Housed worldwide, mostly in museums and herbaria, is a vast collection of biological specimens developed over centuries. These biological collections, and associated taxonomic and systematic research, have received considerable long-term public support.
The work remaining in systematics has been expanding as the estimated total number of species of organisms on Earth has risen over recent decades, as have estimated numbers of undescribed species. Despite this increasing task, support for taxonomic and systematic research, and biological collections upon which such research is based, has declined over the last 30-40 years, while other areas of biological research have grown considerably, especially those that focus on environmental issues.
Reflecting increases in research that deals with ecological questions (e.g. what determines species distribution and abundance) or environmental issues (e.g. toxic pollution), the level of research attempting to use biological collections in museums or herbaria in an ecological/environmental context has risen dramatically during about the last 20 years. The perceived relevance of biological collections, and hence the support they receive, should be enhanced if this trend continues and they are used prominently regarding such environmental issues as anthropogenic loss of biodiversity and associated ecosystem function, global climate change, and decay of the epidemiological environment. It is unclear, however, how best to use biological collections in the context of such ecological/environmental issues or how best to manage collections to facilitate such use.
We demonstrate considerable and increasingly realized potential for research based on biological collections to contribute to ecological/environmental understanding. However, because biological collections were not originally intended for use regarding such issues and have inherent biases and limitations, they are proving more useful in some contexts than in others. Biological collections have, for example, been particularly useful as sources of information regarding variation in attributes of individuals (e.g. morphology, chemical composition) in relation to environmental variables, and provided important information in relation to species' distributions, but less useful in the contexts of habitat associations and population sizes.
Changes to policies, strategies and procedures associated with biological collections could mitigate these biases and limitations, and hence make such collections more useful in the context of ecological/environmental issues. Haphazard and opportunistic collecting could be replaced with strategies for adding to existing collections that prioritize projects that use biological collections and include, besides taxonomy and systematics, a focus on significant environmental/ecological issues. Other potential changes include increased recording of the nature and extent of collecting effort and information associated with each specimen such as nearby habitat and other individuals observed but not collected. Such changes have begun to occur within some institutions.
Institutions that house biological collections should, we think, pursue a mission of ‘understanding the life of the planet to inform its stewardship’ (Krishtalka & Humphrey, 2000), as such a mission would facilitate increased use of biological collections in an ecological/environmental context and hence lead to increased appreciation, encouragement and support from the public for these collections, their associated research, and the institutions that house them.