Collection and Research Practices

Article | Updated 12 months ago

Planning

This is one of the most important stages of any research project. Before going into the field, researchers decide which groups of organisms need to be studied, the collection techniques to be employed and the location of collection sites. The selection of sites is important to ensure that a range of different habitat types are surveyed.

For this purpose, aerial photographs and a stereo-viewer are used to check on the various marine habitats in the region. A stereo-viewer allows the user to view two aerial photographs taken at slightly offset angles, giving a three dimensional view of an area. The contours and habitats of the underwater substrate can then be assessed. At this stage, other factors such as personnel, transport, accommodation and equipment must also be organised.

Fieldwork

The next phase of the research is to ‘go into the field’, i.e. undertake an expedition, to collect and record the species present. Collection techniques employed to survey marine life may include SCUBA diving, shore collecting, dredging, underwater photographing of living specimens and video recording of the substrate. Visual observations of species that were unable to be collected may also be recorded. During field work, researchers also record information about each site such as the latitude and longitude, water depth, and a description of its habitat.

Sorting and Identification

Upon return to the museum laboratory, specimens are further sorted and identified. At this stage, researchers aim to identify all specimens to species level or determine if it is a new species. Identification of specimens is based on the researchers’ own experience, with the aid of the Museum’s collections and a library of technical literature. If a specimen cannot be identified by staff at the Western Australian Museum, it may be sent to another expert within Australia or overseas to be examined.

Once identified, the specimens will then be given a label that includes the species name and basic details of collection.

Databasing

Once the specimens have been identified their records are entered into a computer-based database. This allows all details of the specimen to be recorded and stored in an accessible manner. For each specimen, details such as the organism’s name, site name or number, longitude and latitude of site, collector’s name, identifier’s name, date of collection, depth of collection and other important details are entered into the database. Each specimen is also assigned a unique registration number. When entered into the database this number identifies it from all other specimens in the Museum’s vast collection and enables museum staff to track the movements of the specimen. This is important when specimens are loaned to other scientific institutions for further research.

Once databasing of a specimen is complete, a final label with details such as the species name, registration number, site location and date of collection is printed and placed in the container with the specimen. Prior to the use of computers, all specimens were registered using hand written catalogues. Accessing specimen data in such catalogue books was a time consuming task when compared to the use of search programs with the current computer-based system.

Storage

Once specimens have been entered into the database, they are placed into the Museum’s collections. These collections are organised so that related organisms are placed together. For example, all fishes are in one section while crustaceans are in another. Within each of these sections, specimens are further categorised into taxonomic order i.e. closely related species are placed together. This allows specimens to be located with relative ease.

These specimens are the State’s permanent record of the marine biodiversity of Western Australia and are used by scientists here and elsewhere to conduct further research and to validate species occurrences in an area.