Museum collections are a thing of beauty.

I am constantly in awe of the rows upon rows of specimens, some in boxes or drawers, and others in jars of fluid that preserve their delicate tissues.

Few specimens, in my palaeontologist’s opinion, are as jaw-dropping as those in fossil collections. The shelves and drawers at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and in other museum collections, house some of the most bizarre and interesting specimens known to science.

A woman standing next to a fossil, Arsinoitherium zitteli andrews, Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183
Museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser with a cast of Arsinoitherium, an ancient mammal that resembles something more extraterrestrial than terrestrial. Arsinoitherium lived during the Eocene and Oligocene of Africa, about 56 to 23 million years ago. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 8183

Collections play a pivotal role in science by allowing us to study and re-study critical specimens, particularly type specimens, those on which species are described and named.

Remarkably, museum collections are also great places to discover entirely new species.

Every palaeontologist hopes to discover new fossil species in the field. But many, perhaps even most, new fossil species are found hidden away in existing museum collections, the result of careful collection by past scientists. Each potentially new species waits patiently, often for decades, overlooked until a careful, mindful scientist happens across the right drawer, cabinet, or shelf.

This new species is then adorned with a name and becomes part of the vast, growing catalogue of ancient life, serving as a cherished scientific treasure for comparative study.

A woman measures antlers.
As part of a scientific study, museum paleontologist Danielle Fraser takes measurements of Pleistocene fossil caribou antlers in the museum’s collection. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Along with type specimens, museum collections contain large numbers of specimens from the same species. But why does a museum need dozens of Pleistocene caribou antlers, or any other fossil for that matter?

The biology of species is complicated and changes through time. Individuals of a species are variable, and populations are often separated by hundreds of kilometers. For example, Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) are considerably smaller than their caribou relatives to the south.

Thus, having numerous specimens for each species affords us the opportunity to understand variation within species and fill knowledge gaps.

For example, recently museum palaeobiologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and colleagues added a lot to what we know about the primitive bear (Protarctos abstrusus), by describing skeletal remains in the museum’s collection. Most of these fossils were collected in the 1990s in Nunavut by emeritus museum paleontologist Dr. Richard Harington.

Until now, the species description was based on a single fossil tooth from Idaho. Thanks to the description of the fossil skeleton housed in our museum collection, we now know much more about the evolutionary history of modern bears, and an ancient Arctic ecosystem.

Hands holding part of a bear fossil, Protarctos abstrusus, Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380
A 3.5-million-year-old specimen from Nunavut of the extinct bear, Protarctos abstrusus. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature. Catalogue number: CMNFV 54380

Now, museum collections are also playing an increasingly important role in understanding how human activity has changed species characteristics, from size to diet and genetics.

These data would be lost to pre-history if it were not for the hard work of the numerous collectors, cataloguers, preparators, and conservators that have built and maintained museum collections around the world.

And so, every time I walk into museum collections, I am struck by their incredible scientific beauty.