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Retrieving history: the liquid-preserved collection of the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos

Recuperando a história: a coleção preservada em meio líquido do Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos
Henrique Couto e Maria Teresa Crespo

Resumos

A coleção do Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos (MMRDC) teve a sua origem numa doação de espécimes marinhos em 1975 à Câmara Municipal de Cascais. Ao longo dos anos, a coleção de história natural do museu cresceu, tornando-se diversificada em termos de espécimes. Contudo, a falta de recursos humanos especializados determinou que os espécimes preservados em meio líquido fossem descurados. Em 2022 foi lançado um projeto para a digitalização e catalogação dos dados dos espécimes preservados em meio líquido com o propósito de inventariar a coleção e estudá-la. Iniciou-se um processo sistemático para identificar espécimes danificados, recolher informação, registar e corrigir erros de armazenamento. Os espécimes danificados foram tratados e foi possível recuperar e reaver informações relativas a 442 frascos com 1512 espécimes de mais de 110 espécies. O desenvolvimento de projetos como este é essencial para o aumento do conhecimento sobre coleções pouco estudadas, bem como para disponibilizar estes dados à comunidade científica, um passo necessário para tornar as coleções de história natural ferramentas para o futuro.

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Notas da redacção

Artigo recebido a 17.02.2023

Aprovado para publicação a 26.06.2023

Texto integral

Introduction

  • 1 The Museu do Mar Rei D. Carlos has two main collections; the natural history collection, with taxid (...)

1The Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos (MMRDC) collection began in 1975, when Francisco Reiner’s marine specimen collection was donated to the Municipality of Cascais (CMC 1975; d’Encarnação 2021). This collection grew during the following years through the capture of specimens during expeditions and missions (Reiner 1982; d’Encarnação 2021) until 1986, when the founding team – led at the time by Francisco Reiner – left the project (d’Encarnação 2021). During this period, and over the subsequent years, the museum received donations from other museums and other donors, resulting in a rich and diverse natural history collection, featuring specimens from all around the world (Reiner 1982; Cultura Cascais 2023).1

  • 2 The natural history collection’s inventory is yet to be completed. Currently, only 75% of the colle (...)

2The collection’s inventory is an ongoing process.2 Despite the efforts to digitize, catalogue and study the collection, the lack of specialized staff has resulted in mistreatment of a significant part of the collection over the years. This is not a unique case, since it happened with several other natural history collections in Portugal (Ceríaco et al. 2021). This is particularly evident in the liquid preserved specimens at MMRDC, many of which have gone untreated and unstudied for over 30 years.

3For a museum to completely fulfil its purpose, it is essential that the collections are properly studied, acknowledged and valued by the scientific and local community, and deemed an institution worthy of being preserved and protected (Anderson 2000; ICOM NATHIST 2013). Furthermore, the MMRDC accreditation as part of the Portuguese Museum Network (Rede Portuguesa de Museus) requires the museum to follow the legal regulations of the Portuguese Museums’ Framework Law (Law n.º 47/2004, from August 19th), observing all museum functions, including study and research, acquisitions, registration and documentation, conservation, security, interpretation and exhibition and education. Thus, collections must be properly kept and the museum is responsible for the adequate storage conditions and specimens’ preservation, ensuring they are transmitted for the future generations (Anderson 2000; ICOM NATHIST 2013; ICOM 2017). This is especially relevant when applied to natural history collections, which include specimens from species or populations at risk of extinction or already extinct, as they could be genetic reserves available to help identify the origins of threats and/or pathogenic diseases (Cook et al. 2020; Thompson et al. 2021; Rosa et al. 2022).

4We developed a four-month project with the supervision of the museum to care, recover, and catalogue most of the liquid-preserved specimens at the MMRDC. The project main goals were to guarantee proper storage of the specimens and jars; identify and/or correct errors in the identification of the specimens present; and to catalogue and share the collection data.

Materials and methods

5In October 2022, we began the task of digitizing and cataloguing the liquid preserved collection that consisted of over 2000 different specimens. However, due to the loss of many inventory files, we had to rely on the information available in the labels glued to the jars or the ones that were inside the preservation fluid.

6To effectively evaluate the collection and determine priorities for its preservation, we applied a systematic three-step process. First, we identified the specimens and containers with the most significant damage (fig. 1), such as: external black mold (fig. 1), total (fig. 1A) and/or partial liquid evaporation (fig. 1B), deposits of formaldehyde crystals, loss of proteins and lipids (fig. 1C), or decomposition. Second, we examined the specimens to determine which ones had accompanying information available. Finally, we identified and recorded any errors in storage. Errors included cases of different species from the same location, multiple specimens of the same species from different locations, or different capture dates being stored together (fig. 1D). After identifying the specimens that were most damaged, we proceeded to clean and disinfect the room in which the jars were stored.

