Seven Questions for Collections Dean Scott Schaefer

From the Collections posts

Ichthyologist Scott Schaefer’s research specialty is rare catfishes, but on any given day he might be thinking about meteorites, textiles, or wasps.

That’s because in his other role, he oversees the Museum’s scientific collections, which passed the 33-million-holdings mark earlier this year. (For an inside look at the collections, see our new series Shelf Life, with monthly original videos, featuring Dr. Schaefer in Episode 1: 33 Million Things).

We recently caught up with Dr. Schaefer to talk about the importance of physical specimens, how collecting has changed, and his own favorite contribution to the 33 million (hint: it’s rare catfishes).

Scott Schaefer holds a jar of about 65 specimens of the Vandellia catfish, or candiru, from the Museum's ichthyology collections. This parasitic species has a legendary reputation for entering the urethras of unwary humans, but it more typically finds a meal by swimming into the gill chambers of larger fish.   ©AMNH/E. Chapman

Scott Schaefer holds a jar of about 65 specimens of the Vandellia catfish, or candiru, from the Museum's ichthyology collections. This parasitic species has a legendary reputation for entering the urethras of unwary humans, but it more typically finds a meal by swimming into the gill chambers of larger fish.  

©AMNH/E. Chapman


Q: Most of the Museum’s 33-million-plus specimens and artifacts are behind the scenes. Was that always the case?

A: At the very beginning, the collections were mostly acquired for exhibition. But over time, research became an important focus, and more and more collections never did make it onto public display. Today, more than 99 percent of the Museum’s collections are not on display—they’re in repositories, principally used in research. 

Q: What’s your role as the Museum’s dean of collections?

A:  On a day-to-day basis, I’m responding to problems that weren’t there yesterday. A flood in a collection. An outside request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, answering a question related to their law enforcement activities on wildlife. Perhaps there’s a situation where a loan is recalled, so I might lend a hand.

Q: So you’re the collections sheriff.

A: Collections sheriff is one way of putting it, right.

Q: With a growing jurisdiction, since collections increase every year. Why is it still important to bring back physical specimens?

A:  Because they often represent the only tangible snapshot we have of life on Earth. You might say, “You can sample the genome of a specimen. You can take a photograph of a specimen, won’t that be sufficient?”

Well, the answer is no. It might be adequate. Those might be excellent photographs. That might be one kind of representation, if you talk about a genome sequence, for example. But it isn’t necessarily sufficient to answer all the types of questions that could potentially be asked about that biodiversity at that place and at that time. So today, it’s just as essential to collect and acquire information about the remaining biodiversity of life on earth as it was 145 years ago when the Museum began building collections. 

Q: Has the process of collecting changed since those early days?

A: We’re now more focused. We are no longer taking large, very large samples from natural communities because we’re much more sensitive now as to the impact of collecting activity on the health and the welfare of natural populations. We need to be more focused on those aspects because we’re also advocates for conservation.

Q: Visitors know the Museum has dinosaur fossils—lots of them. What might they be surprised to learn?

A: We have one of the world’s largest collections of fossil mammals, approximately 4 million of our paleontological specimens. We’re one of the strongest collections in the world.

We also have one of the world’s largest collections of butterflies, with strength in numbers as well as in geographic coverage. When scientists talk about the relative importance of collections, it’s about coverage and depth. Both of those things speak to the relative importance as research tools of that material for the science questions being asked. 

Scott Schaefer holds the cranium of the Vampire tetra, a voracious predator that is a close relative of the neon and cardinal tetra popular in the aquarium trade. This specimen, one of more than 2 million in the Museum's ichthyology collection, is from Venezuela.  ©AMNH/E. Chapman

Scott Schaefer holds the cranium of the Vampire tetra, a voracious predator that is a close relative of the neon and cardinal tetra popular in the aquarium trade. This specimen, one of more than 2 million in the Museum's ichthyology collection, is from Venezuela. 

©AMNH/E. Chapman


Q: Do you have a favorite specimen you’ve contributed to the collection?

A:  My personal favorite is a series of specimens of a new species of a very rare genus of catfish, Lithogenes, that I spent five years looking for over three different expeditions to Venezuela and ultimately found. The specimens are represented nowhere else. We don’t even know if those populations still exist in Venezuela.  It’s from a very remote place that very few people get to visit, so I have some confidence that this discovery and those collections will hold a special place for a long time.