Smithsonian’s Amazing Natural History Collections

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Last week I got to look behind the scenes of the entomology collection at the National Museum of Natural History. I learned how the collection of insects and spiders, one of the world's largest, is used by Smithsonian and Department of Agriculture scientists to help port inspectors identify potentially invasive species and to conduct research about how to halt the ones already here (like the Asian long-horned beetle). Back in the office, I started looking into the size of the museum's collections and came to the startling realization that the vast majority of the institution's 137 million items are natural history specimens. They include many of the world's largest collections, and though I knew they existed, I had no idea how big they are. Here are the numbers:

Gems, minerals, rocks and meteorites: 350,000 minerals, 17,000 meteorites, 127,000 rocks and 10,000 gems
Amphibians and reptiles: 570,000 specimens, the world's largest collection
Mammals: 590,000 specimens, the world's largest collection (and nearly twice the size of the second largest)
Birds: over 640,000 specimens, including representatives of about 80 percent of the world's known bird species
Fish: 4 million specimens, the world's largest collection
Invertebrates (except insects): 35 million specimens from around the world
Entomology: the National Insect Collection, housing 35 million specimens in more than 5,200 cabinets
Paleobiology: 40 million fossil animals, plants and single-cell organisms (and sediment samples) including 1,500 dinosaurs

Add in the anthropology collection and you find that the National Museum of Natural History cares for more than 126.6 million objects and specimens---the world's largest and most comprehensive natural history collection. And it keeps growing.

As we can see from the entomology research, these items are collected not just for the sake of having something unique or different. They support important research, from learning about how to prevent birds from striking airplanes to how the human species evolved, and the teaching of new scientists. I'm in awe.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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