News Story

May 26, 2017
Environment@Harvard

The Role of Museum Collections in Biodiversity Conservation

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Scott Edwards remembers the first bird species he ever identified: “Northern Flicker, what we used to call the Yellow-shafted Flicker—a kind of woodpecker,” says Edwards, now the Agassiz Professor of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology. He was about 12 years old at the time, and a neighbor in the Bronx had invited him to go bird watching. With binoculars and a field guide in hand, they identified a few local species, starting with the Northern Flicker, with its spotted breast and red chevrons. He was hooked. 

But while Edwards’ love of birds continued unabated, he had a hard time seeing a professional future in it. “I grew up reading National Geographic and reading about exploration and all that stuff. You never really take that sort of interest seriously, though. You say, ‘Well, that’s for someone else to do. I’ll just have to stick to books and do some humdrum career.’” But in the midst of his undergraduate work at Harvard, he took a year off to volunteer at the Smithsonian’s natural history museum in D.C. and at national parks in Hawaii, observing rare bird species and conducting field research. Suddenly, he could see a path. When he returned to Harvard, he switched his major from the history of science to biology. “That’s what really tipped the balance for me,” he says. 

Apologizing for the pun, Edwards notes that bird species serve as canaries in the coal mine with regard to climate change. “Birds are incredibly sensitive to changes in the environment,” he says. “Every week there are new examples of how climate change is altering the timing of bird migration. It’s shifting breeding ranges of species; it’s causing elevational shifts for species that live in mountains like the Andes.” 

He credits both HUCE—“it’s really broadened my view of the environment and the many dimensions that surround conservation of biodiversity”—and his students with pushing his research into environmental topics. In recent years, Edwards has worked on projects with students that have included modeling climate change impacts on North American bird species and tracking historic mercury levels in albatross populations. “Students are coming in now with a deep desire to make the world a better place, and for many that comes in the form of conservation of biodiversity,” he says.

Edwards is currently on sabbatical, working as a visiting scientist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. In that role, he’s tasked with developing a series of workshops centered on the theme of the origin of biodiversity. The most recent workshop focused on the role that museum collections play in documenting Earth’s biodiversity and its changes. As Curator of Ornithology in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the topic is close to Edwards’ heart. “One of my big missions is to showcase the real importance of museum collections in terms of documenting how life on our planet changes,” he says. “Collections are snapshots in time and—especially these days, when we can attach so much data to each specimen—we can really learn a lot about how the planet’s changing. It’s a really great way for museums to serve the broader agenda of documenting climate change and figuring out how to solve it.”

— Dan Morrell

This profile originally appeared in Environment@Harvard: Volume 9, Issue 1

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