While the fire that consumed the National Museum still burned, researchers watching the work of so many lives going up in smoke (past, present, and future) defied firefighters to save what they could. One of them was ichthyologist (fish specialist) Paulo Buckup, who entered the palace during the fire. “We recovered 80% of the mollusk types,” says biologist Cristiana Serejo, a specialist in crustaceans and deputy director of the museum. Types are the specimens used when a species is formally described and serve to define its specific features: the holotype is the specimen selected as the model and the paratypes represent variations within the species. They are the key items in a scientific collection and are usually stored separately.
The main mollusk, arachnid, and insect collections were also in the palace, and there is little hope that anything more can be saved beyond the mollusk types, which were stored in another building attached to the palace. The crustaceans, echinoderms (the group that includes starfish), coelenterates (such as jellyfish), and sea sponges are also stored there. But Serejo’s lab was lost. “There was a lot of material there,” she laments.
The National Museum zoology sector, which has its own graduate program, is divided into three departments—Entomology, Invertebrates, and Vertebrates—each with its own staff and students: a total of 49 professors, 73 PhD students, and 38 master’s students. The research collections are preserved according to the most appropriate techniques for each group: insects are usually stored in drawers, secured with special pins; mammal skins are stuffed with cotton and laid out in drawers alongside their skulls and sometimes whole skeletons; and fish, reptiles, and amphibians are kept in bottles of alcohol. Whatever the storage method, they act as records of the fauna that enable biodiversity to be reconstructed over time and space.
The nineteenth century was especially important to the formation of the collection, when the National Museum served as a base for naturalists traveling through Brazil. Later, generations of researchers continued to contribute, with important milestones such as the Rondon Commission, which explored the Amazon extensively at the beginning of the twentieth century and contributed to the vertebrates collection. More recently, in the early 2000s, researchers from the Invertebrates Department (Cristiana Serejo among them) participated in the Program for Sustainability Potential of Living Resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone (REVIZEE), studying marine organisms between Bahia and northern Rio de Janeiro. The resulting collection is preserved in the Annex building.
Others were not so lucky. The entomological collection was on the third floor, which collapsed in the fire. “We had butterflies from the late nineteenth century and a lot of material not yet integrated into the collection,” says curator Cátia Mello-Patiu, an entomologist who specializes in the biology and classification of certain families of flies. Her work relies on the examination of a large number of specimens, with every detail of the animal being inspected to characterize the species. “A lot had already been published about the collection,” she says. “This knowledge represents what the material can reveal over time and space, even places that have lost their original vegetation due to the growth of cities and other factors.”
The entomological collection was on the third floor of the palace, which collapsed in the fire
But she remains upbeat. Several institutions have already offered to donate material. “It is possible to start a collection again,” she says. “With the knowledge we have today, the new collection could be even better than the one we lost.” This is because thanks to previous studies, the scientists already know the most diverse locations and which areas are still unknown, meaning they can attempt to create a more representative collection, although the lost records are irreplaceable.
Fortunately, much has been saved. Since the 1980s there have been plans to remove the collections from the palace due to concerns about the age and safety of the building. In 1995, the vertebrates were transferred to a building in the Botanical Garden, constructed especially to house them. Mammalogist Marcelo Weksler says that the Vertebrates Department lost the items that were on display in the palace, including the entire skeleton of a humpback whale. “Of the mammals, we lost around 500 specimens from a total of 100,000,” he says. As head of the department, he is keen to see a better fire-fighting system and safer electrical installations in the future. Working conditions in the Botanical Garden are now even more difficult because the remaining buildings have opened up space for colleagues displaced from the palace.
Weksler’s work involves identifying and studying the taxonomy of rodents that carry infectious diseases. “It is important to determine where species are found in order to identify carriers of viruses that can spread disease,” he explains. In practice, his work involves visiting a variety of zoological museums to examine the skins and skulls of small rodents. Every measurement, every tooth can hold information that in conjunction with DNA analysis, can be used to distinguish one species from another. Weksler joined the National Museum eight years ago, initially as a visiting researcher, with the goal of setting up a biodiversity molecular research laboratory.
