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The renovation of a landmark in zoology

Where in Brazil is it possible to find a copy of the very rare work, Metamorphosis des Insectes, published in France, in 1705? This is a work on the fauna of Surinam, illustrated with many watercolors, so valuable that it is listed as humanity heritage by Unesco. One copy is in the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo (USP), next to such valuable items as works by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), regarded as the father of paleontology, all of them illustrated by hand. With the help of FAPESP, the museum, which is housed in an old building in the Ipiranga district, in São Paulo, is renovating its installations and complying more and more vigorously with its role of being one of the main centers in the world for teaching and researching in fauna from the neotropical region, which includes Brazil and other parts of South and Central America.

“The funds from FAPESP have even served to reform the museum’s installations, all of them in a wretched state, and some of them unusable”, explains director Miguel Trefaut Rodrigues. This is an enormous step forward, compared with the previous state of the installations, which have housed the museum since it was founded in 1939, when it used to belong to the Department of Agriculture, and which continued after its transfer to USP, in 1969. A few years ago, the library was even obliged to move its location, since the structure of the part of the building which it occupied started to break down, and the electrical and hydraulic installations were also in a precarious state.

The problems have not all been resolved. According to Professor Rodrigues, this is only going to happen when the museum moves to a new building, now being planned, on USP’s own campus. There is no doubt that conditions have improved a lot. For the time being, the museum has to face a peculiar situation: its very success as a teaching and research institution is expanding its collection at a swift pace. This means that the space intended for the collections is encroaching more and more on the area set aside for public exhibitions. “The exhibition area originally had 1,500 square meters, and this has been reduced to 700 square meters”, Professor Rodrigues admits. The solution, according to him, will only come with the inauguration of the new premises.

“The museum has been showing scientific production that is increasingly intensive”, the director explains. “The researchers are collecting more, and we have to store this material, in the light of the degeneration of the habitats of the animals, both in the state of São Paulo and in the rest of Brazil” he adds. There is no lack of examples. The museum’s collection includes several specimens of the blue butterfly, Morpho menelaus, caught in Cubatão in 1966. It was not a question of a rare species. In those days, it could be found in all forest regions all over Brazil. Today, it has disappeared from São Paulo. It only exists in the Amazon. Typical species of the Atlantic Rain Forest, like the Alagoas Curassow, Mitu mitu, a bird which looks like a hen, no longer exist in their natural habitat. It is only to be found in captivity. With the progressive destruction of their natural habitat, they will hardly be able to thrive in the forests ever again.

This makes the Zoology Museum a very important center for research, not only for zoologists, but also for environmentalists and professionals from other areas. Its collection, which today has 7 million items, is the largest in the neotropical region. Its collection of neotropical insects is the biggest in the world. The same applies to birds, reptiles and amphibians. Only the mammal collection is in second place. “They are collections that are absolutely incomparable to any others in the world, and indispensable for carrying out any kind of work in the areas of ecology, evolution and taxonomy in Brazil, and to solve problems on major groups worldwide” explains the director.

Human resources
Besides the material gathered by researchers and post-graduate students at USP, the museum also receives animals collected by researchers from other Brazilian institutions, material that is swapped or donated, and it also buys private collections, when a good opportunity arises. “This museum has always had the nature of a scientific museum, with scientific collections”, explains Rodrigues. “Its impact on the education of qualified human resources in the post-graduate sphere in Brazil has been very great. All the major Brazilian zoologists have received scientific training in this museum.”

When there was a problem with the part of the building occupied by the library, the opportunity was taken to carry out a few changes. The ground was leveled and a mezzanine built on the site, which was used to house more collections. The construction was carried out with funds from USP, but the air-conditioning was installed with an investment by FAPESP. As to the library, it remains the largest and most complete of its kind in Brazil, with 89,573 volumes and with complete collections of the zoology magazines most used in research work.

The fact that the library is so complete has an explanation. The museum publishes two specialized magazines a year, Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia (Assorted Papers on Zoology) and Arquivos de Zoologia (Zoology Archives). As other institutions are interested in these works, this yields for the museum about 700 exchange agreements, and according to Rodrigues’s calculations means a saving of about R$ 200,000 a year in subscriptions for USP. On the other hand, the space set aside for periodicals grows, on average, between 20 and 25 centimeters a day.

On rails
The funds from FAPESP were, to a great extent, employed in making the collections more compact, starting with the invertebrates. With compacting, the collection is put into cabinets that slide on rails, which means an enormous saving in space. “The compacting of various collections has given us a four years of growth” says Rodrigues. “Otherwise, we would have been obliged to shut down completely the section for visitors.” The reform of the wiring made it possible to acquire an electronic scanning microscope, also with the support of FAPESP. This has led the museum to have one of USP’s most modern laboratories of electronic microscopy.

Part of the animals are preserved dry, part in alcohol. Each one has its own method. Bats, for example, have to be preserved in alcohol. If they are preserved dry, their fur gets dried out, which spoils their appearance. Rodrigues explains that these collections have enormous importance for several kinds of study, such as those that try to discover how species have evolved.If a researcher wants to observe the evolution of marmosets, for example, he will find specimens from several regions, such as the Amazonian Forest, the Atlantic Rain Forest, the Cerrados – a kind of wooded savanna-, the Caatinga – the semi-arid region of Brazil -, and the Araucarian Forest. Comparing such features as the color of the fur, the type of fur, its distribution over the body, the teeth, the bones, the skull and the characteristics of internal anatomy and of molecular biology, it will be possible to give answers to various questions on the animal and its ecology.

“The taxonomist, the researcher who works in the museum, starts off with the morphological, environmental or molecular characteristics, to systematize knowledge and to answer questions like how many species there are in a group and what their kin relationship is”, Rodrigues comments. “Only when these questions are answered is it possible to go ahead making queries and trying to explain facts as to why an animal is a tree dweller or not, or whether it lives on land or in the water.”

For the time being, visits by the public have been suspended, as a result of another serious problem. The roof was damaged, there was infiltration of rainwater, and stucco panels started to fall on top of the cabinets of the collection. The roof and a good part of the ceiling have been replaced, with USP funds, in parallel with the infrastructure projects financed by FAPESP. But the danger of a stucco panel falling on top of a visitor led to the prohibition. The museum intends to reopen its doors in the middle of the year, with new installations, including turnstiles and improved illumination.

Nevertheless, what is on display represents less than a thousandth of the museum’s collections. They emphasize Brazilian fauna, but include animals from several parts of the world. The museum’s collection is considered to be one of the most complete in world zoology. But it is due to the patient work of collecting carried out over the last few decades that so much is known about Brazilian fauna and, in particular, on the Atlantic Rain Forest. Which does not spare the researchers a few surprises. It used to be thought that the curassow that has disappeared from the Atlantic Rain Forest was the same as the one found in Amazonia. Not any longer. Now, it is known that the Amazonian curassow is a different species.

While there is devastation, the role of the museum will continue to grow. Another species of birds that only exists in captivity is Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsita spixii). The last specimen free in its natural state was being monitored by biologists, in the north of Bahia. But it disappeared last year. Other animals, even large ones, are also at risk. The specimen that the museum has of the kinkajou (Potos flavus), was taken from a small stretch of the Atlantic Rain Forest in the state of Alagoas. Today, this region is completely devastated. It is not known when there will be another specimen of kinkajou available for study.