several small and old wooden cabinets, with the word “Fossil on the front of a few drawers. Inside there were pieces of tan shale with fossil plants, fish scales, and insects and with numbers on them such as 155–20. But no labels and no indication what the numbers meant or where the fossils came from. So, for a long time I ignored them. Then I noticed a tiny folded up piece of paper, with a note indicating that someone named H.C. Becker wanted the insect specimens identified. Who was H. C. Becker? A little digging revealed that this was Horace Becker, who had been a paleobotanist at the New York Botanic Garden. I obtained a copy of a 1969 paper by Becker on Tertiary plants from eastern Montana. Glancing though the paper, I discovered an acknowledgement of numerous specimens collected by James F. Orr of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Becker also indicated that Orr was studying the geology of the area, so that he would use Orr’s numbering scheme for the outcrops. These numbers included 155 and all the others I had. Bingo! I knew exactly where the fossils had come from. Becker later gave the plant fossils to Yale. When I had a chance to examine them last year, the numbering scheme exactly matched. And who was James Orr? A retired member of my department remembers him as an instructor who was unable to finish his dissertation at the University of Chicago and was let go in 1970. What we had was thus the remains of his thesis collection. Mystery solved.

But the story doesn’t end there. I sent the plant fossils to Yale to join the rest of their collection and the insect fossils to Sam Heads at the Illinois Natural History Survey, who studies fossil insects from that area. The rest I kept for myself to work at on at future time. During a visit by my colleague Alycia Stigall, I showed her what I thought were small clams in the shale. She took one look at them and said, “those are clam shrimp!” Clam shrimp, technically known as spinicaudatans, are small crustaceans common in freshwater today. The long-forgotten specimens turned out to be the only representatives of the group known from the entire Cenozoic of North America and included a new species. Along with Lisa Park Boush, we published a paper on them last year. Another paper on the ostracods (also a group of small crustaceans found in lakes) from the same rocks is almost finished. I suspect that if I had not found that little piece of paper, the specimens in the wood cabinets would eventually have been discarded and these fossils would never have been found.

I tell this story for two reasons; first it illustrates the importance of what has been called “dark data,” specimens collected long ago and now forgotten. In a remarkable example, Sam Heads found buckets of amber under a sink, where they may have been stored for decades, and which contained the remains of undescribed species of fossil insects. In another famous case, the tiny fossils known as conodonts were for decades one of the foremost mysteries in paleontology. As the name implies, they come in a variety of forms that resemble teeth. Quite abundant in rocks from the Cambrian to the Triassic, when they disappear, conodonts have long been useful in dating rocks since they evolved rapidly and are easily identifiable. But we did not know what kind of animal conodonts came from, except it must have been small and bilateral. The break came in the early 1980’s, when Derek Briggs and Euan Clarkson were looking for specimens of fossil shrimp from a Carboniferous formation in Scotland in the collections in the Institute of Geological Sciences in Edinburgh. They came across the fossil of a wormlike animal that had probably been collected in the 1920’s. Careful work on the minute specimen eventually revealed that it was the long-sought conodont animal and a member of our own group, the vertebrates. Mystery solved, thanks to a museum collection. As a final case, a new Cretaceous ceratopsian dinosaur, a relative of the familiarTriceratops, was described in 2016 based on material collected 75 years earlier. There are many similar stories out there.

More importantly, I also tell this story because it illustrates the vital importance of natural history collections. They are the irreplaceable hard copies of life on Earth today and in the past. Their place cannot be taken by digital photos or DNA barcodes. Unfortunately, collections, as well as the scientists who study them, are in danger. At one time, many colleges and universities considered a natural history museum as integral to their educational mission. Many of these have closed over the years. According to a 2015 article in Nature, 100 of the 700 herbaria (collections of preserved plant specimens) in the United States have closed since 1997. In 2017, the University of Louisiana at Monroe announced that it could no longer house a huge collection of local fish and plants and was looking for a new home for them (thankfully, other institutions stepped up to house them).

The point is that you never know what riches a collection might contain and what answers they may provide. Last week I discovered our teaching collection houses specimens collected in the 1870’s, almost 100 years before our university came into existence. They were once in the collections of James Hall, the founder of American invertebrate paleontology. How we got them, I have no idea. And if our tiny collection is home to such little treasures, what gems must await be founding in the far older and larger collections throughout the world!

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Website:https://sites.google.com/uic.edu/plotnick/