In an article published in the journal American Museum Novitates in 2017, Weksler and his colleagues redefined the species Oligoryzomys mattogrossae, a mouse native to the Cerrado (wooded savanna) and Caatinga (semiarid scrublands) regions and known to be a carrier of the Orthohantavirus. In the past, it was often confused with another species, O. microtis. “Correct identification is important, as well as determining where it lives, to help define actions for preventing the disease,” explains the researcher. As well as redescribing the species almost a century after it was officially identified through morphological, molecular, and chromosomal analyses, the article also maps the area where these animals are found. While O. mattogrossae lives in open vegetation in the Cerrado and Caatinga, O. microtis exclusively inhabits forests in the Amazon basin.
The National Museum has participated in a number of other projects related to epidemiology, including the work of João Moojen, who was responsible for collecting mammals between 1939 and 1985. In the 1950s, he coordinated research related to the bubonic plague, which is transmitted by bacteria carried by fleas that live on rats, and can cause epidemics in humans. The disease arrived in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century and spread in the mountainous regions of the Northeast. When the National Plague Service was established in 1941, Moojen was invited to teach courses on rodents and saw an opportunity in the Northeast, says mammalogist João Alves de Oliveira. “He sent many specimens of rodents and other mammals to the National Museum.” Over four years, he collected some 60,000 specimens, a number considered excessive at the time.
A museum with no exhibitions has no soul; but if it has only these displays, then it is not producing knowledge, says Pinna
Thanks to his accurate records, something Moojen learned while studying for his doctorate in American zoological museums, researchers have access to valuable information, such as the environment in which each species was collected and its geographic distribution. “Technology has advanced and today more data can be obtained from taxidermy specimens, such as DNA from parasites,” explains Alves. “It’s a new use for the collection that Moojen might not have foreseen.”
Alves is responsible for curating the material and uses it as a basis for studying the populational structure of rodent communities in northeastern Brazil. He participated in a study published in the journal Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases in 2015, which compared rodents collected today with specimens stored at the National Museum in order to update the taxonomy of rodents associated with the plague in South America. Although the disease is no longer so deadly thanks to modern antibiotics, it still occurs in several South American countries and needs to be constantly monitored to prevent future epidemics.
Some old material has not yet been cataloged, but in general, the new collections are quickly processed and recorded by the researchers. Information on the animals stored at the National Museum is practically all computerized, partly in online databases such as the Brazilian Biodiversity Information System (SIBBR), a 2013 federal initiative implemented by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation. In total, between 350,000 and 400,000 plants, vertebrates, and invertebrates are recorded on these public repositories. It is not a simple process, because as well as someone having to input all of the data onto a computer, everything then needs to be double-checked. “You have to be careful when making this kind of data available,” Weksler says. “It is essential that all the information is correct.”
Ties to São Paulo
The National Museum’s Zoology Department has strong ties with the Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo (MZ-USP), which is located alongside the Paulista Museum in Independence Park and houses roughly eight million items. The day after the fire, ichthyologist Mário de Pinna, director of MZ-USP, arrived at work feeling dejected and determined. He walked around the entire building confiscating toasters, coffee makers, and anything else that could represent a fire risk. “They’ll have to have breakfast elsewhere.”
Safety conditions at MZ-USP are good because the institution managed to secure funding for renovations following the fire at the Butantan Institute. The electrics were rewired and fire doors were installed. But not throughout the whole museum. “We already have a plan for further renovations that has been accepted by the fire department, but it still needs approval from the heritage agencies,” he explains.
The collections stored in alcohol, such as the fish specimens, have fire doors. But they still need containment barriers to prevent leakage of the fluid in the event of an accident and to contain potential fires. Pinna explains that the professors responsible for the collections determine what is needed, since specific elements require different safety measures. All 13 professors at MZ-USP perform some administrative duties. Five years ago, the graduate program became independent from USP—previously the students were affiliated with the university’s Institute of Biosciences—and it now has 16 master’s students and 25 PhD students. Pinna points out that in 2017, the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) named USP as the best university in the world in zoology.
