Museum experts aren’t monkeying around in matters of conservation

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Visitors to the Wolfson Galleries of the Natural World in the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) can see stunning specimens of the world’s animal life showing the kinds of typical behaviours they would show in the wild. This approach is reflected in Monkey Business, our new special exhibition about primates, which opened on Friday.

It explores how primates have evolved and adapted, how they communicate, and the tools they have developed to obtain food. It reveals their complex social systems and looks at the relationship between primates and humans today. Featuring more than 60 spectacular new taxidermy specimens of monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises and bushbabies, it is the first exhibition to show primates behaving as if they were in the wild. Bringing the specimens back to “life”, you can see a chimpanzee fishing for termites, a spider monkey hanging by its tail, a howler monkey, well, howling and a fat-tailed dwarf lemur hibernating in a tree hole.

PIC SANDY YOUNG BIG SCOTLAND 07970 268944 New exhibition of stuffed cats at the Royal museum of Scotland "cats the ultimate predators" Pictured Curator for birds and mammals Dr Andrew Kitchener

PIC SANDY YOUNG BIG SCOTLAND 07970 268944 New exhibition of stuffed cats at the Royal museum of Scotland "cats the ultimate predators" Pictured Curator for birds and mammals Dr Andrew Kitchener

But what you see on display in the Museum is only a tiny fraction of the natural science specimens in National Museums Scotland’s collection. Some ten million insects, other invertebrates, mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes, fossils, rocks and minerals are kept at the National Museums Collections Centre in Granton, most of which are never intended for display. These specimens are part of our “library of life” which is used by researchers from within the Museum and all around the world to investigate many aspects of the structure, biology and taxonomy of animals.

Increasingly, our collections perform a vital role in conservation biology, an evidence-based approach to developing effective conservation strategies for the world’s endangered species. Because our collections have been made over the last 200 years, they provide valuable insight and data on where species were and what they were like compared with the present day.

When the eggshells of birds of prey became increasingly thinner during the mid-20th century, it was the analysis of eggs in museums that showed that this thinning was due to the pesticide DDT, which was subsequently banned. Since then populations of birds of prey have recovered.

Today the wildcat in Scotland is critically endangered, with perhaps only 100-300 surviving. The biggest threat to wildcats is hybridisation with the domestic cat. Research at National Museums Scotland and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is working to establish reliable methods for distinguishing between wildcats and hybrids based on genetics and coat markings. This research relies crucially on the NMS collection of skins which dates back more than 100 years, when hybridisation was far less frequent.

Conservation research reaches far overseas to places curators have not even visited. A few years ago ground-breaking research at NMS identified a new big cat species, the Sunda clouded leopard from Borneo and Sumatra – the first “new” big cat for more than 180 years.

Currently we are collaborating with colleagues at several universities, including Edinburgh, Oxford and Durham to look at geographical variation in the endangered ungulates of the island of Sulawesi. By sampling and measuring hundreds of specimens from each species, we are finally getting a better picture of actually how many species of Sulawesi warty pig, babirusa (another unusual pig) and anoa (a dwarf buffalo) there are so conservation action be implemented effectively. Too often our ideas of variation in species rests on unscientific articles published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern techniques in genetics and morphometrics, using old museum specimens, reveal radical new information contradicting the status quo.

Until recently it was believed that there were eight or nine subspecies of tiger, including the Bengal, Amur, Javan, Balinese, Sumatran, Indochinese, Caspian, Malayan and South Chinese tigers, all of which would require separate conservation action. Collaborative research with the Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Biology in Berlin has revealed that only two subspecies can be recognised using modern techniques – the Sunda tiger, which survives only on Sumatra, and the mainland tiger, which varies according to the habitat it is found in. This has far-reaching implications for how wild and captive tigers will be managed, offering vital opportunities to mix inbred populations that have hitherto been kept separate.

We can also study the impact of diets. Marmosets and tamarins are small South American monkeys which eat a lot of gums produced by trees. Eating gum provides marmosets and tamarins with sufficient calcium for skeletal growth and the rearing of offspring. In the last 25 years zoos began to offer captive marmosets and tamarins gum arabic to enrich their lives. Our studies have shown that when they have access to this, captive monkeys have skeletons similar to those of wild ones, whereas those that were alive before the feeding of gums had skeletons that were too heavy. Providing gum arabic has proven vital for healthy marmosets and tamarins in zoos.

Visitors to Monkey Business who see the wonderful specimens on display should consider that the exhibition is the tip of a biodiversity iceberg kept behind the scenes, where international research projects are discovering ever more fascinating information about the natural world, which will help in its conservation for future generations.

Monkey Business is at the National Museum of Scotland until 23 April, www.nms.ac.uk/monkeybusiness. Andrew Kitchener is Principal Curator of Vertebrates at National Museums Scotland