From Plant Press, Vol. 18, No. 1, January 2015.
This year brought dismal news about the world's birds: They are vanishing at an alarming rate. Across 25 European countries, about 420 million fewer birds are present today than in 1980, a 20% decrease, especially in the 36 most common species. In North America, The State of the Birds Report 2014 indicates that over the past 40 years, the numbers of individuals across 33 species are also down by hundreds of millions. Such assessments highlight the urgency of determining the precise causes of these declines. The knowledge gleaned from the Avian Phylogenomics Project, coupled with ecological and population analyses, should provide new insights into the factors that influence bird declines and extinctions. As the project progresses over the next few years, over 60% of tissue samples for the avian analyses will be derived from archived museum collections. In this era of deteriorating natural environments, a pressing challenge is to continue to build scientific collections for future needs.
Museum collections, and the species they represent, provide windows into the past, inform about the present, and help predict the future of natural habitats and human-altered environments. They are the common language of the biological sciences. An antiquated view of collections suggests drawers of bird skins, empty shells, and dried plants. However, current collections also include living specimens, spirit-preserved samples, deep-frozen tissues, and DNA. These irreplaceable biomaterials are invaluable representatives of Earth's biodiversity, and together with their associated metadata are archived ex situ for long-term documentation, public education and exhibition, and scientific and applied research. Although the exact number of collections maintained in museums, botanic gardens, and universities is unknown, estimates as high as three billion specimens suggest the magnitude of this storehouse of information about the natural world.