Natural history collections provide an immense record of biodiversity on Earth. These repositories have traditionally been used to address fundamental questions in biogeography, systematics and conservation. However, they also hold the potential for studying evolution directly. While some of the best direct observations of evolution have come from long-term field studies or from experimental studies in the laboratory, natural history collections are providing new insights into evolutionary change in natural populations. By comparing phenotypic and genotypic changes in populations through time, natural history collections provide a window into evolutionary processes. Recent studies utilizing this approach have revealed some dramatic instances of phenotypic change over short timescales in response to presumably strong selective pressures. In some instances, evolutionary change can be paired with environmental change, providing a context for potential selective forces. Moreover, in a few cases, the genetic basis of phenotypic change is well understood, allowing for insight into adaptive change at multiple levels. These kinds of studies open the door to a wide range of previously intractable questions by enabling the study of evolution through time, analogous to experimental studies in the laboratory, but amenable to a diversity of species over longer timescales in natural populations.
Keywords: environmental change; evolution; genomics; morphology; natural history collections; phenotypic change.
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.