October 30, 2013

Encyclopedia of Life

Natural history collections draw from the past to prepare for the future

Far from being dusty cabinets of curiosities, the natural history collections at UMass Amherst are proving to be biological treasure troves: essential evidence of the changing nature of ecosystems and the effect of environmental factors on individual species.

The campus natural history collections are receiving increased attention with an exhibit of botanical specimens now on view in the atrium of the Integrated Sciences Building. “William S. Clark as Collector: A Legacy at Two Agricultural Colleges” displays the former UMass president’s botanical collections from Japan and creates a portrait of the mid-19th-century Sapporo region, a cross-section of life unaffected by invasive species, pollution, or climate change.

Collections document the physical history of a region, and as such are an important component of the land-grant mission of our university charter, says Betsy Dumont, professor of biology and director of the Massachusetts Natural History Collections.

The collections are a veritable time capsule: the oldest specimen is a buttercup collected in Sunderland in 1820. There are three extinct passenger pigeons and eggs from the 1920s, with thick, strong shells that tell of a time before pesticides. Also included in the collections is the entire Massachusetts State Cabinet, the state’s natural history trove prior to 1860, which was entrusted to Massachusetts Agricultural College from the State House by legislative vote in 1866.

UMass Amherst scientists and students still collect specimens to track the responses of organisms to the environment. Items like the yacht-size skeleton of Staccato, an endangered female North Atlantic Right Whale killed by a boat strike off Cape Cod in 1999, continue to tell of the tenuousness and fragility of life.

Specimens are indicators of the ecosystem of which they were part, signifiers of “a complex web of interaction that is taking place all the time,” says Dumont. They allow people to see how species evolve in response to environmental changes. They also suggest how human cultures were shaped through our relationship to the species we depended on for survival.

The collection and study of specimens has also played an important role in the development of UMass as a global institution. President Clark encouraged his students in Hokkaido to continue collecting, and their ongoing correspondence with their mentor helped cement the bond between Massachusetts Agricultural College and Sapporo Agricultural College, now Hokkaido University. The Clark collection, part of a larger celebration of Clark’s legacy presented by the International Programs Office, puts that bond readily on display.

The natural history collections remain a vital resource for education. Dumont invites educators, students, researchers, and artists to take advantage of them so that they will remain an important conduit for communication between UMass Amherst and the wider world.

Betsy Dumont can be reached to discuss educational opportunities and uses of the natural history collections at bdumont@bio.umass.edu