The Natural History Collections of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University have been recognized as a national research infrastructure. Comprising approximately five million specimens, the collections have been transferred from facilities on campus to their new home at the Museum. They document the world of nature over thousands of years, as well as the history and development of culture in the region.
Natural history collections are an archive of biodiversity. The on-going, continual documentation is essential for understanding processes in nature, monitoring changes in ecosystems, enhancing evolutionary research and conserving nature and the environment.
The Museum’s collections serve hundreds of scientists and professionals in Israel and worldwide. Utilized for both basic and applied research, they also support the development of knowledge and tools for managing and conserving ecosystems, and using resources in a sustainable manner. More than one hundred graduate students use the natural history collections every year, for their MSc and PhD research projects.
The scientific knowledge accumulated by the Museum is utilized for diverse public activities, and is highly relevant to decisions makers in many areas: river rehabilitation, sustainable use of marine resources, fishery policies, biological monitoring, ecological risk evaluation, pest control, agricultural import and export, biological control, planning open landscapes, flight safety, regulation, and health.
The Museum holds a range of educational activities designed to convey its accumulated scientific knowledge to the general public. The wide choice of activities offered by the Museum’s Education and Scientific Communication Department includes guided tours, workshops, science days and more – targeting k-12 students from Israel’s education system, as well as students from institutions of higher education and the general public.
The Museum’s collection policy
Collection of specimens for the natural history collections is performed by the Museum’s scientists and their students as part of their regular research, or through special agricultural and nature conservation projects .
Specimens received by the Museum’s bird and mammal collections are usually animals that died in the wild (roadkill, poisoning, etc.) and were gathered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Fish, as well as marine and terrestrial invertebrates, are collected only via studies conducted with permits from state authorities.
All items brought to the collections are meticulously sorted, identified to the most accurate taxonomic resolution (according to structural similarity, common origins, etc.) and recorded in the computerized database. Often the final identification of invertebrates is assisted by scientists in Israel and overseas.
Scientists from other institutions in Israel and around the world transfer whole collections or specific items accumulated during their research to our natural history collections, to ensure their preservation for the benefit of future research. Thus, while furthering the advancement of science through their work, these researchers also contribute to continuous documentation of biodiversity in Israel. Similarly, private collections are assimilated into the Museum’s collections in order to guarantee their preservation and make them accessible to the scientific community. Becoming part of the national collections, these collections will be used for hundreds of future studies.
The Museum’s collections
The Museum’s collection of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians) is one of the richest in Asia, and the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Comprising approximately 60,000 specimens, it represents about 2,000 species. Approximately 80% of all items were collected in Israel, and the rest came from different places around the world. The collection has been fully computerized, and the database contains size measurements for many of the items on display.
The fish collection at the Museum includes fish collected in and around Israel since the 1940s, alongside items collected by delegations of Israeli and foreign researchers in the southern Red Sea and the Seychelles Islands, and specimens from other places, donated by foreign scientists. All in all, the collection encompasses over 15,000 items, including more than 130,000 fish. It facilitates the study and documentation of fish, as well as changes in aquatic systems resulting from the direct and indirect actions of humans.
The Museum’s invertebrate collections is one of the largest and most diverse in the Middle East. The collection (excluding the insect collection, which is displayed separately) includes more than 100,000 digitally cataloged items, collected in Israel and worldwide, as well as over 50,000 items that have yet to be cataloged. These items represent more than fifty classes of invertebrates, including dozens of type specimens of species new to science. Each item comprises one or more animals (sometimes dozens). The main part of the collection consists of specimens of animals living in Israel and the surrounding seas, as well as thousands of invertebrates from around the world.
The insect collection is one of the Museum’s most active collections, maintained by a staff of about 15 scientists, curators, research students and volunteers. The collection includes about three million items representing Israel’s insect species, as well as tens of thousands of items from different regions around the world. These provide a basis for taxonomic, phylogenetic and ecological research for the Museum’s scientists and their students, as well as researchers from other academic institutions in Israel and overseas. The collection also includes a range of live insects, used for instruction purposes. Activities aim to preserve, document and study Israel’s insect community, estimated to include about 20,000 species, at least one thousand of which remain unknown to science. In addition to their research and routine work, the collection’s staff provides identification services to a range of government, academic, commercial and private organizations.
The tissue collection and the lab for molecular systematics
In 1998 a tissue collection was established at the Museum of Natural History to meet the increasing need for samples for molecular research. Focusing on terrestrial vertebrates from the Middle East, the collection includes tissue samples harvested from approximately 8,000 items belonging to 273 species of birds, 125 species of mammal, 105 species of reptiles and 6 species of amphibians. The samples are taken from dead animals collected by rangers from the Nature and Parks Authority and by researchers working in the field. All of the tissue samples belong to voucher specimens from the different collections. The samples are preserved in ethanol and stored in deep freeze.
In addition to the tissue collection, the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History operates a lab for molecular systematics, equipped with the required facilities for DNA extraction and sequence amplification (PCR). A range of research activities take place in the lab, for example:
* Constructing a database of barcode sequences for all of Israel’s freshwater fish, as part of a joint project with the Nature and Parks Authority.
* Supporting various zoological research studies by providing molecular identification of animals such as those in the sponge collection (invertebrates).
* Identifying bird samples collected from sites of crashes with aircraft (in partnership with the Feather Identification Lab).
The Museum’s collection of water plants is the largest of its kind in the Middle East – comprising about 30,000 items collected since the 1950s in Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. The items represent various groups of organisms: algae (green, red, brown and blue), sea grasses and the parasitic fungi that live on them, submerged and floating plants from freshwater ecosystems in Israel, and of course bryophytes. Some of the items have been desiccated and mounted on paper, while others are preserved in alcohol.
The herbarium contains three main collections:
The Museum’s collection of algae, sea grasses and freshwater plants is the largest of its kind in the Middle East. The algae and sea grasses were collected mainly along the coasts of Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. The collection is in the process of computerized cataloging, and once this is done, the data will be available for academic research at universities around the world.
The lichen collection includes items collected in Israel and around the world. The organisms have been desiccated, and are kept in envelopes marked with collection date and location.
The fungus collection is used as reference for scientific research, while facilitating the preparation of catalogs of local and regional species of fungi. In addition, this collection is an important genetic reservoir. It includes more than 5,500 items belonging to 810 species, collected over a period of 40 years by Prof. Nissan Binyamini.