The University Museum of Zoology contains far more than a record of the past. Ambitious redevelopment plans will enable enhanced use of its unique collections for research into global issues from climate change to conservation.

We’ve been working on material from a crucial period in history, called Romer’s Gap

Jenny Clack

1 million insects, 30,000 bird skins, 10,000 sets of eggs and over 3,500 fossil vertebrates: the Museum of Zoology is a treasure-trove of information about the natural world from 400 million years ago to the present day. “We have extraordinarily rich holdings,” said Museum Director Professor Paul Brakefield, “from the biggest collection of dodo bones outside Mauritius, to finches collected in the Galapagos by Charles Darwin during his Beagle Voyage.”

The Museum is on the brink of a redevelopment programme that will provide state-of-the-art facilities to benefit all users, from researchers to students to the general public. Early curators of the Museum – originally established as a showcase for collections such as those by Darwin – exhibited great foresight in creating a resource that is informing research in all areas of biology, and may have still-to-be-discovered uses in the future as new technologies
are developed.

“We need to preserve and expand the collections so they continue to be used effectively across a wide range of research into the future, from understanding how life evolved, to finding ways to conserve biodiversity in a changing world,” said Brakefield.

Informing ecological research

“The only way we can hope to keep track of the animal world is to identify things, and part of this is describing new species,” said Dr William Foster, Curator of Insects at the Museum. “When they’ve been described, they have to be deposited in a designated museum such as Cambridge as a Type specimen.” Cambridge’s large collection of ‘Type’ specimens is of the highest scientific importance, providing the universal references for classifying and naming species.

Experts at the Museum such as Dr Henry Disney, who has amassed the largest collection of scuttleflies in the world, collaborate with scientists to help determine whether new finds are indeed new species. “I took Henry a specimen we collected in the rainforest in Southeast Asia and he knew straight away it was a new species, which he subsequently named Danumphora fosteri,” said Foster.

Foster studies insect diversity in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. “We’ve mainly studied the beetles and ants of the canopy, and the Museum provides a solid reference collection to inform our work,” he explained. “Our aims are to understand why there are so many species in the tropics compared with temperate regions, what controls this, and whether such diversity is important. To do this we have to identify everything.”

Foster’s research is investigating what happens to insect diversity when forests in Southeast Asia are cut down and replaced by oil palm, a high-value crop for which demand is expected to double by 2030. “Of course there’s a huge reduction in diversity overall,” he said, “but it’s been found that some species, like bees and wasps, actually increase in diversity, while other forest specialists are replaced by ‘tramp’ species.” “If we can add to our collections from the last few centuries,” added Brakefield, “these can help to build up an accurate picture of how their distributions have changed over time, and how this may have been affected by external factors such as climate change and deforestation.”

Foster aims to find a way to preserve insect diversity within the oil palm plantations themselves, without reducing yield: “If we can get more things growing on the trees, or more understorey vegetation, we could potentially increase biodiversity and enhance useful processes like pest control and leaf decomposition. Our collections are enabling this rigorous ecological research to take place. We not only need to know the number of species, but what they are, and the only way to do that is by using reference collections.”

Evolution of terrestriality

Elsewhere in the Museum, Professor Jenny Clack, a Curator and palaeontologist, studies the evolution of early tetrapods, the four-limbed animals that evolved from fish and moved to a terrestrial environment at the end of the Devonian era around 360 million years ago. Her work relies on the Museum’s fossil collection, and its ability to acquire new fossils for study following their discovery.

“We’ve been working on material from a crucial period in history, called Romer’s Gap, from the end of the Devonian to about 340 million years ago,” Clack explained. “At the start of this period something happened to cause a mass extinction, so there’s a dearth of fossils from many major groups of organisms. When we pick them up again in the fossil record, the picture has changed completely. Life on land has become fully established and diverse, laying the foundation for the future evolution of the planet, including the appearance of humans. We see fully terrestrial tetrapods, whereas the ones in the Devonian were all semi-aquatic.”

What happened to cause the change is unknown. “We really have very few clues as to how, and under what circumstances, tetrapods became terrestrial, walking animals.” Diverse tetrapod fossils have recently been found at several sites in Scotland. With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, Clack and colleagues are now commencing a suite of investigations at these sites and on the fossils themselves to help understand exactly what happened at the end of the Devonian, and how life re-established itself.

State-of-the-art analysis

Modern technology is increasingly being used to advance understanding of the natural world. In a paper published in June 2012 in Nature, Clack describes how she and colleagues made CT scans of dozens of fossil tetrapods still embedded in rock, and then used sophisticated software to digitally separate the bones from the rock, generate an image of the whole skeleton, and manipulate this to determine the range of movement of each joint. “We found that early tetrapods couldn’t do a walking step, which indicates that limbs evolved before the ability to walk,” said Clack. “There’s a lot of material in the Museum stores still in the original rock it was found in – there are almost certainly things waiting to be discovered here that could tell us something new about evolution.”

Brakefield is keen to use cutting-edge genome sequencing techniques on ancient DNA extracted from the bones, feathers or soft tissue of some of the Museum’s exceptionally preserved specimens of animals that are now extinct. “By combining our resources with expertise at the Sanger Institute, our aim is to produce whole genome sequences from specimens including fossil dodo bones, the giant auk and Steller’s sea cow. These can provide us with a far more complete reconstruction of how extinct organisms fit into the tree of life, and give new insights into the genetic changes underlying evolution.”

To fully realise the potential of its priceless collection, the University is raising funds to completely refurbish the Museum, in conjunction with plans to create a new Conservation Campus for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. The recent award of a Heritage Lottery Fund development grant for the Museum marks a major step towards providing an exciting modern environment for lifelong learning, teaching, research and the preservation of the collections. New conservation-standard stores and a rare-book archive will be created, with space for new acquisitions across the entire collection.

“We want to conserve and preserve what we have, and also gain the potential to add to our collections, to keep them relevant for future research,” said Brakefield. “The refurbished Museum will have a fantastic new research space where people can use the collections even more effectively.”

For more information, please contact Jacqueline Garget at the University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications.

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