When most people think about natural history museums, they imagine galleries of exhibits – stuffed animals and a few jars of preserved critters with panels of information. These public exhibition spaces are important for museums because it is one of the ways we tell the stories of the world around us. However, most people don’t know that what you see on display is only a tiny fraction of the collection housed at the museum and public exhibitions are only a small part of the work of the museum.
Much of our fish research at the Western Australian Museum is based around our collection, which has nearly 180,000 specimens of fishes from around 5000 species. It has specimens from all over Western Australia and includes extensive collections from across the world, especially from the vast Indo-West Pacific (e.g. Thailand, Indonesia, New Guinea and Philippines). Our collection includes marine and freshwater fishes, from the shallows to the very deep sea. We have everything from sharks to seahorses and tunas. At more than five metres long, our largest specimen is the incredible Megamouth Shark (on display at the Western Australian Museum - Maritime) and our smallest are tiny gobies less than 1cm long. The collections of the Western Australian Museum were initiated by the first curator B.H. Woodward in 1896.
Megamouth on display at the Western Australian Museum - Maritime
Traditionally, our fish specimens are preserved in formaldehyde and then stored in 70% methylated ethanol. We store the collection in a specially air-conditioned building, with specimens in jars arranged in phylogenetic order (this loosely reflects our best understanding of evolutionary relationships). In this way, it is similar to a library, but with specimens rather than books. Large specimens are stored in large drum and vats.
Part of the fish collection at the Western Australian Museum
Some of our oldest specimens, collected in 1898
Past and present staff with a Shark Ray Rhina ancylostoma.
What do we use the collection for? We conduct taxonomic and systematic research on fishes, which includes the describing, naming and classifying of species, and their evolutionary origins and relationships. This is, of course, the central framework of all biology because it permits biologists to know exactly which species they are studying. One of our main fields of study is documenting Western Australia’s biodiversity and biogeography – in short, the distribution of species in time and space. This can be used to understand the processes that affect various regions, both in the past and the present and help to predict what might happen in the future. This is especially important for conservation and management questions. We also provide expertise and definitive identifications of fishes for many other government agencies (such as Department of Fisheries, Department of Conservation) as well as for anglers, divers and other members of the public. It is much of the knowledge that comes from the collections that we use in the galleries of exhibits for which museums are famous.
Of course, the collection is not all that we do! Another significant part of the work of the museum is in biodiversity assessments throughout the state. At present, the biggest project that the Fish Section is involved in is in the Kimberley. You can read all about it here: http://www.museum.wa.gov.au/kimberley/marine-life-kimberley-region.