Saturday, December 11, 2010

Open Collections day at the University of San Marcos Natural History Museum

I was fortunate enough this year to teach a college-level Biology class here in Lima, Peru.  I love teaching introductory biology because for the first time, many students get a chance to learn about evolutionary theory.  It is a great privilege for me for me to talk about Charles Darwin, the voyage of the Beagle, and discuss  the tremendous elegance and beauty of the theory of evolution.  To be able to present topics on the natural processes behind the creation of biodiversity is especially exciting when one is in a country that is considered to be "mega-diverse", such as Peru.  The satisfaction that comes from being able to use the geography of Peru-its mountains, rivers, forests, and deserts, as examples of drivers in evolutionary processes such as speciation, is doubled for one who is fascinated by such things.   However, being in a large city such as Lima makes the rain forest seem almost as exotic as it is in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.  I often wondered, as I taught, if my Power Point presentations could really make the impact on students as being in the field has on me.  And of course, the answer is that no slide presentation can take the place of experience.
     Today, the University of San Marcos Natural History Museum opened many of their prized collections (usually not on exhibit) to the general public.  The departments of mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology, archeology, and botany had biologists on hand explaining characteristics of, and differences among, species found in Peru.
     What an amazing treat!  For the first time, I had a chance to view collections that are usually hidden from view, as did hundreds of other guests.  I had my 8 year-old daughter with me, and we were totally captivated by the sheer diversity of the varied collections.  Even though my personal experience as a biologist is mostly with mammals, I was especially enthralled by the bird collection.  My daughter and I stood, open-mouthed, in front of drawers containing hummingbirds ranging in size from bumblebees to swallows,  admiring the shimmery blues, violets and greens of the feathers, as well as the absolutely amazing array of beaks; long and pointed, like lances, shorter and curved like hooks.  What must life be like for a bird that has such a specialized beak that it must be in a life and death marriage with plants that it pollinates?  The tails on these small, shiny, gems of birds ranged from a "normal" bird tail, to exquisite long feathers that trailed behind the male birds, a "textbook" example of sexual selection.  
     And it was here that I felt chills running up and down my spine.  In 5 minutes with my 8 year-old daughter, I had seen and learned more about biodiversity in Peru and evolutionary theory than my students would in several lectures.  I could feel the excitement that the naturalists who had traversed the new-world , and Peru, and deduced the laws of nature.  It was a thrilling feeling.  I realized that many of my biology students (many of whom are going on to study business administration and not biology), would have benefited tremendously by visiting the museum, seeing at least part of the collections, and listening to the presentations given by the earnest and enthusiastic biologists, obviously proud to share this often overlooked part of Peru's heritage.
They would have remembered this visit for the rest of their lives.  The fact that the museum's incredibly diverse collection housed species that inhabited THEIR country would have made a visit invaluable, and I am now convinced that visits to this collection (the only one of its kind in Peru) will be a must for my future classes.
     Peru is currently experiencing and economic "boom" of sorts, due to the vast quantities of gold, silver, and other metals found within the earth.  Along with this economic growth,mega- development projects such as the inter-oceanic highway, proposals for the building of dams for hydroelectric power (which would inundate thousands of kilometers of precious rain forest), new settlements, and continuing deforestation, are taking a tremendous toll on the species of plants and animals of Peru.  As I viewed the animals in the collection today, I thought about all that is lost when a forest is destroyed.  It was no longer an abstract concept; it was an experience that produced both learning and emotion. The type of experience that lasts in one's heart and mind.  These are the experiences that students need to have as Peru navigates toward its future, when these students will  be the entrepreneurs and leaders making important decisions for this country. The value of in-country biodiversity exhibits are incalculable.  This museum, along with others in tropical countries, should be appreciated as the custodian of an invaluable biodiversity library, the library of life.  
     The fact that a few weeks ago, plans were being considered to construct new classroom buildings and retail stores in the area where the collections are maintained (more on this in my next post), shows what a thin line exists between life....and death.  The future of Peru depends on maintaining its ecosystems and biodiversity intact. For this, biodiversity inventories and education are critical.  Economic booms come and go...but biodiversity does not, at least not within our life span or that of our species.

Catherine Sahley
Executive Director