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Collection and preservation

Valuable scientific collections in jeopardy

The follow-up to a research expedition is normally a period of laborious work. From short local trips to exhausting long-haul voyages, the purpose of any expedition is the quest for data and study material. Evaluating these findings may take scientists far longer than the expedition itself.


The deep-sea collection of the Shirshov Institute in Moscow includes some 100,000 deep-sea organisms.

When the British ship “Challenger” returned to England in 1876 from the world’s first deep-sea expedition after a voyage of nearly four years across three seas, the material it brought back took almost 20 years to evaluate. The countless soil and rock samples, measurements, sketches, recordings and almost 5,000 previously unknown species from sea depths of up to 5,500 metres are still housed today in the scientific collection the Natural History Museum in London.


Provided that the perishable specimens do not perish thanks to thorough preservation in alcohol and formalin in suitable archives, they are extraordinarily valuable for research. Scientific collections document the incredible diversity of life on earth, and this is not just limited to the present time. The older the collections are, the more information they can provide on bio-geographical and even evolutionary changes. By evaluating collected material, conclusions can also be drawn about cultural-historical questions: for instance, industrialisation, pollution trends, and the causes of species extinction.


In deep-sea research, too, a research collection managed on scientific principles and made accessible to others for comparative research, is the foundation of systematic zoological research. It enables the comparison of deep-sea organisms brought back from present-day research trips with existing specimens of their type, so that they can be assigned to known species or described as new ones. Finally, especially valuable information can be obtained on the ecology of species, such as their areas of distribution, the species composition of particular habitats, and habitat change.


The majority of the conserved organisms were collected in the period between 1950 and 1980, when intensive research programmes were carried out.
The “Akademik Mstislav Keldysh” took part in the search for the “Titanic” over a number of years, as well as its submarines “MIR I” and “MIR II” which made it possible to shoot film sequences for James Cameron’s film about the Titanic.

The assembled finds, arranged on endless metres of shelving, are also of benefit to numerous other scientific disciplines. Newly discovered species can exponentially increase the pool of economically exploitable resources, while new systematic findings will equip marine conservationists, policy-makers and the natural products industry with vital knowledge to ensure that long-term use of the seas is sustainable and environmentally sound. Better knowledge of species diversity will also favour the discovery of new products, the selection of new and improved foodstuffs, or even new pharmaceutically effective substances.



Deep-sea species in the precious collection of the Shirshov Institute


Since its establishment in 1949, the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IORAS) has developed into one of the leading centres for deep-sea research. In the very year the Institute was founded, the deep-sea collection was set up by the scientist Lev A. Zenkevich, who also founded the “Laboratory for benthic fauna of the seas” and for a long time led the field of deep-sea biological research in the former Soviet Union. Well-known researchers at the laboratory who contributed to the collection itself and its scientific value include Zinaida Filatova, Nina Vinogradova, Marina Sokolova and George Belyaev, among others.


Currently the collection consists of some 100,000 deep-sea invertebrate organisms from five decades of Soviet and Russian marine research. One or sometimes several specimens of a species are preserved in jars and other containers. 12,000 sites have been explored over the course of time, and samples taken at depths from a few hundred to 11,000 metres. The specimens in the collection originate from a vast diversity of biotopes, including ocean trenches, submarine mountains, continental slopes and deep-sea plains, hydrothermal springs and gas hydrate deposits. For organisms from deep-sea trenches, the Shirshov Institute collection is recognised as the most extensive in the world.


The majority of specimens in the collection date from the period between 1950 and 1980, when intensive research programmes were carried out on research ships including the “Vityaz”, the “Dmitry Mendeleev”, the “Akademik Kurchatov” and others. One of the many ships in the fleet of research vessels is the “Akademik Mstislav Keldysh” which took part in the search for the “Titanic” over a number of years, as well as its submarines “MIR I” and “MIR II” which made it possible to shoot film sequences for James Cameron’s film about the Titanic.



Conservation and exploitation of a unique collection


The discovery of hydrothermal springs, such as those in the Rainbow vent field at a depth of 2,300 metres near the Azores, also led to the discovery of a host of new species.

Today the collection still continues to be managed and expanded, though in Russia’s present economic climate, the number of major research voyages has been reduced to a minimum. After half a century, the IORAS deep-sea collection has attained worldwide recognition, but currently faces particular difficulties since the Academy of Sciences has more or less ceased to support it.


Because consumable materials such as ethanol, formalin, and glass containers to maintain the collection and preserve new specimens can only be obtained in insufficient quantities, Dr Andrey Gebruk, the present head of the collection, fears that unique material could be lost. At a time when efforts to explore the biodiversity of the deep seas are continually increasing, losing such important and useful comparative material would be extremely regrettable, and not just for the IORAS collection itself.


In the next five years, with support from the Lighthouse Foundation among other sources, the necessary renovation and maintenance work will be carried out to the collection rooms and the exhibits in the collection will be secured. Moreover, international scientists will be provided with better facilities for accessing this unique information source, and a workspace will be set up for visiting academics. These investments will make a key contribution to saving and giving access to the extremely valuable data assembled in the IORAS collection on deep-sea biodiversity.




P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology

of the Russian Academy of Sciences

36, Nakhimovsky Prospekt,

117997 Moscow


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