Why are natural history collections important? The Case of the Hawaiian Tree Snail

Specimens of Achatinella vulpina (UCM#s 8200 & 35280), an endangered species of Hawaiian tree snail not seen in the wild since the 1960s

Natural history collections can be viewed as "libraries of knowledge" of the biological world, and specimens within those collections represent the "books" within the biological library. Museum specimens document organisms, past and present, occurring in a specific place and time. Preserving this biodiversity facilitates understanding the world in which we live and the changes occurring on Earth over time. These changes usually occur naturally based on environmental and biological influences. Other times change may occur due to the impact of humans invading a given area and impacting the plants and animals living in that region.

One good example of human actions impacting the life history of a group of organisms is the current status of Hawaiian snails. The arrival of Europeans on the Hawaiian Islands, along with the introduction of non-native grazing animals and eventual deforestation, has resulted in the rapid decline of native species on the Hawaiian Islands, including all species of snails. Dozens of native species of Hawaiian snails are assumed to be extinct and the remaining native species on the islands are considered to be endangered or near extinction.
Natural history collections play an important role in documenting past geographical distributions of extinct species, as well as the occurrence of presently endangered organisms throughout the world. How we decide to use that information can help us better understand the world we live in, how we interact with the natural world, and what we can do to preserve and protect its heritage.