Exploring The UWI Museums: Discovering the Wonders of the University of the West Indies Zoology Museum

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Dr Amy Deacon and Ms Jennalee Ramnarine, The Department of Life Sciences, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago.

Hidden within the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies St. Augustine there is a spectacular treasure trove, brimming with preserved zoological specimens.

This Aladdin’s Cave is otherwise known as the UWI Zoology Museum (UWIZM), and its collections date back to the 1920s.

What started primarily as an insect collection, focusing on species of agricultural importance, eventually expanded to include all animal taxa. The present-day collection consists of more than 70,000 specimens and represents species originating not only from Trinidad and Tobago but also from other parts of the Caribbean and South America.

Figure 1: The UWIZM is a diverse treasure trove of more than 70,000 zoological specimens. Notable acquisitions include an extensive collection of insect pest species, the human remains of 5000-year-old ‘Banwari man’ and fossil fragments of an extinct giant armadillo.

The importance of natural history collections such as the UWIZM cannot be overstated. They are key in documenting biodiversity, monitoring and measuring impacts over time and providing scientific knowledge that can directly be applied to addressing critical issues that face society.

On May 18 2022, the UWIZM joined museums worldwide to celebrate International Museum Day. This year’s theme explored ‘The Power of Museums’ as seen through three lenses.

  1. The Power of Achieving Sustainability.

Natural history museums contain incredibly valuable data for ecological research and are often actively used by scientists. The UWIZM is no exception!

The most recent example is a project investigating how Trinidad and Tobago’s freshwater fish communities change over time in terms of species and trait diversity. By measuring fish in our collection, which contains over 900 specimens, we are learning more about how traits within fish communities have changed over many decades.

Ultimately, this will help scientists and policy-makers to identify conservation priorities for our freshwater habitats, which are integral to UN Sustainable Development Goals 3, 6 & 15.

  • The Power of Innovating on Digitalisation and Accessibility.

The use of technology has made the UWIZM accessible to audiences worldwide. Social media forums allow us to engage with you and thousands of other people every day.  Thanks to funding from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), we are actively digitising our collections, and the collections of our partners at the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago and the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago, with the aim of making them easily accessible to policy-makers, scientists and other stakeholders. So far, we have published more than 21,000 of our records onto GBIF and we will be adding thousands more over the coming year! You can learn more about how and why we are doing this here: https://www.gbif.org/project/BID-CA2020-039-NAC/improving-national-biodiversity-data-accessibility-in-trinidad-and-tobago

  • The Power of Community Building through Education.

Over the years, the UWIZM has conducted tours for thousands of visitors – from pre-schoolers to undergraduates – and has had a major presence at national-level events, including the annual Trinidad and Tobago Bioblitz.

We have facilitated biodiversity research of national, regional and international significance, while also raising awareness of local biodiversity among the public. Through fun, interactive learning, our community continues to gain a better understanding of the importance of protecting and conserving our local species.

Figure 2: Top left: a hatchet fish being photographed in order to a collect morphometric data which will be used to better understand how fish diversity changes over time in tropical streams. Bottom left: one of hundreds of drawers of insects that are being digitised and published to GBIF to increase accessibility of local biodiversity data. Right: the museum offers tours to school groups, helping to connect young people with their local biodiversity

We invite you to be a part of our UWIZM community and share in the wonders of our collections by following us on social media: Find us on facebook, instagram and twitter!

Just us next week for the third in the series focusing on the Special Collections Unit in the UWI Mona Main Library.

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