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Natural history collections and the future legacy of ecological research


Natural history collections are now being championed as key to broad ecological studies, especially those involving human impacts in the Anthropocene. However, collections are going through a crisis that threatens their present and future value, going beyond underfunding/understaffing to a more damaging practice: current researchers are no longer depositing material. This seems to be especially true for ecological studies that now benefit from historical collections, as those researchers are not trained to think about voucher specimens. We investigated indexed journals in Ecology and Zoology to assess if they have guidelines concerning voucher specimens. Only 4% of ecological journals presently encourage (but mostly do not require) voucher deposition, while 15% of zoological journals encourage it. In the first place, this goes contrary to scientific standards of reproducibility, since specimens are primary data. Secondly, this erodes the legacy we will leave for future researchers, because if this trend goes on unchecked, it will leave a massive gap in collections’ coverage, undermining the quality that is presently acclaimed. The scientific community needs a wakeup call to avoid impoverishing the future value of natural history collections. Training and changing researchers’ mindsets is essential, but that takes time. For the moment, we propose a stopgap measure: at the minimum, academic journals should encourage authors to deposit specimens in open collections, such as museums and universities.

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All data are available in the body of the article and in the Supplementary Material file.


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We are very grateful to Dione Seripierri (MZSP, Brazil) for the help in compiling the periodicals from Web of Science; to Barbara M. Tomotani (Te Papa) for the assistance with data analysis and helpful comments; and to the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful suggestions.

Author information

RBS conceived the idea and led the writing of the manuscript. RBS and CMC contributed equally to data gathering, analysis, and interpretation of results.

Correspondence to Rodrigo B. Salvador.

Additional information

Communicated by Roland A. Brandl.

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Salvador, R.B., Cunha, C.M. Natural history collections and the future legacy of ecological research. Oecologia (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-020-04620-0

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  • Museums
  • Primary data
  • Reproducibility
  • Voucher specimens
  • Vouchering