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Why museums and taxonomy are so important for conservation

Simon van Noort

(Research and Exhibitions Department, Iziko Museums of South Africa)

Species discovery and documentation is a practice that was once a pursuit of the ingrained human desire to explore and categorise the surrounding world we live in. This idealistic concept has, over the centuries, taken on renewed appreciation that the quest is not simply a whim of those delighted by the rich and diverse world we live in but an absolute necessity to enable the future conservation of our ecosystems that provide crucial life support for humanity.

An entomology collection drawer of preserved butterflies (Lycaenidae) in the Iziko South African Museum, including two of only three known specimens of the extinct Mbashe River Buff butterfly, Deloneura immaculata Trimen, a species that was only ever collected on one occasion in 1863 in the Eastern Cape, South Africa (the third specimen is in the Natural History Museum in London).

Museum collections are essential repositories of taxonomic reference specimens, underlying and substantiating data that inform conservation management decisions. From a taxonomic and education perspective, museums are fundamentally important in the process of documenting life on earth, describing species and informing society about the value of biodiversity.

Taxonomy is the science that documents and describes the wealth of biodiversity present on our planet and underpins most other scientific biological disciplines reliant on dependable species delimitation. Hence, taxonomy is a discipline that is central to interpreting the global biodiversity crisis.

The process of species discovery, assessment, and description is inherently contingent on museum collection resources. The resultant taxonomic data are represented by scientifically important type specimens and additional accurately determined material at species level is safeguarded in museum collections, providing an archived resource available for validation or re‑interpretation of species, or for population‑level delimitation and assessment. Natural history museum collections contain historical biodiversity data spanning both space and time and hence play an essential reference role in long-term insect monitoring and conservation. They are requisite repositories for contemporary inventory survey samples, necessary for assessing rate and impact of global declines in insects, a process that is largely reliant on curation and taxonomic analyses of specimens preserved in museum collections.

A few of the many thousands of bulk unsorted inventory survey samples, each sample containing thousands of insect specimens, preserved in 96% ethanol in the Iziko South African Museum collection.

Often under-valued, biological collections are a key resource that demands funding for the preservation of existing heritage objects, and for ongoing development and expansion of their holdings as part of documenting the rich, but highly threatened, biodiversity on our planet. Escalated recognition of the importance of these largely government-funded museum collections is required to ensure the continued maintenance of a resource that is needed for providing baseline data inputs into effective long-term management and conservation of ecosystems to help mitigate the impact of escalating global change.

Mobilising data for species‑rich groups of organisms has major bottlenecks at several baseline levels due to capacity constraints (both logistical and financial) required to deal with curation of these hyper‑diverse and super‑abundant groups. Current inadequate global inventory effort depicted by a small red circle (most areas of the world are poorly sampled with most habitats only having had limited ad hoc or no sampling conducted). Even this limited inventory effort already has a massive associated bottleneck at data mobilisation level (sorting, curation, digitisation) and systematic assessment (species description).

The critical role that taxonomy and museums play in insect conservation was detailed in a recently published chapter as part of a book published on insect conservation:

van Noort S. 2024. Role of taxonomy and museums in insect conservation. Chapter 35. Pp 450-460. In (eds) Pryke J, Samways M, New T, Cardoso P, Gaigher R. Routledge handbook for insect conservation. Taylor and Francis.

The Routledge Handbook of Insect Conservation is available through the publisher’s website:

Simon van Noort is Curator of Entomology having conducted research on wasp systematics and evolution at Iziko since 1992.
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