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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution
Objects used for destructive sampling
Objects used for destructive sampling
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

The Division of Birds receives frequent requests for destructive sampling of museum specimens for scientific purposes, e.g. (1) skin, muscle, feather, bone, or cartilage samples for genetic studies, (2) feather, tissue, and bone samples for toxicological or stable isotope investigations, and (3) whole specimens for dissection or the removal of organs for anatomical studies. A limited amount of sampling may be permitted for legitimate research programs. All researchers requesting destructive sampling from the NMNH avian collections are required to comply with the following guidelines.


Informal inquiries may be made by phone, letter, or e mail to determine which taxa are available for sampling and what constraints may apply. Formal requests must be made on institutional letterhead (via pdf acceptable). Requests from pre and postdoctoral students must be co-signed by the head of the student's laboratory or by the student's graduate advisor, who accepts full responsibility for compliance with the terms of the destructive sampling policy. Permission for destructive sampling must be requested before grant, fellowship, or thesis proposals are submitted. Applicants should thoroughly investigate the availability of comparable material in frozen tissue collections before submitting a destructive sampling request. We encourage requests that meet the current industry standards for the amount of genetic data to be extracted from samples. Requests for samples of toe pads, skin, muscle, or bone for phylogeographic or population studies are seldom granted.

Requests should include a:

  • Brief Description of Research - Describe the purpose, techniques, gene(s), and number of base pairs to be studied, lab facilities, investigators involved and their experience, sources of funding, and expected significance of the study. Please specify other sources (and numbers) of specimens that will be sampled in other museums or tissue collections. Will the applicant collect specimens for the study? For destructive sampling requests for genetic studies, please include a statement concerning the availability or lack of comparable material in frozen tissue collections and indicate how this was determined. Investigators are responsible for determining whether their project substantially duplicates or overlaps other on-going research programs. If overlap exists, investigators should provide a compelling argument for why duplication should be supported by destructive sampling of USNM specimens.
  • List of Material Requested - Please specify taxa, number of individuals, specimen numbers and/or localities (if relevant), tissue type(s), and the amount of material needed.
  • Evidence of Reciprocal Benefit - Museum collections are expensive and time-consuming to build and maintain, and specimens are depleted by destructive sampling.   We encourage requesters to support the growth, maintenance and accessibility of biological collections.  Please describe your efforts in this regard.  Applicants associated with labs or institutions that do not maintain museum collections are urged to consider depositing voucher specimens at NMNH. 
  • Permit Verification - Please provide copies of any permits required for you to receive requested samples. CITES or other permits may be required if material is to be exported.
  • Shipping Instructions - Please provide detailed instructions including mailing address, contact phone numbers, and e-mail address.

The request must also include a statement that the recipient(s) agree to the terms listed below.

Criteria for Approval

Each request will be evaluated by curators and collection managers associated with the Division of Birds (Terry Chesser, Mercedes Foster, Gary R. Graves, Helen James, Storrs Olson, and Christopher Milensky).  Approval will be based on the following criteria:

  • rarity of specimens and potential for replacement
  • qualifications of the investigators
  • evidence of sufficient lab facilities and funding
  • amount of genetic sequence or isotope data to be extracted from samples
  • approval of original collector(s) where applicable
  • proportion of samples being collected by applicants
  • evidence that the applicants are contributing to museum collections by collecting, properly documenting and depositing voucher specimens in collections where they are available to others or by supporting such collections financially.


Transfer or loan of specimens (including tissues) is made under the following conditions:

  • Please be aware that using avian specimens from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for research purposes is an explicit acknowledgment that you value the time, effort, and expense that goes into collecting, preparing, and maintaining museum collections and that you support ongoing legitimate scientific collecting efforts.
  • Specimens (including tissues) will be used only for the purposes stated in the Description of Research. The Description of Research may not be amended nor may the material be used for other purposes without written permission from the Division of Birds, NMNH.
  • Neither the specimens nor samples (or any part, extract, or product thereof) may be transferred or lent to a third party, or another laboratory, without written consent from Division of Birds, NMNH.
  • Raw data associated with the computerized specimen record (locality, GIS coordinates, date of collection, collector, etc.) will not be supplied to, or made available on any publicly available data base (digital, electronic, or hard copy) without written consent from the Division of Birds, NMNH.
  • The permanent data record of destructively sampled specimens will be amended to include the name of sample recipient. Also any publications will be appended to the electronic data record.
  • No commercial use will be made of, nor license or patent applied for on the samples or any information or data derived from them without written consent from NMNH. In some cases, commercial or restrictive use of the samples would violate terms of the permits under which they were collected.
  • We ask that usable samples (cloned genomic DNA, PCR-amplified mtDNA, syringes, slides, etc.) be returned to us for storage in the collection or at the Laboratory of Analytical Biology, where they can be made available to other researchers.
  • GenBank accession numbers and raw stable isotope data must be reported to the Division of Birds, NMNH. These data will be appended to the official specimen record.
  • The "USNM" (the preferred acronym of the National Museum of Natural History) will be explicitly acknowledged in each publication that was based in part or entirely on raw data derived from NMNH specimens. Voucher specimen numbers will be acknowledged in each publication that results from research on or other use of the samples. This may be done in table or text format.
  • Recipients will send 2 reprints of each such paper (alternative is a PDF) or book (1 copy) to the Division of Birds, NMNH, upon publication. A signed agreement from book publishers is required.
  • Any other stipulations made by the Division of Birds, NMNH, as a condition of a particular transfer or exchange.
  • All responsible parties must sign and date a letter of agreement specifying the terms of the transfer (tissues) or loan (partially dissected or whole specimens).
Initial inquiries should be addressed to:
Christopher Milensky, Collections Manager
Division of Birds, MRC-116
Smithsonian Institution
PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

E-mail: milenskyc[at]
Phone: (202) 633-0794

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