Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Who uses specimens?

Dr. Tom Démére, Curator of Paleontology, works with a fossil.


Scientists collect samples of the natural world to try to answer questions about our environment.

  • What species define the natural community of a wetland?
  • How do plants and animals interact within a desert community?
  • What distinguishes one species of cactus from another?
  • How do changes in the watershed affect the kinds of plants and animals that live there?
  • Where do bears live in California?

So many questions and so much we still don't know. The samples collected each represent a particular time and place in our environment. Think about your home. If a scientist had collected the plants and insects from your land 50 years ago, would they be the same or different than ones you would find today?

The collected samples are the basic tool for the scientist's research and discovery. A museum specimen is made from the collected sample. We prepare them for study and add them to the research collections. Then they are ready to be used by scientists, not only this year, but for years, even generations to come.


School Docent showing butterflies to students

Teachers and Museum Docents use specimens in our collections to bring the facts and concepts of science to life.

  • Let's see, there's the lesson about classifying...
  • What's the difference between mammals, birds and reptiles?
  • And that lesson about form and function... Can you tell what mammals eat by the shape of their teeth?
  • Or was that geographic variation? Or both?

Anyway, you get the idea. Specimens and objects in the Museum's Nature to You Loan Program are particularly helpful for the kindergarten through high school ages. The Research Collections are used by college professors to help their students with the more advanced concepts.


Have you ever used a field guide to identify that bird you saw in your backyard? Or that little squirrel-like mammal that just scooted off through the rocks? Or that flower you saw in the park?

Artists rely heavily on collections of specimens when they create the illustrations for field guides. They need to see details to make accurate paintings. Different coloration and shapes help you see the differences between the chipmunk and the ground squirrel -- or the coyote and the neighbor's scrawny dog.

Have you seen dioramas at a museum? Paintings in the background of exhibits are based on specimens.

You do!

You've used specimens if you have ...

American Goldfinch & MacGillivray's Warbler (Carduelis tristis & Oporornis tolmiei)

Specimens are a fantastic tool--a resource that helps you discover the secrets of the world around you.

Specimens form the core of a museum's philosophy. They are critical for research, for teaching, for our enjoyment of nature through art. Specimens at the San Diego Natural History Museum support our mission to understand the natural world of Southern California and the Baja California peninsula.

We want you to enjoy and benefit from the specimens we collect--but we also want your grandchildren to have those same experiences with specimens. For your grandchildren to be able to learn from the specimens, we need to prevent damage to the specimens.