FireAlthough fossils are, generally, basically rocks, fire can indeed cause damage to rocks. Water used in firefighting can also damage rocks, for example rocks composed of shrink-swell clays, and rocks with significant organics are vulnerable to both fire and water damage. (And if the specimens are late Quaternary paleoecological materials such as dung or middens? You've got a repeat of Rampart Cave in the museum.) Rocks can also be damaged by heavy objects falling on them during fires. Other issues may include, but are not limited to, being covered by melted materials and being subjected to explosive events. Furthermore, even if a given fossil survives a fire, it may be lost during recovery efforts.
Fires are not as common as they once were, thanks to improvements in fireproofing and fire suppression, although these advances cannot help if they are not implemented or are otherwise unavailable. For example, the National Museum of Brazil lacked sprinkler systems, and water for firefighting had to be brought to the scene. A significant cause of many late 19th century and early 20th century fires was early electrical systems.
Here are a few U.S. fires I've come across that affected fossil collections; it is certainly not exhaustive! It does cover nine decades and everything from two state capitols to a modest facility in the Big Bend of Texas:
- Academy of Science of St. Louis, May 1869: included some of Benjamin Franklin Shumard's collections;
- Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, March 1, 1881: this fire claimed the Minnesota Academy of Science collections, which among other things held mammoth or mastodon fossils from Stillwater;
- Texas State Capitol, Austin, November 9, 1881: this fire destroyed the remnants of Shumard's Texas Geological Survey specimens;
- Science Hall, University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 1, 1884: this building housed the Wisconsin State Collection, including some of R. P. Whitfield's St. Croix fossils;
- Academic Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, January 9, 1892: another group of Shumard's fossils was lost in this blaze;
- Williston Hall, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, December 22, 1917: in dinosaur paleontology, this fire is best known for the loss of the holotype of Podokesaurus holyokensis;
- Chisos Basin Civilian Conservation Corps barracks, December 24, 1941: this building housed a small museum of Big Bend fossils;
- Williams Hall, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, February 1956: a fire in the third floor of this building is implicated in the disappearance of a collection of Ordovician fossils collected near Delaware Water Gap.
WarMany collections have been partially or wholly destroyed in wars, particularly at European institutions during the two World Wars. The poster child for these losses is the holotype of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, lost along with other Egyptian fossils (including Aegyptosaurus baharijensis) when the Paleontological Museum in Munich was hit by bombs during a night raid, April 24–25, 1944. Specimens and larger collections have sometimes also been looted, for commercial value or as a kind of "scientific imperialism". Wars and other armed conflicts have not been a major issue for collections in the U.S. since the Civil War, when there were few significant collections. One exception was the Texas Geological Survey collection, left in limbo at the start of the Civil War. Almost all of the specimens amassed by Benjamin Franklin Shumard for the survey were lost during the war when the State Capitol was turned over to the manufacturing of percussion caps. (In case you're wondering, that makes three fires and one loss-by-neglect for Shumard, who simply could not catch a break.)
Disbursement or transferWhile you may be under the impression that your favorite museum accumulated all of its specimens on its own, maybe with some scattered donations thrown in, if you scratch the surface you will probably find that the museum has absorbed multiple substantial collections over the years. These may be personal collections (such as the collections of Edward Drinker Cope and James Hall at the American Museum of Natural History), corporate collections (think invertebrates and microfossils collected for oil companies), or collections from other institutions (for example, in recent decades the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has incorporated collections from UCLA, Cal Tech, CSUN, and USC). The fact is that many places have accumulated collections over the years, only to end up sending them elsewhere for various reasons: change in direction, loss of funding, streamlining of collections, retirement of key staff, lack of interest, etc. This kind of movement can involve entire collections or only parts of collections (paleobotany seems peculiarly vulnerable to this). Technically speaking, the specimens are not "lost", although relocation of a collection can result in loss or damage to specimens, and the collections can sometimes *seem* lost if you're trying to track them down years after the fact!
Although small institutions are probably most likely to send their collections elsewhere, even storied, historically significant collections have been transferred. Princeton gave their vertebrate paleontology collections to Yale in 1985 when the university decided to cut the paleontology program. The USGS collections in Washington and Menlo Park went to the Smithsonian and the University of California Museum of Paleontology, respectively, following political wrangling in the mid-1990s. Integrating established collections into their new homes can be a headache, and specimens from large added collections often retain some part of their original identity. For example, fossils from Princeton in the Yale collections include "PU" in their catalog identification.