Imagine yourself at ten years old. You're on a class field trip to a natural history museum. You spend the day gazing up at a towering tyrannosaurus or pressing your nose against a case displaying iridescent beetles. You leave with not only a new obsession with dinosaurs or insects, but also a broader sense of the variety of life that once existed and still exists on Earth.
Many of us think of the role of natural history museums as a place to support wonder and education. The natural history museums that linger in our memories play a much larger role than just this. The dinosaur bones that we recall not only spark interest in young minds, but provide valuable data, enabling scientists to take a deeper look at a past species and its environment. Specimens that represent species that still exist today preserve past populations that can be used to track changes in species numbers, where species live, and even genetic variation over time.
This wealth of information is stored in natural history museums around the world, enabling large data sets to be used in research. However, specimens are not always easily accessible, meaning researchers often need to travel to museums to increase their sample size. This method is costly, both in time and money. Digitising specimens, meaning publishing information about specimens online, is therefore a necessity in increasing accessibility and their use in biodiversity big data analytics. This might include metadata about what exactly the specimen is and when and where it was collected but may also include images or interactive 3D scans.
Beyond sharing information about fossilised bones and preserved animals in jars, scientists are also digitising slides, or the rectangular pieces of glass used to mount specimens to study using a microscope. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for instance, houses roughly 400,000 slides, hinting at the huge amount of data stored on slides in institutions around the globe. SlideAtlas and the use of slide scanners that take pictures of slides in great detail are enabling researchers to share their own slides and view other slides, increasing accessibility and improving data sets enabling better research.
Before the Internet, researchers learned of museum collections by writing letters to curators. This slow process has since been replaced with the advent of such platforms as GBIF and VertNet, aggregates that enable researchers to search for relevant specimens and other datasets online. As of writing this blog article, GBIF has 984,763,407 records, greatly increasing the accessibility of data to researchers. These data aggregates help reduce the amount of data that was once collected for research but now sits collecting dust in storage in museums and universities. Sharing this data enables further research by those who might be able to utilise data that has already been collected rather than spending resources collecting similar data again.
In order for this big data to be better utilised, museums need to digitise their collections. But the time and money associated with this process is immense. Remember that case full of colourful beetles you marveled at when you were young? Now imagine typing into a database the species name, the date it was collected, who collected it and where it was collected. Additionally, you need to take a photograph or digital scan of each and every iridescent beetle in that case. Now imagine repeating this process for not only the spiders in the next case over, but for all the bones, bird eggs and mammals lining the walls of the museum. It's a monumental and expensive task for even the smallest collection.
Luckily, organisations like the National Science Foundation support digitisation initiatives like iDigBio. Moreso, supporters of digitisation can volunteer their time to help the process:
Smithsonian Transcription Center
Notes from Nature
Natural history museums are more than just a home for preserved animals in jars, but an institution packed full of data that can be used in research to inform conservation management and policy creation. You can support digitisation by donating to your local Natural History Museum or by becoming a citizen scientist and participating in digitising collections yourself at one of the above links.
The next time you gaze at fossilised dinosaur footprints, tiny flies pinned in cases or the carefully preserved feathers of a Giant Albatross, remember that they represent more than just an animal; they represent the wealth of historical information used to make informed decisions about how to save future species.
Much of this information was learned during the Museums in the Modern Age elective course at the University of Oxford and during the Second Annual Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference: Emerging Innovations for Biodiversity Data. If you're interested in learning more about Natural History Museum data, check out the Third Annual Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference at Yale University June 10-12, 2019.