A visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s frozen-specimen collection

HarpersWeb-Postcard-FrozenWorld-600M. R. O'Connor at Harper's Magazine:

Noah built a boat to preserve the world’s biodiversity; today, scientists build freezers. In the underbelly of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, I meet Julie Feinstein, the director of the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection. I think we are somewhere beneath the Hall of Minerals or of Meteorites but, after the bewildering number of twists and turns we’ve taken—through the museum’s exhibits and down into storage facilities and then across the shipping room—it’s hard to tell for sure.

Feinstein’s laboratory is one of the museum’s hidden marvels. Among the world’s largest cryogenically frozen-tissue-sample collections, it exists in a tiny basement on the building’s western edge, near the corner of West Seventy-Seventh Street and Columbus Avenue. Not far from where we are standing is a 3,000-gallon liquid-nitrogen tank surrounded by eight-foot fences with six-inch metal spikes on top. The tank feeds liquid nitrogen into stainless steel vats inside the laboratory, and in these vats rest 100,000 organic samples—little pieces of whales and birds and monkeys and other nonhuman species taken from around the planet and now kept frozen at minus 160 degrees Celsius.

Around 10,000 samples have been added to the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection each year since it was built in 2001, and it has the capacity to hold one million. The samples are the foundation of the museum’s efforts to map the evolutionary relationships among organisms through their genetic makeup, and many of the specimens are exceedingly rare: highly endangered Channel Island foxes; a nautilus from Vanuatu, in the South Pacific; leopard frogs from the Huachuca Mountains.

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