Science at the Museum main content.

Science at the Museum

One scientist stands on the roof of a vehicle parked in the desert and looks through binoculars and another looks through a telescope. AMNH scientists conduct field research.
© AMNH

Since its founding in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has been a world leader in the natural sciences. Approximately 200 scientists pursue a broad agenda of advanced scientific research, investigating the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the world’s myriad species, the rich variety of human culture, and the complex processes that have formed and continue to shape planet Earth and the universe beyond it. All the Museum’s permanent exhibition halls, special exhibitions, and public programs are informed by this research, which is the intellectual bedrock of the institution. Throughout its history, the Museum has fulfilled its mission to provide balanced, accurate, and objective information on science.

Under the leadership of Michael J. Novacek, senior vice president, provost of science, and curator in the Division of Paleontology and Scott A. Schaefer, dean of science for collections, exhibitions, and the public understanding of science and curator in the Department of Ichthyology, the Museum’s scientific efforts are spearheaded by a core team of more than 40 curators, including many of the world’s leading researchers in the natural sciences.

The Museum’s history includes some of the greatest names in anthropology and the natural sciences, including anthropologists Franz Boas (1858–1942), Margaret Mead (1901–1978), and Colin Turnbull (1924–1994); dinosaur hunters Barnum Brown (1873–1963) and Roy Chapman Andrews (1884–1960); polar explorers Robert E. Peary (1856–1920) and Lincoln Ellsworth (1880–1951); and explorer-naturalists Carl Akeley (1864–1926) and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858–1919).

Roy Chapman Andrews and Walter Granger wear hats and sit on the sand, using brushes and chisels to extract fossils from the desert.
Roy Chapman Andrews and Walter Granger extract dinosaur eggs from the desert, Mongolia, 1928.
© AMNH/J.B. Shackelford

Today, the Museum’s collections and scientific activities are organized under the following five divisions:

 

World-Renowned Permanent Collections

The Museum holds one of the world’s largest and most important natural history collections—more than 34 million specimens and cultural artifacts collected over more than a century of scientific research around the world. Only about 2 percent of this permanent collection, a treasure of humanity, is on view to the public. The remainder is an invaluable resource for Museum scientists and their colleagues worldwide. Among the collection’s great strengths are:

  • The world’s largest and most important collection of vertebrate fossils, totaling nearly one million specimens, more than 700 of which are displayed in the Museum’s renowned fourth-floor fossil halls
  • 15 million insects and terrestrial arthropods (spiders, centipedes, scorpions, etc.) and 10 million marine invertebrates (mollusks, jellyfish, sea anemones, etc.), the fourth-largest such collection in the world
  • The world’s most important research collection of amber fossils
  • More than 540,000 items in the collection of archaeology, ethnology, and physical anthropology, including artifacts, photographs, and other materials from cultures, past and present, around the world
  • More than 110,000 minerals and 3,700 gems
  • The Hayden Planetarium Astronomical Instrument Collection of approximately 50 rare and antique scientific instruments, including astrolabes and other instruments of celestial navigation from the past 500 years 
  • The Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, a frozen tissue collection with the capacity to store up to one million DNA specimens, a key feature of the Museum’s growing research program in nonhuman genomics

In addition to the Museum’s permanent collection, the institution houses one of the largest natural history libraries in the world, with more than 500,000 volumes and over a million items, an important rare book collection, and special collections including photographs, manuscripts, archives, films, and art and museum memorabilia. 

 

Scientific Programs

Center for Biodiversity and Conservation

Founded in 1993, the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) connects diverse perspectives and sources of knowledge to real-world conservation problems and solutions. CBC Director Ana Luz Porzecanski oversees a range of programs around the world that foster the ongoing discovery, awareness, and conservation of life on the planet, integrating the Museum’s science, collections, and technology into conservation action. Through its activities—from supporting community-conserved marine areas in the Solomon Islands to studying endangered primates in Vietnam—the CBC transforms knowledge into action.

