Worldwide natural history collections contain more than three billion specimens assembled over hundreds of years, an irreplaceable physical record of life. Though there is bias inherent in their composition — from a disproportionate number of roadside plants to the dismissal of traditional ecological knowledge that could have expanded our understanding far sooner — we rely on them to gather data on the past, decipher the present, and forecast the future of the changing Earth. With modern technology, they can answer questions that their original collectors never dreamed of. Who knows what further mysteries they hold? Below, scientists explain their efforts to unravel some of those mysteries.

  • Yolanda outside next to a kale plant

    Prof. Yolanda Chen, University of Vermont

    Insect collections can provide snapshots of the diversity and abundance of species over time. I’m particularly interested in the evolution of insects as pests in agriculture. New insect pests emerge every few years, and their emergence can wreak major havoc on agricultural production. While there is a great deal of focus on how to manage or kill insects, there is much less work on why or how some insects evolve as pests. Collections are useful for documenting the changes in use of host plants by insects and in geographic distributions over time. Using this information, we can piece together more of the “where, when, and how” processes that underlie insect adaptation in agroecosystems. CLICK NEXT WITH ARROW BELOW.

  • 1 of 13
  • >>

Several of these scientists spoke at the University of Michigan's virtual Early Career Scientists Symposium of 2021, Natural History Collections: Drivers of Innovation.

We seek to diversify our contributors to this page in all senses of the word in order to better represent the biologists who use collections. Please reach out to share your research.

Submit your story of collections research