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Behind the genes: my first month as curator

12 November 2018 by John Wilson

Vertebrates are animals with backbones. The vertebrate animal group (and our vertebrate zoology collections at World Museum) includes the large animals everyone’s familiar with – mammals, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and birds.

Although National Museums Liverpool now has varied collections and exhibits the first museum, which later became World Museum, was a museum of vertebrates! So it’s with a huge sense of honour and great responsibility that I take on the role as the new curator of vertebrates at World Museum. I started working at World Museum in mid-September and have slowly been familiarising myself with our massive collection of animals.

I’ve been fascinated by the diversity of animals my whole life, studying for degrees in biology, biodiversity and zoology and working as a researcher, university lecturer, and assistant curator in Canada, Malaysia and China before coming back to the UK.

As curator I’ll be responsible for the care of around 79,000 specimens originating from all over the World – from the kiwi of New Zealand to the polar bear of the Arctic. Most of the vertebrate zoology collections are housed in stores in the basement of World Museum, but several hundred specimens can be found in the Clore Natural History Centre. Some of our large mammals can be found in the Natural World gallery.

John Wilson

I’m particularly interested in the use of short DNA sequences (call DNA barcodes) to understand the diversity of animals. DNA barcodes are especially useful where several species look very similar and are hard to tell apart by eye. DNA barcodes can be essential when creating lists of species for conservation action plans, like the list my colleagues and I created of bats in Malaysia.

The vertebrate zoology collection includes many extinct, endangered and rare species like the Dodo and Great Auk. It also houses an extinct “mystery” bird – the spotted green pigeon a.k.a. the Liverpool pigeon – which through analysis of DNA “mini” barcodes was found to be a close relative of the Dodo.

All curators want to increase the accessibility of our collections, and in one month, I’ve provided tours of our basement stores for groups of students from our local universities in Liverpool. We’ve also hosted students and scientists using the collections for their research, including one postgraduate student investigating the bristles on bird’s beaks.

I’m part of a community of researchers trying to sequence a DNA barcode from every species on earth and I hope the unique and historic vertebrate zoology collection at World Museum can make a big contribution to this goal.

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