Fig. 1 – Jars and containers in poor conservation conditions with black mold on the exterior. A) Jar with a dry specimen due to evaporation; B) Jar with partial evaporated liquid and different species accommodated; C) Preservation fluid damaged by the loss of lipids from the specimens inside; D) Container with several different species all with the same capture date and location. 23 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos

Photo: Henrique Couto

7Each jar was treated individually using and adapted methodology from Saldanha (1972), Simmons (2014) and Ceríaco et al. (2021). We started by cleaning the exterior of each jar and retrieving information from the old exterior labels (fig 2). Then, we removed the exterior labels and opened the jar to retrieve as much information as possible on the labels present in the conservation fluid. Next, we retrieved the specimens from the jar to identify and/or correct identification errors – whenever possible, to a species level. When preservation fluid needed changing, we prepared a new 4% formaldehyde solution, first passing the specimens through a sequence of increasing the concentration of the formaldehyde solution by 20% every 30 minutes (starting with a solution of 80% old fluid – 20% of 4% formaldehyde solution) (fig. 3). In the case of dried out specimens, we kept them in water overnight (salt water for marine species and distilled water for non-marine species) and followed a similar process of increasing the concentration of formaldehyde solution in the water (1% at each 30 minutes). We then assigned a new collection code to each jar and specimen, following the sequence for each specimen inside the jar as part of the same batch (the jar). We combined specimens from the same jar into new and clean jars, except for those that were from different species, locations, or had different capture dates. We closed the jar with the old interior label inside and sealed it with parafilm (if they did not have a rubber to create vacuum), glued the new exterior label written with Pigma Micron pens on the exterior of the jar, and sealed with plastic protection on top. Finally, we photographed the jar (fig. 4) and inserted the data into the museum collection database (Sistemas do Futuro 2021; Cultura Cascais 2023).

Fig. 2 – Different types of old labels: from left: exterior labels with the old inventory number; in the center: exterior labels with the specimen information; to the right: interior label with information from the capture location, date, and inventory number on the left forelimb of a Bufo spinosus. 30 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos

Photo: Henrique Couto

Fig. 3 – Acclimation of a Natrix maura to the new preservation fluid through a sequence of different dilutions of 4% formaldehyde solution and old preservation fluid (from the left with 80% original to the final solution on the right). 30 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos

Photo: Henrique Couto

Fig. 4 – Jar with the respective new inventory number (MMRDC-87-23-01) to be inserted on the inventory platform. 5 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos

Photo: Henrique Couto

Results and discussion

8At the end of January 2023, we recovered a total of 442 jars, containing 1512 specimens of over 110 different species from all over the world (see table I in annex).

9By using the information retrieved, we were able to identify specimens offered in exchange from other museums, including their original collection numbers. Additional information became available by running the inventory and/or field number on the online database the donor institution. For example, by retrieving the old inventory number of MMRDC-87-48-01 (old number: LSUMZ 09821) and searching it on the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science (LSUMZ) online database (LSUMZ 2017), additional information missing on the label could be added to the MMRDC database as well. We also realized the diversity of the collection, with specimens from four different continents and from seven different animal groups.

  • 3 It was not possible to confirm if this population is extinct. However, during the writing of the pa (...)

10Furthermore, during the project, we identified specimens with unique characteristics that are worthy of further study. For example, a presumably now extinct population in Alcabideche, Cascais (38o73’85’’13N/9o41’24’’20W) of sharp-rib newts (Pleurodeles waltl)3 with an unusually high proportion of limb deformities was found (Couto and Rebelo 2022).

11A large part of the liquid preserved collection of the museum focuses on Portuguese protected areas, such as the Selvagens and Desertas islands, and on highly globally threatened groups of species, such as sharks and amphibians (see table 1) (IUCN 2022; Cultura Cascais 2023). As natural history collections have been an extremely important resource for increasing the knowledge on biodiversity conservation, either as teaching and training resource, or as a source of genetic material for several studies, the results from this recovery project can lead to a better understanding for the conservation of these areas and/or species (Miller et al. 2020).

12The risk of loss and negligence of natural history collections is not new and can be crippling for science if no sustainable management strategy is applied. In order to avoid this, adequate human resources with technical knowledge are needed (Andreone et al. 2014; Andreone 2015). Portugal is not spared from this setback, with several collections lacking a curator or collection manager as full-time staff (Ceríaco et al. 2021). For this to change, Portuguese scientists’ perception of natural history museums and collections as relics of the past (Lourenço and Dias 2017) needs to shift. These collections may hold valuable information to advance scientific knowledge of conservation biology, ecology and even human health. Several recent studies with resource to museum materials show this to be true (e.g., Cook et al. 2020; Rosa et al. 2022; Ceríaco et al. 2023).

