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A Natural History Mystery

15 June 2012 4:55 pm
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Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

A fishy tale. Natural history repositories, such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, have received emails requesting specimens for a mysterious museum in India.

A decade ago, Andrew Bentley, a scientist who manages the fish collections at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute in Lawrence, received an e-mail asking for help replacing preserved fish specimens destroyed by a fire at a museum in India. The sender identified himself as Mohammad Haq, director of the Life Science Museum in Jhansi, and wrote that he wanted to rebuild the museum's teaching collections.

Bentley responded by donating 36 surplus specimens, but a few weeks later he received another e-mail from Haq. The specimens had never arrived, Haq wrote, could Bentley please send more? Perplexed, Bentley asked for more details, did an Internet search and asked colleagues if they had heard of the Life Science Museum. "I couldn't find anything," he recalls. And Haq never replied.

Bentley isn't the only museum curator to become suspicious about specimen requests from the Life Science Museum. Over the last decade, natural history collections around the world have reported receiving e-mails requesting specimens for the museum from senders who identify themselves as Haq or Sheikh Taufique Rehmani. Some of the most recent e-mails, sent on 4 May, asked ichthyologist Brian Sidlauskas, the fish curator at Oregon State University, Corvallis, for hagfish, lampreys, and ratfish. Haq and Rehmani have also asked other museums for mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Requests for specimen exchanges or donations are common among natural history museums. It's more efficient to borrow organisms for a study than to mount expeditions to far-flung locales to collect them. And it's not unheard of for curators to step in and help colleagues whose collections have been destroyed by fires or other disasters.

But Oregon State's Sidlauskas is joining some other curators in turning down the Life Science Museum's requests, saying he fears the appeals he received were a scam. The e-mails often specify species and sizes that are commonly used in schools and training programs, curators note, raising concerns that their donations could be used for profit. "No one wants to send specimens, which are very valuable, [and] see them pirated and resold," says Sidlauskas.

"No one's been successful at getting confirmation about this institute's identity," adds Richard Vari, a fish expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, one of the world's largest natural history collections. "My guess is it's a biological supply company."

That speculation has been fueled by a 2002 e-mail Bentley received from an agriculture scientist in India, as well as a Web search that indicated Rehmani heads an organization importing natural history specimens for dissection and museum displays.

Science Insider reached a man who identified himself as Mr. Shafiq at the phone number listed for the Life Science Museum in India. He said Rehmani was traveling overseas and was unavailable for comment, but added that Rehmani "has stopped dealing in all samples." He then ended the call.

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