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What does it mean to be wild? Assessing human influence on the environments of nonhuman primate specimens in museum collections


Eller, Andrea et al. (2021), What does it mean to be wild? Assessing human influence on the environments of nonhuman primate specimens in museum collections, Dryad, Dataset,


Natural history collections are often thought to represent environments in a pristine natural state, free from human intervention – the so-called “wild”. In this study, we aim to assess the level of human influence represented by natural history collections of wild-collected primates over 120 years at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Our sample consisted of 875 catarrhine primate specimens in NMNH collections, representing 13 genera collected in 39 countries from 1882 to 2004. Using archival and accession information, we determined the approximate locations from which specimens were collected. We then plotted location coordinates onto publicly available anthrome maps created by Ellis et al. (2010), which delineate terrestrial biomes of human population density and land use worldwide since the 1700s. We found that among primates collected from their native ranges, 92% were from an environment that had some level of human impact, suggesting that the majority of presumed wild-collected primate specimens lived in an environment influenced by humans during their lifetimes. The degree to which human-modified environments may have impacted the lives of primates currently held in museum collections has been historically ignored, implicating unforeseen consequences for collections-based research. While unique effects related to commensalism with humans remain understudied, effects currently attributed to natural phenomena may, in fact, be related to anthropogenic pressures on unmanaged populations of primates.



The study sample consisted of 875 specimens of nonhuman catarhine primates. These specimens are part of collections held by the Mammals Division of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the National Musuem of Natural History (NMNH), representing specimens collected in 39 countries over more than 120 years (1882-2004). All specimens were recorded as having been "wild collected" in NMNH accession records. The sample contained 13 catarrhine genera, including 344 individuals from secen genera of apes (Bunopithecus, Gorilla, Hylobates, Nomascus, Pan, Pongo, and Symphalangus), and 531 individuals from six genera of cercopithecine monkeys (Allenopithecus, Cercopithecus, Chlorocebus, Erythrocebus, Macaca, and Papio).


We utilized the anthrome global biome maps published by Ellis et al. (2010), showing a terrestrial classification range based on human population density and land use, derived largely from archaeological and ecological data sources. Configurations of anthropogenic landscape changes were assessed globally across terestrial biomes at 5' resolution (Ellis et al., 2010). Anthrome distribution was determined by combining potential vegetation makes (Ramankutty and Foley, 1999) with anthrome maps (Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008) at century intervals from 1700 to 2000, using overlay analysis. Anthromes are classified into 19 distinct types and grouped into common land-use schemes: dense settlements, villages, croplands, rangelands, seminatural areas, and wildlands. Data are provided for the 19th - 21st centuries across the vast majority of known terrestrial biomes for anthrome type descriptions (Ellis et al., 2010); all spatial data are publically available for download (

Using the software tools of QGIS (Version 3.16, QGIS Development Team, 2021), collection points for each specimens and the anthrome map layers were imported into a single map for each relevant century interval. Based on the year of acquisition, primate specimens were grouped into the 19th, 20th, or 21st century anthrome map. From QGIS, specimens and corresponding anthrome data were exported into MS Excel (2021, v. 16.47.1) for analysis.


Ellis, E.C. & Ramankutty, N., 2008. Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, pp. 439–447.

Ellis, E. C., Klein Goldewijk, K., Siebert, S., Lightman, D., & Ramankutty, N., 2010. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Global ecology and biogeography, 19(5), pp. 589-606.

Ramankutty, N. & Foley, J.A., 1999. Estimating historical changes in global land cover: croplands from 1700 to 1992. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 13, pp. 997–1027.

Usage Notes

File 1: Complete dataset of specimens included in study with anthrome groups and types (Eller et al 2021_NHPAnthrome_clean(1).xlsx

File 2: Map files (anthromes; zip folder [TIF]; anthromes_2_GEOTIFF)

File 3: Map files (anthromes [PDF]; 1800s emphasis.pdf)

File 4: Map files (anthromes [qgz]; 1800.qgz)

File 5: Map files (anthromes [PDF]; 1900s emphasis.pdf)

File 6: Map files (anthromes [qgz]; 1900.qgz)

File 7: Map files (anthromes [PDF]; 2000s emphasis.pdf)

File 8: Map files (anthromes [gqz]; 2000.qgz)

File 9. Anthrome colors.cir

File 10. Apes Map Apr14.kmz

File 11. Monkeys Map Apr14.kmz