13Unfortunately, the neglect of museum collections is particularly common in small institutions, either by the lack of specialized staff, funding to support them or even a change on collections perspectives (Stokstad 2003; Snow 2005; Ceríaco et al. 2021). The recurring mistreatment of natural history collections is evident in Portugal, persisting from the late XIX century onwards, even within well-established museum collections (Barbosa du Bocage 1865; Ceríaco et al. 2021). One of the main problems caused by this neglect is the loss of significant amounts of scientific data as many of these institutions are repositories of valuable information from understudied regions, species and species interactions (Kissling et al. 2018; Meineke et al. 2018; Ceríaco et al. 2021). Today, ensuring the preservation and utility of this information involves a strategy that implies its online accessibility (Winker 2004; Lendemer et al. 2020; Miller et al. 2020). This restoration project aimed not only to recover data from the MMRDC collection, but also to share it with students and researchers by starting the process of making it available online. It is expected that, in the near future, this collection will be accessible on the municipality online platform “Bens Culturais” (Cultura Cascais 2023). Moreover, it would be relevant to share this data on platforms that are more globally used among researchers, such as the case for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) database a global platform that aims to make available information for researchers and decision makers on biodiversity and sustainable development (GBIF 2023). At the same time, the museum plans to establish partnerships with universities and research centres, so that more students can develop studies around the collection, contributing to the recognition of its scientific value.

14Recovery and restoration projects of natural history collections that were forgotten are of extreme importance, as many of these collections keep records of the natural world that would otherwise be lost. Our project’s purpose was to guarantee that this collection was properly valued and known, but the time constraints have hindered the comprehensive treatment and cataloguing of all the specimens in the collection. Moreover, due to the toxicity of the preservation fluid used (formaldehyde) and the current best practices for liquid-preserved collections conservation, it is necessary that further treatments are applied, in particular the transition to ethanol (Burroughs et al. 2006; Simmons 2014), a process that will require a specialized team. Although the initiated recovery efforts were unfinished, the continuity of these vital projects are key. Through the joint efforts of researchers, curators and enthusiasts, it is possible to preserve collections like this for the benefit of future generations. Preserving and recovering these collections is simultaneously an homage to the legacy of those who collected them and an important step to nurture a future of knowledge and understanding, ensuring the public is aware of the importance of preserving our planet biodiversity.

15Acknowledgements

16We thank the team from the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos for the support and for granting access to all the liquid preserved collection for this project and to the Municipality of Cascais for acknowledging and funding this recovery project. We are also grateful to Sophie Hughes, João Castelo Branco, Joana Cruz, Luísa Magalhães and Sílvia Puk for their comments on the manuscript.

Annex

Table 1 – List of liquid-preserved specimens recovered at the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos until January 2023

Collect Location

Group

Number of Specimens

Acquisition method

Origin Institution/Donor

Portuguese Islands: Azores Archipelago

Amphibians

8

Capture

Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos (MMRDC)

Fishes

16

Capture

MMRDC

Portuguese Islands: Madeira and Porto Santo Islands

Amphibians

1

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

12

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

52

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

2

Capture

MMRDC

Portuguese Islands: Desertas Islands

Fishes

17

Capture

MMRDC

Portuguese Islands: Selvagens Islands

Fishes

29

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

2

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

9

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Algarve

Algae

2

Capture

MMRDC

Amphibians

5

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

105

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

8

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

9

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Southeast Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Natural Park

Amphibians

57

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

5

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Sado Estuary Nature Reserve

Amphibians

137

Capture

MMRDC

Birds

2

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

6

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

10

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

3

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Alentejo

Fishes

25

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

2

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Sesimbra

Amphibians

19

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

24

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

5

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

6

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Tejo Estuary Nature Reserve

Fishes

6

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Oeiras

Amphibians

4

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

1

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Cascais

Amphibians

268

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

45

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

20

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

16

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

13

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Sintra

Amphibians

27

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

13

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Torres Vedras

Amphibians

112

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

7

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

2

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

6

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Peniche, Óbidos Lagoon and Berlengas Islands

Fishes

1

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

87

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

1

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Ribatejo

Amphibians

6

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

1

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Coimbra

Fishes

11

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

1

Capture

MMRDC

Mammals

1

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Serra da Estrela Natural Park

