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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution
Preserving Tissue Samples
Preserving Tissue Samples
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

NMNH ornithologists and their collaborators have amassed a large collection of avian tissue samples over the past 30 years, most of which are accompanied by voucher specimens in the Division of Birds. These samples are available to qualified scientists doing legitimate research. However, the expense of acquiring, curating, and maintaining this collection and the limited amount of tissue available for each specimen requires that material be transferred only after thoughtful consideration. We encourage requests that meet the current industry standards for the amount of genetic data to be extracted from samples. Studies that aim to obtain fewer than 5,000 base pairs of DNA sequence are seldom supported as these investigations will rapidly be superseded. Requests for avian tissue samples to supplement phylogeographic or population studies (for genetic, stable isotope, toxicological, or physiological purposes) are rarely granted unless the investigator has personally collected the bulk of the material needed for the study.

All researchers requesting samples from this collection are asked to comply with the following guidelines.


An informal inquiry via phone, letter or e-mail may be used to determine which taxa are available and other information about the samples in our collection. Most samples are maintained in liquid nitrogen storage systems at -120° C. In some cases, DNA extracts are available, which are maintained at -80° C. Formal requests must be made in writing on institutional letterhead. 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 exchange or transfer. We recommend that permission to use tissues be requested before grant or thesis proposals are submitted. Requests must contain the following:

  • Brief Description of Research - Items to include are purpose, techniques, gene(s) to be studied, lab facilities, investigators involved and their experience, sources of funding, and expected significance of the study. Please specify the number of samples needed for the study and where these samples will be obtained. Applicants must state how many of each taxon they have personally collected and how these samples are vouchered.
  • List of Material Requested - Please specify taxa, number of individuals, specimen nos. and/or localities (if relevant), tissue type(s), whether DNA extracts are acceptable, the amount of material needed, and the preferred shipping methods (e.g., frozen, 95% ethanol, etc.).
  • Evidence of Reciprocal Benefit - Genetic resource collections are expensive and time-consuming to build and maintain, and are depleted with use. We encourage requesters to support the growth, maintenance and accessibility of these collections. Please describe your efforts in this regard, such as availability of vouchered samples from you and your institution. Applicants associated with labs or institutions that do not maintain genetic resource or museum specimen collections should deposit genetic samples and voucher specimens at USNM.
  • 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 address, contact phone numbers and Federal Express (or other) account number to be charged if the material is to be shipped overnight.

Criteria for Approval

Each request will be evaluated by Curators in the Division of Birds and the NZP genetics lab. Approval will be based on the following criteria:

  • The scientific value and feasibility of the project
  • The qualifications of the investigators
  • Evidence of sufficient lab facilities and funding
  • Rarity of specimen and opportunity for replacement
  • Approval of original collector(s)
  • Proportion of samples being collected by applicants
  • Evidence that the applicants are contributing to the base of genetic resources available for study by collecting, properly documenting and depositing samples and voucher specimens in collections where they are available to others or by supporting such collections financially.


Tissue transfers are made under the following conditions:

  • Samples are only for the purposes stated in the approved loan request. The proposed research may not be amended nor may the material be used for other purposes without written permission from the Division of Birds, NMNH
  • Samples (including tissue, DNA extract or product thereof) may not be transferred or lent to a third party, or another laboratory, without written consent from Division of Birds, NMNH.

  • 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.

  • Any usable or unused samples (leftover tissue or DNA extract) must be returned to us, where they will be made available to other researchers..
  • GenBank accession numbers should be created for all sequences and referenced using the following format in the specimen_voucher field:  USNM: Birds: XXXXXX.  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 (USNM XXXXXX) 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 an electronic reprint of each such paper or a book (1 copy) to the Division of Birds, NMNH, upon publication
  • Any other stipulations made by USNM 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.

Questions, inquiries and requests should be addressed to:

Christopher Milensky, Collections Manager
Division of Birds, MRC-116
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Phone: (202) 633-0794
Fax: (202) 633-8084
E-mail: milenskyc[@]

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