Despite being in good condition, the building—completed in 1940, the first museum built for purpose in São Paulo—is far from perfect. “Old buildings are always problematic,” says Pinna. “The roof is supported by wooden beams, there is nothing you can do about that.” Ideally, he says, the collections would be transferred to a new building. Such a new building should already exist: in 2012, construction began on Museum Square on the USP campus, but the works were later suspended.
Meanwhile, those working at the museum constantly take precautions. “I have not had a quiet night since I took over the bird collection,” says ornithologist Luis Fábio Silveira. A notice, dated 2012, is stuck to the door of a room where students work, asking the last person to leave to perform a safety checklist. “The security staff have a list of everything that needs to stay switched on in each room,” says Silveira. “If they see even a single blinking light that isn’t supposed to be on, they have permission to unplug it.” He places a tray of hummingbirds on the table: “Cotton and feathers in wooden drawers.” A very fragile heritage, he summarizes.
He emphasizes the value of a collection accumulated over a long time. Researchers are currently analyzing stable isotopes in birds from Piracicaba, São Paulo State, to identify feeding patterns over the last 100 years, which would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Even the labels attached to the feet of the birds can contain surprising information, such as the inhambu (Crypturellus obsoletus), which was apparently bought at the São Paulo city market in 1897. “At that time, people sold these birds at the market as food.”
Mário de Pinna argues that good research alone is not enough, scientists need a way of showing their findings, and therein lies the importance of an exhibition area. “A museum with no exhibitions has no soul; but if it has only these displays, then it is not producing knowledge.” He believes that this gives museum visitors a new perspective on science and the natural world around us. “They become better citizens with greater intellect.” Biologist Maria Isabel Landim is responsible for the MZ-USP extension, whose public gallery was completely renovated from 2011 and reopened in 2015, hosting a long-term exhibition rich in biodiversity and evolution. The museum also wants to show the public what happens at the institution, relying on professors, staff, and students to help tell this story, and to find solutions for how to exhibit animals that can at times be challenging to display, such as termites.
The gallery also serves as Landim’s laboratory, where she advises undergraduate and graduate students and studies the evolutionary narratives of natural history museums. MZ-USP offers activities that replicate the research, allowing children to extract DNA or examine material under a microscope. “We want to win hearts and minds: people need to know the value of our research and the collection in order to help take care of it,” says Landim, who is also a member of the firefighting team.
On Saturday May 15, 2010, a fire destroyed most of the biological collection and the building that housed it at the Butantan Institute in a tragedy similar to that suffered by the National Museum, although on a much smaller scale. The fire began in the Herpetology Laboratory, and 80% of the approximately 84,000 snake specimens, kept in large jars of alcohol, were lost. The flames later reached the Arthropods Laboratory and destroyed 35% of the spiders and myriapods collection.
“We lost many specimens that had not yet been given scientific names and from environments that no longer exist because they were cleared to build cities or dams,” says biologist Antonio Brescovit, director of the Special Zoological Laboratory. “For three years, until the new building was completed, many researchers and students were left with no place to work and were displaced to other areas of the institute and USP. The students’ results were not as high as they would have been had they been able to work more closely together.” The institute now has 148 researchers and 590 graduate students and fellows.
Built with R$5.5 million of funding from the São Paulo State Health Department and opened in September 2013, the new biology building has armored rooms with fire doors that close automatically, carbon dioxide release systems, smoke detectors, and fire alarms. It comprises two distinct blocks: one houses the collections and the other the laboratories. The team of researchers working in the building has increased from three to six, bringing together the biological collections previously spread around the institute. The collection has grown from one million before the fire to 1.5 million today, thanks to exchanges and field collections conducted in recent years. “Today our collection is one of the safest and most organized in Brazil,” says Brescovit.
The Butantan Institute houses four museums—the biology, history and microbiology museums within the institute itself, and the Emílio Ribas Public Health Museum, incorporated in 2010, in the Bom Retiro neighborhood. All are committed to hosting exhibitions, with an average of 350,000 visitors per year, most of whom are students. Renovations to the roof of the Biology Museum—the most visited, with snakes, spiders, and other live animals displayed in tanks—are scheduled for completion by the end of the year, as is the new plumbing and replacement of wooden shelves with metal shelves at the Emílio Ribas museum. Both are currently closed.