Why we HAVEN’T put the bird skin collection in taxonomic order

Firstly, for those of the uninitiated here is a (hopefully) simple explanation of what taxonomy means:
Taxonomy is a scientific word which basically stands for the tree of life. Looking at the bottom of the trunk you have one living thing – the first organism that popped into existence around 3.85 billion years ago and there were no other species, just the one. It is from that first type of organism that everything else has evolved and by looking at the tree, i.e. studying taxonomy, you can see how things are related to one another. For instance, did you know that humans and chickens share 57% of the same DNA, and we share around 99% of the same DNA as chimpanzees? Birds are descended from the same line as dinosaurs and of the species that are alive today one of the first to evolve was the Ostrich, which appeared around 20 million years ago. Some of the birds that have appeared most recently are perching birds, such as the finches, around 10 million years ago. Below is a taxonomic tree, showing how from one common ancestor a group of different species evolved.

(Taxonomic tree showing the branch dealing with birds and their relationships to one another. You can see how the Ostrich branches off first, exhibiting that is the most primitive and flamingos, penguins and toucans are relatively recent.)

Most Natural History Collections are sorted in this way, everything is in order and you can progress through the evolution of a group, from start to finish (although everything is still evolving!). For the bird skin collection we have decided NOT to do this. Call us crazy, but we’re scientists and we like to experiment! We consulted the main users of the collection, which are the Visitor Assistants and the Education and Outreach staff. They said that often with groups of visitors they concentrate on different themes and that taxonomy was not useful to them; would we consider something else? Since the collection was being unpacked from storage and we could start from scratch we asked for ideas and they came up with the themes of: beak shape, foot shape, flight, hunters/insectivores, British birds, geography and colour. Many different subjects can be related to each of these divisions, such as camouflage, migration, methods of feeding, habitat, etc. As part of the project all of our bird skins will be databased with a location attached so we can find everything even if it isn’t in order or together.

There is an argument that you should adapt your collection to accommodate the people who use it the most, and in many cases that will be researchers and students, so of course sorting taxonomically would be ideal, but that is not the situation at the Discovery Centre. Ultimately, if after some time it is decided that actually taxonomy would be more effective then we can rearrange the collection, but it will be interesting to see how this test will work out.

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