Additionally, the CBC is a leader in convening and connecting community leaders, resource managers, scientists, and policy makers for strategic collaborations and collective conservation problem solving. Partnering with individuals and institutions around the world, the CBC creates local outreach and training programs that strengthen the ability of students, educators, professionals, and communities to meet conservation challenges. The CBC also hosts symposia that bridge disciplines and address critical conservation questions as well as the annual Student Conference on Conservation Science-New York, which provides leadership training for emerging generations of conservation scientists and practitioners.

Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics

For more than a century, the Museum has been a leader in examining diverse species that represent the critical branches in phylogeny, a pattern of relationships often depicted as the “tree of life,” and in studying patterns of evolutionary change over the past 3.5 billion years. With its vast research experience in comparative biology, the Museum is in a unique position to gather and synthesize data and to provide broad interpretations, leading the way into a new era of scientific research known as comparative genomics. Genomics is the identification, study, and analysis of the sequence of proteins that constitutes an organism’s DNA. 

In 2001, the Museum opened the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. This institute, led by Director Cheryl Hayashi, Leon Hess Director of Comparative Biology Research, consolidated the Museum’s already considerable research efforts with its education and outreach mission around this issue of crucial public importance. More than 70 of the Museum’s scientific staff members use the institute’s facilities, including molecular laboratories, bioinformatics capacity, and a frozen tissue collection—the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection (AMCC), which has the capacity to store up to 1 million DNA specimens in nitrogen-cooled vats. In 2009, the Museum signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. National Park Service to be an official repository for tissues from threatened and endangered species found in national parks. In 2012, the Museum became an associate member of the New York Genome Center, an independent non-profit organization created to transform science and healthcare through advanced bioinformatics and genomics research.

Center for Conservation Genetics

The Museum’s Center for Conservation Genetics (ConGen) employs cutting-edge techniques in genetics, molecular biology, population biology, molecular ecology, and forensics to identify and ameliorate genetic threats to endangered species and to develop and support conservation strategies for retaining genetic diversity. Working closely with the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, ConGen is a program within the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. ConGen applies the latest techniques in conservation biology and genomics to conduct critically important research on endangered species and implements science-based conservation management plans.

ConGen supports a wide range of programs, including:

  • The DNA Barcoding Initiative for Conservation, based on an efficient technique that allows researchers identify the species from which a piece of meat—or even a leather handbag—came from.
  • The Global Felid Conservation Genetics Program, which, in collaboration with the Panthera Foundation, tracks tiger, lion, jaguar, and snow leopard populations through DNA in fecal specimens gathered in the field.
  • Wildlife forensics, which involves the use of molecular markers to help monitor the commercial trade in wildlife and assist law-enforcement authorities in controlling that trade.

 

Field Expeditions

Each year, the Museum conducts about 100 scientific field expeditions to locations around the world. The Museum’s history includes some of science’s most important and groundbreaking field expeditions, including Franz Boas’s Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902), which revealed links between Native American and Asian peoples; Roy Chapman Andrews’s seminal Central Asiatic Expeditions (1921–1930), which illuminated the Gobi Desert of Mongolia as a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils; Barnum Brown’s India-Burma Expedition (1922–1923), which uncovered fossils of the earliest known primates in Asia; Carl Akeley’s studies of mountain gorillas and other mammals in Africa (1909–1926); and Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to the rain forest of Brazil (1914).

In 2013, the Museum launched Explore21, a comprehensive initiative to foster a series of innovative scientific expeditions that meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The program supports exploratory fieldwork that is multidisciplinary, heavily integrated with emerging technologies, and focused on delivering real-world applications by discovering new species, preserving biodiversity, and uncovering new knowledge about the natural world. The program has so far sent teams to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Cuba, and Romania.

