A collection of eggs from seabirds, shorebirds, forest and grassland birds – even a giant flightless bird – arranged in separate boxes. The boxes are placed in a grid pattern on a table.

All Things Beautiful

New book reveals hundreds of specimens from the Florida Museum of Natural History
Photography by Kristen B. Grace
Text by Heather Dewar

The man who founded the Florida Museum of Natural History more than 100 years ago had a clear purpose: to create a vault where Florida’s astonishing natural and cultural diversity could be conserved forever.

“Many species of vegetable and animal life once indigenous to our state have, through gross negligence, been allowed to become extinct, not only to Florida, but to the world,” wrote Thompson Van Hyning in 1934, 20 years after setting up the first few display cases at the University of Florida’s Science Hall. “The only question is, will we not awaken to our duty before it is too late … by conserving all things of historic and scientific value, and in a measure, all things beautiful(?)”

Close-up image of a strawberry urchin against a white background

From that modest start museum staffers, students, collectors and donors have built the largest natural history museum in the Southeast, with 40 million biological specimens and cultural artifacts. Museum Director Douglas S. Jones calls it “a library of life.” Hundreds of intriguing specimens, most of them stored out of view in the museum’s research collections, are portrayed in a new book, “All Things Beautiful: Wonders from the Collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History,” published by University Press of Florida in January and excerpted here.

Many volumes in the library of life were once unreadable. But museum science is in the midst of a renaissance. DNA fingerprinting, sophisticated imaging techniques and mass computing power have become more affordable and easier to use.

The advances come when new information is urgently needed, as climate change, diseases, land clearing and other forces trigger biological extinctions and losses of archaeological treasures. Scientists are using the museum’s collection to discover new species and learn how they evolved, where they belong on Earth’s Tree of Life, and what they need to survive in tumultuous times.

Taxonomy, the science of naming, describing, and classifying plants, animals, and microorganisms, is the museum’s fundamental work. Of Earth’s 10 million or more species of living things, only 2.3 million have been described by scientists. Scientists are finding previously unknown species on museum shelves – from the sea urchins of Oceania’s coral reefs to critically endangered plants on Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge.

DNA fingerprinting can reveal the uniqueness of a specimen that was thought to be something more common. Though time degrades specimens’ DNA, genetic fragments can be enough to make a discovery, and researchers are getting better at recovering them. UF botanists recently used DNA from a specimen collected in 1926 to describe a previously unknown plant from Haiti.

Specimens stored in alcohol lose DNA, but scientists can sometimes recover fragments of an animal’s own DNA as well as traces of diseases and parasites. Eggs, seashells, feathers and fur hold chemical markers of temperatures and contaminants. Herbarium records show whether a plant’s range or flowering period has changed over time.

“We have literally tens of millions of herbarium specimens,” says Distinguished Professor and Curator Pamela Soltis, an expert on plant evolution, “using machine learning to find patterns that we could never have discerned before.”

“Each specimen is a unique, tangible and often irreplaceable representation of life on Earth, past and present,” wrote the authors of a 2020 National Academies of Sciences report on U.S. natural history collections. “Their potential uses are beyond current imagination.”

Collection of eggs from various species separated into boxes. Boxes are arranged in a grid-like pattern against a white background.
Reflecting astonishing diversity, these eggs come from seabirds, shorebirds, forest and grassland birds, even a giant flightless bird. Charles Doe, the museum’s first curator, collected or bought them between the 1890s and 1930s, creating the museum’s first research-ready collection.

Close-up image of swallowtail butterflies side by side against a white background. Butterfly on left is seen from above, while the one on the right is seen from below.
Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly, Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus, nearly went extinct in the wild after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Museum scientists hand-raise the native butterflies and release them in the Upper Keys, where in 2021 researchers tallied more than 1,700. Their coloration is shown from above on the left; from below on the right.

Blanket octopus against a gray background
Rarely seen, blanket octopuses, Tremoctopus violaceus, live offshore in tropical oceans. Adult females have color-changing cells called chromatophores that can make them appear to have many eyes, to scare away predators. This is the museum’s only blanket octopus.

Close-up image of 8 different species of woodpecker against a white background.
Florida is home to the Eastern US’ tiniest woodpecker (the downy), the largest (the pileated) and the rarest (the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker). The state’s varied forests and mature trees are fine habitats for them.

Close-up image of a complete fossil of a leaf from an extinct sycamore against a white background.
It is rare to find a complete fossil plant as ancient as this 48-million-year-old extinct sycamore, Macginitiea angustiloba, Museum paleobotanist Steven Manchester collected it at Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Close-up image of a two-headed baby sea turtle against a white background.
This two-headed baby sea turtle, Caretta caretta, found at Tampa Bay’s Egmont National Wildlife Refuge in 2008, is the kind of oddity that once was featured in cabinets of curiosities, the forerunners of today’s natural history museum.

Close-up image of a 1,200-year-old cypress plaque portraying an ivory-billed woodpecker against a white background.
This 1,200-year-old cypress plaque portrays an ivory-billed woodpecker, revered by Indigenous people and now extinct. It was found in 1896 at Key Marco among artifacts of Southwest Florida’s Calusa people.

Columbian mammoth skull against a white background
This Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi, 12 feet tall at the shoulder, probably died near a grassland watering hole in a dry period 12,000 to 25,000 years ago. Museum paleontologists found it in North Florida’s Aucilla River.

Close-up image of a devil's claw seed pod against a white background.
Found in an abandoned grove in Citra, Florida, these seed pods, with hooks that snag animals’ feet, are from a South American plant known as devil’s claw, Ibicella lutea. The herbarium specimens record the non-native species’ dispersal.

Close-up image of a Carolina parakeet perched on a wooden stick against a white background.
The only native parrot of the Eastern US, Carolina parakeets, Conuropsis carolinensis, were driven to extinction, their once-vast flocks shot out and their nesting grounds logged. The last confirmed sighting of a wild Carolina parakeet was near Lake Okeechobee in 1908.

Close-up image of a Maryland darter against a white background.
The three-inch-long Maryland darter, Etheostoma sellare, inhabited just two small streams, and has not been seen since 1985. It is one of three US freshwater fishes known to have gone extinct in the past 35 years.

Close-up image of a white bottle with a blue pattern painted on it against a white background.
This bottle, mouth-blown and hand-decorated in the late 1600s, was found in a St. Augustine well. It is kept in distilled water and can only be briefly exposed to air,
or it will shatter.

Heart cockle shells arranged side by side in a rectangular formation and pictured from above against a white background.
Like corals, these heart cockles, Corculum cardissa, have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae. The Indian and Pacific Ocean mollusks have tiny windows in their shells where the algae live safely, helping to nourish the cockles.

Close-up image of a Seminole coiled basket against a white background.
The elders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida gave this coiled basket to the museum in 1997. Agnes Billie Cypress made the basket of sweetgrass and cotton thread. Lucy Johns crafted the lid with its palmetto fiber doll.

Close-up image of a kingsnake coiled up against a white background.
Kingsnakes, Lampropeltis floridana x getula, can survive venomous snake bites and swallow bigger snakes whole. This beautifully patterned animal, a natural hybrid between an Eastern kingsnake and a Florida kingsnake, was found on Paynes Prairie, once a snake hot spot. Once common, kingsnakes have become rare.

Related Website:
Florida Museum of Natural History