Episode 15: Exploring Collection-Based Research
In our last episode, we discussed the role of collection data for scientific investigation. In this episode, we explore the value of the research on museum specimens and artifacts themselves, focusing on the use of specimen examination and evolutionary hypotheses to better explain the natural world. To help us discuss this topic, we are pleased to be joined by Dr. Peter Makovicky, The Field Museum's own Curator of Dinosaurs and Chair of the Department of Geology. Phylogenies (a hypothesis of how life is related evolutionarily) are crucial for predicting the distribution of incompletely studied organismal characteristics ranging from the presence of venom in fishes, to feathers on dinosaurs, or how the anatomy of eyes change in the deep sea as a result of selective pressures. In other words, knowledge of the evolutionary relationships of life allows for effective predictions about the unstudied characteristics of species. Museum collections are a critical component of this work, from the initial collection of samples used to infer our hypotheses of how life is related (e.g., whole specimens, tissues used to extract DNA for genetic work) to our ability of accessing this material again to test and explore evolutionary hypotheses.
An example of the biological questions we can explore in this manner is tracing the evolution of venomous fishes. By looking at venomous fishes from an evolutionary perspective, we generated a much more accurate picture of fish venom evolution than was previously suggested using a strictly observational approach. To explore venom evolution, we began by taking a major stab at the fish tree of life by analyzing all suborders and known venomous groups of spiny-rayed (Acanthomorpha) fishes for the first time. Using the resulting family tree of fishes as a framework, we mapped the species that were known to be venomous on to this DNA-based tree. This provided an initial estimate of how many times venom evolved and allowed us to predict which fish species beyond the "knowns" should be venomous or could possibly be venomous. To test these predictions, we explored the museum collections and dissected scores of specimens to look at the detailed anatomy of fish venom glands and clarify how many times venom evolved on the fish tree of life. By working our way down the fish tree of life by comparing ever more distantly related fishes from the known venomous fishes, we could pinpoint the number of times venom evolved, the exact groups of fishes that are venomous, and revise the identity of venomous fishes. This type of research is occurring world wide based on the collections at The Field Museum, and similar institutions that house, maintain, and allow access to museum specimens for scientific research. This example is just one of the many stories surrounding research done at The Field Museum with collection-based research.