 

Scientific Facilities

Armadillo skeleton with computer reconstruction overlayed on top that visualizes the bony plates of armor of the lizard's skin.
The skeleton shown with osteoderms constructed by a computed topography machine which uses X-rays to build the image data into a 3-D model.
© AMNH/E. Stanley

The Microscopy and Imaging Facility, which provides advanced imaging technology for Museum research staff to examine specimen and collections items. The tools available to Museum researchers in MIF include:

  • The Science Computer Cluster Facility, which is a major resource used by Museum research scientists, postdoctoral fellows, graduate, and undergraduate students for high-end capability computing in areas of biology, genomics, astrophysics, paleontology, and anthropology.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scanner: To see inside a specimen such as an Apatosaurus braincase without destroying it, Museum scientists use a specialized CT scanner, a sophisticated x-ray imaging device. Acquired by the Museum in 2010 with a grant from the National Science foundation, the GE Phoenix V/tome/x Dual-Tube CT Scanner is one of only four of its kind in the country.
  • Scanning electron microscopes (SEM): Using magnets for lenses, these instruments sweep a high-energy beam of electrons across an object’s surface. The electrons reflect off the surface, and the resulting image can be displayed with magnifications up to 500,000 times higher than visible light allows. Museum researchers use the SEM to study specimens that range from tiny goblin spiders to now-extinct rodent species, in minute detail.
  • Confocal laser scanning microscopes: These instruments illuminate microscopic detail, such as otherwise imperceptible differences among species of plant bugs, by focusing a laser light beam from an optic lens onto an object one point at a time. A camera detects fluorescent light reflected from each of the focal points, while the out-of-focus regions are blocked. From the collected data, computers assemble a 3D image of the object, showing in great detail its surface and any parts within it that possess fluorescent properties.
  • A frozen tissue facility with the capacity to store one million DNA samples, a key feature of the Museum’s growing research program in nonhuman genomics.
  • Field stations for sustained study in biologically important areas, including the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona, and the Great Gull Island Research Station in the Long Island Sound.

 

Richard Gilder Graduate School

The Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School houses two graduate programs, the Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Biology—the first Ph.D. degree granting program to be offered at a museum in the Western Hemisphere—and the Master of Arts in Teaching, also the first of its kind.

Doctor of Philosophy

The pioneering Ph.D. program in Comparative Biology educates the next generation of biologists through an integrated approach that focuses on the history, evolutionary relationships, and interactions among organisms. Training and research opportunities exist across a wide array of disciplines in comparative biology, incorporating research in comparative genomics, systematic and evolutionary biology, computational biology, paleontology, conservation biology, Earth history, anthropology, and biological and cultural diversity.

Under the direction of Dean John Flynn, the school supports a vibrant community of university-level scholars, including undergraduate interns and postdoctoral scholars, and encompasses all of the graduate students in longstanding collaborative Ph.D. programs with partner universities, including the City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, and Stony Brook University. The Richard Gilder Graduate School has nearly 100 postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate trainees in residence each year.

The Museum’s internationally recognized staff of curators and scientists serve as faculty of the Richard Gilder Graduate School, which is grounded in the Museum’s world-class scientific resources. Global fieldwork with Museum faculty provides exceptional research opportunities for students, who undertake research in the graduate school facility on the fifth floor of the historic 77th Street side of the Museum.

Master of Arts in Teaching

Drawing on the Museum’s unique resources, this innovative Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program is the latest initiative in the Museum’s long history of leadership in teacher education and professional development. Funded in part by the New York State Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, this 15-month urban residency program addresses a critical shortage of qualified science teachers in New York State, particularly in high-need schools with diverse populations, by providing a specialization in Earth Science for teachers of grades 7–12.

Working in partnership with schools in New York City and Yonkers, the MAT program is developed and delivered in the context of a natural history museum and integrates academic theory and learning with application in a school setting. The program employs intensive mentoring and extensive use of technology to provide degree candidates, known as Kathryn W. Davis Graduate Teaching Fellows, with a deep understanding of scientific content as well as of the importance of an inquiry-based approach to learning that demonstrates the relevance of science to students’ lives.

The MAT program is co-directed by Linda Curtis-Bey, Ed.D., the Museum's senior director of education, and Rosamond Kinzler, Ph.D., the Museum's senior director of science education, and supported by curators and scientists from the Museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Department of Astrophysics, and Division of Paleontology. All program coursework is taught by doctoral-level Museum scientists and educators.

In June 2015, the New York State Board of Regents voted to confer the Museum the authority to grant the MAT degree. In 2019, the MAT program became the only museum-based educator preparation program to receive accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.