Preserving Nature

For every animal or plant you see at a natural history museum, there are millions more behind the scenes.

Fish in jars
Shells in boxes
Insects on pins
Birds in drawers
Plants on paper
…and so many more.

What are natural history collections?

Examples of animals and plants that are preserved, labeled, and organized so they can be studied—like unique books in a giant library of life.

Where do the animals
and plants come from?

All over the world — every continent, every country, every ocean. Scientists climb mountains, wade in rivers, hike through forests, and even dive under the sea to find them.

Why are there so many?

Scientists need to have many examples of animals and plants to identify and name different species, find out how they are related, and document where they live.

What do the labels say?

A label with each specimen gives its scientific name, who collected it, and where and when it was collected. These essential pieces of information are the specimen’s data. Scientists record these data so the specimen will be useful for study.

What are all these collections for?

Understanding life on Earth — past, present, and future.

Big and Small — We Have Them All

Natural history specimens come in all shapes and sizes.

There are billions of specimens in natural history collections all around the world. The variety of specimens in these vast collections is amazing.

Natural history specimens are:


Skull of a humpback whale

and Tiny

Small spot snails on a dime


Green comma butterfly

and Many

Common violet sea-snails


Four-leaf white clover

and Common

City or rock pigeon


Deep-sea squids

and Dry

Sand dollar

Data Connects Collections

Real specimens in drawers are essential, but what if someone far away wants to study a specimen? Or analyze specimen data from hundreds of collections around the world?
Scientists can digitize each specimen so its image and data can be shared over the Internet.

Digitization is much more than just taking a picture. There are many steps:


Identify the specimen


Locate where it was collected


Enter the specimen’s data into a computer database


Check the information for accuracy


Photograph the specimen


Publish the data online

Natural history museums share all these data in a free online catalog called iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections). iDigBio has data for more than 100 million specimens, and it’s growing every day.

Big Data for Big Questions

Collecting specimens and data helps us to understand biodiversity now and in the future.

Scientists have collected animal and plant specimens for hundreds of years.

Digitizing these huge collections creates lots of data. We can use these data to answer big questions about how the natural world works and changes over time.


How does climate affect animal populations?


Locations of insect populations followed the changing temperatures across North America.

Who: Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D. student, and Dr. Andrew R. Deans

Where: The Frost Entomological Museum
at Pennsylvania State University

What: Digital data from 13 species of damselflies in North America

A living familiar bluet damselfly.
Warmer colors on these maps show the warmer habitats these damselflies prefer. The dots show where the insects were collected.


How fast can animal populations change?


Populations of land snails can change appearance
in less than 100 years.

Who: Dr. Małgorzata Ożgo from Poland, with colleagues from Malaysia and the Netherlands
Where: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands
What: Digitized historical specimens of grove land snails compared to recently collected specimens

The dark colorform of Cepaea nemoralis was common in the past.
The light colorform is more common now.


Does biodiversity ever change?


Revisiting past collecting sites may reveal changes
in the distribution of mollusk species over time.

Who: Dr. Gary Rosenberg, with students and collaborators

Where: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia

What: Digital data for marine mollusk specimens collected from the late 1800s to now on the New Jersey coast

A researcher collects mollusks on the beach to build a natural history collection.

Collections Are for Everyone

Digital data inspires exploration and discovery of life on Earth.

People of all ages can use natural history collections and digitized data to learn about the natural world. What animals and plants are you curious about?


Art students sharpened their observation and technical skills by drawing insect specimens from the Frost Entomological Museum at Pennsylvania State University.


Undergraduate students from Widener University in Pennsylvania spent a semester at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. They used digital data and specimens to learn about birds, mollusks, and the scientific method.


Hundreds of volunteers are helping the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to survey land snails and find out how urbanization is affecting snails in the region.

And you!

Get Involved

You don’t need a science degree to work with digital natural history collections. You can:

  • Use the iNaturalist app to collect and share natural history data
  • Come to an iDigBio digitizing event
  • Volunteer to help digitize specimens in a museum
  • And more!

The information on this page was initially created for the Little Creatures: Big Data exhibit produced by the Delaware Museum of Natural History as part of InvertEBase, a digitization project for North American arthropod and mollusk collections funded by the National Science Foundation.

Exhibit team: Liz Shea, Jean Woods, Jane E. Boyd, Stephanie Gleit

Additional photography: Matt McGraw, Alisha Solaiman, Aaron Bond, Rosemary Ginzberg, Leslie Skibinski, Meredith Hatzinikolas, José Leal (Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum), Andy Deans (The Frost Entomological Museum at Pennsylvania State University), The C.V Starr Virtual Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden, iDigBio, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Universidade de Brasília.

Thanks to colleagues who generously provided advice, information, and images.

iDigBio is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections Program [DBI-1115210 (2011–2018) and DBI-1547229 (2016–2021)]. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those
of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

InvertEBase is a Thematic Collections Network of iDigBio and is funded by National Science Foundation grants to the following collaborative partners:

  • Auburn University Museum of Natural History, EF 14-01176
  • Cleveland Museum of Natural History, EF 14-02785
  • Delaware Museum of Natural History, EF 14-02697
  • Field Museum, Chicago, EF 14-02667
  • The Frost Entomological Museum at Pennsylvania State University, EF 14-00993
  • Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, EF 14-01450
  • University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, EF 14-04964