AMNH’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology (DIZ) maintains a collection of approximately 25 million specimens that includes insects, terrestrial arthropods, and marine invertebrates. The Cnidaria collection (corals, jellyfish, and anemones) has a long history at the Museum, including many specimens dating to the mid to late 19th century, but has remained largely untouched for over 100 years and is now in urgent need of rehousing and conservation care. The appointment in 2009 of a Curator-in-Charge, Estefania Rodriguez, an expert in Cnidaria, has led to the collection’s recent growth and to renewed interest and activity in coral research at the Museum.
This renewed interest has been driven by the dramatically declining health of coral reefs and the marine ecosystems associated with them. Until about 20 years ago, corals and coral reefs were considered relatively abundant, and were harvested frequently for jewelry, art pieces, and the aquarium trade. Global episodic elevated ocean temperatures, increased ocean acidification, and other anthropogenic activities have since had dramatic implications for corals worldwide. Some coral species have declined by an estimated 90% and, consequently, all coral species are now listed as CITES II, with 22 species protected under the Endangered Species Act and two species (elkhorn and staghorn corals) listed as critically threatened (CR). Given the threatened status facing corals and coral reefs, the historic nature of AMNH’s coral collection represents a significant asset to the scientific research community. The AMNH coral collection contains 79 specimens from six protected species, including the threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals. This number is likely higher with the inclusion of as yet undetermined material. In order to meet the urgent need for scientific access to this historically important collection, and to address an important AMNH research priority, it is essential that the collection be properly conserved, cataloged, and made available to researchers both within and outside the Museum.
AMNH proposed to rehouse, conserve, image, and database this valuable, protected dry coral collection over three years. At present, the collection is housed in suboptimal cabinetry; specimens are in need of cleaning (due to the antiquated housing); and only about 40% of the collection is tagged individually with collection information and a Unique Specimen Identifier (USI) number, and databased. Hence, only a small portion of the collection is available to researchers, either online or through loans. The proposed project is well aligned with the Museum’s priorities, as outlined in its multi-year Strategic Plan, to follow best practices in collection management and to provide online access to collection information by imaging, barcoding, and databasing specimens, both ensuring collection preservation and enabling greater access to researchers. Capital Improvement resources for high-quality storage have already been allocated for the rehousing of part of the coral collection, and a pilot project in 2013 helped establish the requirements for conservation of the whole collection. Building on these initial steps, AMNH sought support from the federally funded Institute of Museum and Library Services to help meet this urgent need and to preserve this important CITES protected collection and its associated data well into the future.
The 3-year project consists of three components: (1) rehousing specimens in conservation-grade storage materials; (2) conservation of specimens that are covered in dust; and (3) imaging and databasing the entire collection into AMNH’s KE EMu collections database with external search capability. The 2013 pilot project—which involved conservation (cleaning), labeling, imaging, and databasing part of the coral collection by an intern, volunteers, AMNH Conservation staff, and the DIZ Curatorial Associate—has helped guide the workflow, needs, and time and cost estimates for this project. Specimen rehousing into conservation-grade cabinetry and careful cleaning of these valuable specimens will prevent their future deterioration, particularly important when more such species are likely to be threatened in the wild in the near future; imaging and databasing these specimens will allow research access to this collection both online and by providing the means to monitor specimen loans.
The project team will consist of an AMNH Curator with cnidarian expertise, Estefania Rodriguez, and a Ph.D. scientist as collections specialist with a demonstrated record of success completing a large-scale NSF-funded digitization project on time and within budget, Christine Johnson, Curatorial Associate, Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Led by Johnson, the team will train and supervise interns and volunteers to conduct daily tasks. Progress and results will be disseminated widely at professional collections care and digitization conferences, as well as published in relevant journals.