Amphibians

51

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Peneda-Gerês National Park

Amphibians

41

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

1

Capture

MMRDC

Continental Portugal: Other Continental Portugal Regions

Amphibians

6

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

3

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

1

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

2

Capture

MMRDC

African Shore

Birds

2

Capture

MMRDC

Fishes

4

Capture

MMRDC

Invertebrates

7

Capture

MMRDC

Chile

Fishes

2

Capture

MMRDC

Spain

Amphibians

4

Capture

MMRDC

Reptiles

1

Capture

MMRDC

Germany

Amphibians

6

Exchange

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

North America

Amphibians

14

Exchange

American Museum of Natural History

Reptiles

8

Exchange

American Museum of Natural History

Amphibians

4

Exchange

Field Museum of Natural History

Reptiles

8

Exchange

Field Museum of Natural History

Amphibians

7

Exchange

Louisiana State University LSUMZ

Bangladesh

Fishes

1

Exchange

Unknown

Reptiles

6

Exchange

Unknown

China

Amphibians

7

Exchange

Harvard Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology

Reptiles

6

Exchange

Harvard Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology

Brasil

Fishes

4

Unknown

Unknown

Invertebrates

3

Unknown

Unknown

Reptiles

4

Unknown

Unknown

Venezuela

Reptiles

1

Unknown

Unknown

Unknown

Algae

12

Unknown

Unknown

Amphibians

9

Unknown

Unknown

Fishes

34

Unknown

Unknown

Invertebrates

15

Unknown

Unknown

Reptiles

11

Unknown

Unknown

Reptiles

1

Purchase

Unknown

Reptiles

1

Donation

Alexandre Cryetti

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Notas

1 The Museu do Mar Rei D. Carlos has two main collections; the natural history collection, with taxidermized animals, molluscs, palaeontology and liquid-preserved species, that entered the collection mainly during the first decade of the museum (1975-1986), and the ethnography collection, mainly related to the fishing and seafaring activities in Cascais, constituted through many donations from the local community (fishing gear, tools, clothes, and others).

2 The natural history collection’s inventory is yet to be completed. Currently, only 75% of the collection is inventoried. In the last few years, there has been some progress thanks to the municipality’s internship program (like “Programa Experimenta”) and previously there was some occasional hiring of researchers, who inventoried specific collections, like it happened with part of the palaeontology collection. The recent donation of two major collection of molluscs (totalizing almost 10 thousand specimens) increases the percentage of items that need inventory.

3 It was not possible to confirm if this population is extinct. However, during the writing of the paper here in citation (Couto and Rebelo 2022) there were observations made in the collection location that presented several signs that suggest that the population might be extinct such as: the stream was dry during the rainy season; and the presence of a highway nearby where runoff flows to the stream location site.

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Índice das ilustrações

Legenda Fig. 1 – Jars and containers in poor conservation conditions with black mold on the exterior. A) Jar with a dry specimen due to evaporation; B) Jar with partial evaporated liquid and different species accommodated; C) Preservation fluid damaged by the loss of lipids from the specimens inside; D) Container with several different species all with the same capture date and location. 23 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/midas/docannexe/image/4604/img-1.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 321k
Legenda Fig. 2 – Different types of old labels: from left: exterior labels with the old inventory number; in the center: exterior labels with the specimen information; to the right: interior label with information from the capture location, date, and inventory number on the left forelimb of a Bufo spinosus. 30 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/midas/docannexe/image/4604/img-2.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 191k
Legenda Fig. 3 – Acclimation of a Natrix maura to the new preservation fluid through a sequence of different dilutions of 4% formaldehyde solution and old preservation fluid (from the left with 80% original to the final solution on the right). 30 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/midas/docannexe/image/4604/img-3.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 209k
Legenda Fig. 4 – Jar with the respective new inventory number (MMRDC-87-23-01) to be inserted on the inventory platform. 5 January 2023, Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos
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Referência eletrónica

Henrique Couto e Maria Teresa Crespo, «Retrieving history: the liquid-preserved collection of the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos»MIDAS [Online], 17 | 2023, posto online no dia 15 novembro 2023, consultado o 17 junho 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/midas/4604; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/midas.4604

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Autores

Henrique Couto

PhD candidate of Conservation Biology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, with the thesis topic: “The Butterfly Effect: Listing, Quantifying and Evaluating the Distribution and Impacts of Invasive Lepidopterans”, supported by a grant from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). He holds a BSc in Environmental Biology and a MSc in Conservation Biology. He is currently associated with the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes cE3c (University of Lisbon) and has worked in the fields of herpetology in zoos, large databases and with natural history collections at the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos (Cascais).

Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (cE3c), Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, 1749-016 Lisboa, Portugal, henriquenunocouto@gmail.com, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0873-8160

Maria Teresa Crespo

Coordinator of the Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos (Cascais municipality) since 2022. She has a degree in Art History (University of Lisbon, 2008), a master’s degree in Museology (Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2012), and completed the Advanced Studies Course in Public Management in 2017 (INA Instituto Nacional de Administração). She has worked in the areas of cultural mediation, interpretation and communication in museums, including collections history.

Museu do Mar – Rei D. Carlos, 2750-407 Cascais, Portugal, m.teresa.crespo@cm-cascais.pt

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