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Even as mankind increasingly understands that only a small fraction of the species with which we share this planet have been discovered, mass extinction threatens all life, including our own. Biologists are describing new species of plants and animals at an unprecedented rate, adding to our understanding of the interrelated nature of life on Earth. Yet species are becoming extinct at the rate of four every hour. The facts, figures and trends involved in mass extinction are difficult to comprehend. Moreover, if we assume that species are vanishing which haven't been discovered by science, we must be underestimating extinction rates to an alarming extent. As mass extinction accelerates, natural history museum collections are the last and only places to see vanished species. These collections have become critically important in conserving and researching life on Earth before the loss of more species. Collections have important roles in conservation, education and research but most of that work and the associated specimens are not on display - typically, less than 5% of specimens are exhibited.

The images here were made in three divisions - Amphibians & Reptiles, Birds and Fishes - at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the four most important natural history collections in the world. The other three institutions are the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution.

Much of the zoology collection is located in the Collections Resource Center, a storage facility of 186,000 square feet, completed in 2005. On two floors below ground level, seemingly endless shelves hold specimens preserved in jars of ethanol or glycerine, boxes of bones and drawers filled with prepared skins. The collection is so extensive that in certain cases, specimens have been reassessed and described as new species decades later, in the light of more recent collecting and research.

Due to the length of certain captions some may not display in full. To view full captions on all images download the PDF.

To view a short film about the passenger pigeon which became extinct a hundred years ago in 2014, please click HERE
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