Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science.
Two hundred years of work—and millions of priceless specimens—have been destroyed in a preventable tragedy.
In 1784, a Brazilian boy who was looking for a lost cow found a gigantic meteorite instead. The 11,600-pound rock was so cumbersome to transport that it took people almost a century to get it to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, where it has since been on proud display. And having once survived the heat of falling through the atmosphere, the Bendegó meteorite also seems to have survived the fire that tore through the museum on Sunday evening, destroying an as-yet-unquantified proportion of its 20 million specimens.
Looking at pictures of the meteorite, as it stands intact on its pedestal amid the surrounding wreckage, I’m reminded of the final lines of Ozymandias: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Just as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem was about the consequences of hubris, the museum’s ruins could be seen as a testament to neglect. The burned building was the largest natural-history museum in Latin America, but it had never been completely renovated in its 200-year history. It had long suffered from obvious infrastructure problems including leaks, termite infestations, and—crucially—no working sprinkler system. Recognizing these problems in the 1990s, museum staff began planning to move the collection into a different site, but without stable funding, those plans proceeded in fits and starts.
Over the past five years, the museum faced severe cuts and didn’t even receive its full allotted funds from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It was recently forced to crowdfund money to repair the termite-damaged base of one of its grandest mounted dinosaurs. “For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, has said.
“This was an announced tragedy,” added Ana Lucia Araujo, a Brazilian-born historian at Howard University, on Twitter. “Other tragedies like this can happen any time in numerous museums, libraries, and archives in Brazil.”
The losses are “incalculable to Brazil,” said Michel Temer, the country’s president, on Twitter. “Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge have been lost.”
Marina Silva, a candidate in Brazil’s upcoming elections, described the fire as “a lobotomy in Brazilian memory.”
The museum’s herbarium, its main library, and some of its vertebrates were housed in a different building that was untouched by the fire. But together, these reportedly account for just 10 percent of the museum’s collection. For comparison, the remaining 90 percent includes twice as many specimens as the entire British Museum. Museum staff carried out whatever they could by hand, including parts of the mollusk collection. Time will tell what else survived, and some losses are already clear: The floor beneath the entomology collection collapsed, for example, and the 5 million butterflies and other arthropods within were likely lost.
The museum’s archeological collection had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; entire tongues went up in flames. It carried about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to precolonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.
Older still was the museum’s rich trove of fossils, from crocodile relatives like Pepesuchus to one of the oldest relatives of today’s scorpions. It harbored some of the oldest human remains in the Americas: the 11,500-year-old skull and pelvis of a woman who was unearthed in 1975 and nicknamed Luzia. “The skull is very fragile,” the artist Maurilio Oliveira told The New York Times. “The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it.”
One might think that fossils, being rock, would be immune to fire. But as Mariana Di Giacomo, a paleontologist from the University of Delaware, described in a Twitter thread, fires can reach temperatures that are high enough to crack stone. It destroys buildings, causing walls and ceilings to fall on fragile specimens. It burns the labels attached to fossils and the numbers that are painted onto them, turning something that’s part of the scientific record into uninformative rock. “Without data, we only have old bones/shells/logs,” wrote Di Giacomo. Even the water that’s used to quench the flames can make things worse, causing fossils to swell and crack, dissolving adhesives, ruining labels even further, and stimulating the growth of mold.
The burned building housed skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Maxakalisaurus, a 44-foot-long, armor-backed, long-necked titan, and Santanaraptor, a lithe predator that contained beautifully preserved soft tissues in its legs, down to individual muscle fibers. “That really stabs me in the heart as a scientist,” said John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College. “I always wanted to go study that specimen. It could have been revelatory. Now that probably will be impossible for anyone.”
The museum was also home to an irreplaceable collection of pterosaurs—flying reptiles that soared over the dinosaurs’ heads. Brazil was something of a “heaven for pterosaurs,” and the discovery of spectacular creatures such as Tapejara, Tupandactylus, and Tupuxuara, with their marvelously complete skeletons and improbably ornate crests, helped to reshape our understanding of these animals. “We may have lost dozens of the best preserved pterosaurs in the world,” said the paleontologist Mark Witton. “There really is no collection comparable … We find them elsewhere in the world, but the quality of the Brazilian material is remarkable.”
Many of these presumably lost specimens were holotypes—the first, best, and most important examples of their kind. Every specimen is arguably irreplaceable, but holotypes are especially so. Losing them is like losing the avatar of an entire species. Some of these specimens have been drawn and described in the scientific literature, but that information is often patchy, which is why scientists frequently return to holotypes to study them with their own eyes.
“In theory, I am accustomed to the loss and incompleteness of scientific knowledge,” tweeted Gabi Sobral, a Brazilian paleontologist who now works at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany. Paleontologists know that they’re dealing with just the thinnest sliver of ancient life, preserved through the fortuitous circumstances that turn certain individuals into fossils. And yet it’s precisely the rarity of such specimens that makes it that much harder to cope with their loss, and the newfound holes in our knowledge inflicted by the fire. “Those holes are man-made,” Sobral told me through tears. “They were the result of bad infrastructure that we knew was there. We failed the collection.”
Officials are still searching for what specifically sparked the fire, but the answer won’t change the fact that lives will be affected, too. “I keep thinking about my friend who just took office as a professor of malacology,” Sobral wrote. “How do you conduct your research? What material do you give to the new student? How do you rebuild an institution this size from scratch?”
“The Museu Nacional has educated or contributed to the education of most Brazilian biodiversity scientists,” added Ana Carnaval, a Brazilian biologist who works at the City College of New York. “A part of us burns today still.”
Officials have begun talking about reconstructing the museum, while students have asked people to email them with photos of the collections, in the hopes of recovering whatever information they can. But these measures will do little to replace the irreplaceable.
“This is not the only museum, not the only home of irreplaceable and invaluable history and heritage, that has been gutted by short-sighted neglect and the consequential preventable tragedy,” wrote the paleontologist Lisa Buckley from the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre. Just two years ago, the Natural History Museum in New Delhi lost much of its collection to a fire. Its fire-suppression system wasn’t working. In 2010, flames tore through the Instituto Butantan in São Paulo, destroying its precious hoard of venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions that had been used for medical research. Its fire-suppression system was nonexistent.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.