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Endangered species’ DNA stored at museum

Genetic Library
Julie Feinstein, Manager of the museum's Ambrose Monell Collection works over a liquid nitrogen-cooled storage vat at the museum. Roderick Mickens / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's not your average library collection: Bits of scorpions and snakes. Tissue from jaguars. Leeches from a hippopotamus.

And on Tuesday, officials of the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. National Park Service signed an agreement for samples from endangered species in America's parks to be added to the museum's existing DNA collection.

The frozen samples provide researchers with genetic materials to study and help protect hundreds of species. The first new submissions will be blood samples from foxes in California's Channel Islands National Park, followed by specimens from the American crocodile and the Hawaiian goose.

Underground in the laboratories of the museum, which was featured in the 2006 Ben Stiller movie "Night at the Museum," a half-dozen metal vats cooled with liquid nitrogen can store up to 1 million frozen tissue samples. They're stored on racks in bar-coded boxes that are linked to a computer database so they can be located in seconds.

The park service doesn't have such a state-of-the-art facility. With this kind of DNA analysis it can better manage existing animal populations, using genetic relationships among the samples to trace animals' movements on land and estimate population sizes.

The samples will provide researchers "with a uniform method to collect, analyze and store genetic material collected in parks," acting National Park Service Director Dan Wenk said.

The lab is part of the Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, which has allowed geneticists to use its samples for free since 2001. Researchers collect tissue samples from animals in the wilderness — an effort essential to Earth's biodiversity at a time of massive species loss.

Wenk said the DNA samples going to the Manhattan museum are "a great asset" to the U.S. government's Endangered Species Act of 1973, which aims to restore all federally listed threatened and endangered species "to the point where they are again viable, self-sustaining members of their ecological communities."

Julie Feinstein, who heads the museum's sample collection, emphasizes that although DNA is extracted from tissue, cloning "is not part of our mission."

The main goal, museum officials said, is preservation of species.

"Our parks are our most valuable natural area," said George Amato, director of the museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, which includes the collection.

And there are many success stories, he said.

The Channel Islands National Park established a captive breeding program for foxes because of the threat from golden eagle predation. By last year, the wild fox populations on San Miguel, Santa Rosa and the Santa Cruz Islands reached about 650, allowing the captive breeding program to be stopped.

The National Park Service sites with the most federally listed threatened and endangered species are Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Redwood National and State Parks, all in California; Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park, the Haleakala National Park and Kalaupapa National Historical Park; the Canaveral National Seashore, the Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park, all in Florida; and the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi.