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Key Marco Cat. Photo by: Victor Krantz; Date: 1977; Number: 77-7431

The Key Marco Cat, a wooden cougar figure from an Indian site at Key Marco, on Florida's southwest coast. The 16th Century figure stands 6-inches high, and is part of the collections of the National Museum of Natural History.

This document has two parts, the first a general description of some key issues in the development and use of the data here.  The second section is the fine print:  the formal do’s and don’ts for appropriate use, attribution, and understanding of the data. 

Key Issues:

The online databases on this Web site (the Natural History Web) constitute a compilation of data, all rights to which, including copyright, are owned by the Smithsonian Institution. (See Smithsonian Institution Copyright, Terms and Conditions at The data represent a work in progress.  An appropriate understanding of what the data are, their strengths and weaknesses, will ensure that your use of these data is appropriate and correct.

For the NMNH Collections-based Information and Databases Policy, please see:

1. What is here

The physical collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) have been assembled for over 150 years by many dedicated and hardworking men and women in many parts of the world.  The data associated with the NMNH collections are in many forms, hand-written in ledgers, typed on file cards, on labels stored with the collections, and, for the last 25 years, captured in a series of computer-stored databases.  Due to the size of its collections and financial constraints, the NMNH has not yet been able to computerize all of the basic data about its collections.  NMNH constantly adds records to our collections databases, increasing the percentage of specimens for which we have computer-retrievable information.  To date, electronic data capture has been completed for only about 10% of the collections.  The most complete parts of our databases include:  type specimens in our biological collections, meteorites, gems and minerals, and certain other collections.

Iridescent Sphenodiscus Ammonite Fossil on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History

Iridescent Sphenodiscus Ammonite Fossil.
Photo by: John Steiner

2. Issues of accuracy and completeness

The information on the Natural History Web is as accurate as our staff can reasonably make it.  However, the nature of much of the research of the museum is to examine and understand the specimens and their relationships to one another and their natural environment.  Fundamental to this in the biological sciences is the process of re-identifying and re-classifying the specimens.  Many of the specimens that are listed in the databases have not been examined for many years and the data about them may be inaccurate because:  the specimens were originally misidentified; the specimens were correctly identified at that time, but a scientist here or elsewhere has re-classified the group and the “new” name is not reflected here; or the data were mistyped/transcribed from the ledgers or file cards.  As specimens and data are reexamined, the data are corrected to be as accurate as possible.  Please, if you believe that data you are examining are not correct, let us know what and why.  We will work to make any necessary corrections.  Please contact NMNH data managers for the discipline you are interested in. For more information about how to contact the appropriate data manager, please see:

Because the process of adding, improving, editing, and fixing NMNH data is an ongoing task, the data are never “definitive”.  Ideally NMNH should get to the point of having all of its collections in electronic form, but even then, as researchers and collections staff work on specimens, scientifically-based and editorial changes will occur and modifications to the databases will be made.

For many questions that you may want answered, data will be needed from many sources, including NMNH and other museums or universities.  We are working with national and international initiatives to make certain that our data will be in a compatible format and/or available from a single site (single query) 

Malachite's Concentric Swirls; Photo by: Dane A. Penland; Date: 1978; Number: 78-19159

Malachite, a copper mineral with swirling patterns of bright and dark green, is often used for jewelry. This specimen, from Zaire, is from the Gem and Mineral collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

3. The importance of non-occurrence

Key to correct use of the data here is an understanding of the difficulties in using negative information.  Our data constitute positive information only; that is, it is a record of something found in a particular place at a particular time.  The absence of a record of a particular species or object does not necessarily mean that it was not present at that particular place and time—it means that it was not collected, that it is not in NMNH collections, or that the data have not been captured electronically.  Scientific collections are usually strong in particular geographic areas, groups, or kinds of objects that have been of interest to the staff who use them.  For that reason, and others, they are incomplete.  There are many places where collecting has been done repeatedly, many areas where no collecting has ever been done for a particular group, and some areas where no collecting has ever been done.  It is a common, but frequently incorrect, interpretation of collections data that gaps in distribution means absence of the organism or object of interest.  That interpretation is often incorrect even if you know that the organism has been looked for there because many animals are seasonal in their distribution and others may show up in a place one year and not again for many years.  Understanding the positive-only nature of the data, and how they are pieces of a larger puzzle of environmental and historical understanding, is critical to their proper interpretation and appropriate use.

Pacific Lions Paw Shell: Photo by: John Steiner; Date: 2003; Number: 2003-12114

Pacific Lions Paw shell on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

Terms and Conditions of Use

By accessing or using these data, you agree to the following conditions:

  1. Except as otherwise expressly stated herein, the information, records, or images in these databases may not be reproduced, distributed, or publicly displayed, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution (NMNH).
  2. The NMNH does not grant permission for anyone to use, download, reproduce, publicly display, distribute, or reprint all or substantially all of the information, records, or images in one or more of the databases.
  3. Subsets of the information, records, or images in one or more of the databases may be used, downloaded, reproduced, publicly displayed, distributed, or reprinted strictly for educational, scientific, scholarly, and other non-profit uses provided that the following attribution appears in all copies:  "Information provided with the permission of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 10th and Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20560-0193. ("
  4. Subsets of the records from one or more of the databases downloaded for use with data from other datasets must carry the attribution of the NMNH.
  5. Data are provided on an end-user basis - that is, data are provided to users, but should not be passed on to third parties or redistributed, except with approval from the NMNH.
  6. While every effort is made to provide accurate information, use of these databases is entirely at your own risk.  The National Museum of Natural History makes no warranty, either express or implied, regarding the completeness, accuracy, or currency of the information in the databases or its suitability for any particular purpose.  Where the use of this data is critical to scientific investigation, scholarly publication, or policy decisions, the user is responsible or verifying identities and provenance against specimens and other primary data sources.
  7. These materials are provided “AS IS” for your informational purposes only.  NMNH is not responsible for the consequences of reliance on any information contained in the databases, and the risk of injury rests entirely with the user.
  8. Information in the databases must not be regarded as definitive or published.  Distributional, ecological, taxonomic, and other such data should be verified by specimen inspection in consultation with the NMNH curatorial staff.
  9. Data in the NMNH databases are constantly updated.  For this reason, all downloaded data will include a field with the date and time of the download.  Please contact us if you discover errors in the data and supply the Catalogue number, timestamp, and data in error.  This will make it easier for us to make necessary corrections.
  10. Because these databases are dynamic, scientists planning projects needing long-term access to the data, are encouraged to work with NMNH staff to develop live access to the data rather than downloading it.
  11. By accessing the information in the databases, you agree that the NMNH shall not be liable to you for any loss or injury caused in using, compiling, or delivering the information.  In no event will the NMNH or the contributors of information to the databases be liable to you or anyone else for any action taken in reliance on such information or for any consequential, special, or similar damages.
  12. Data are provided under the understanding that their use will not cause detriment to species in the wild, fossil sites, or anthropological sites.

Thank you
NMNH Webmaster

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