Communicating change: Biodiversity indicators and global progress for nature | PREDICTS biodiversity team

Emma Soh is a student studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and doing her work placement with the PREDICTS team at the Natural History Museum, focusing on communicating the science of biodiversity to policymakers. She shares how biodiversity indicators are important for communicating the state of nature and tracking global progress towards protecting it.  

What are biodiversity indicators?

Biodiversity indicators are used to monitor, understand, and communicate changes in biodiversity – the variety of life – globally, nationally, or in particular sites. This can include changes in the state of species and ecosystems or the types of threats they are facing.

Biodiversity is highly complex, from the molecular scale of a gene to whole ecological communities, and all the interactions that occur in between. Having a single indicator to capture the state of the whole of biodiversity would be like grading a piece of music on how good it is based only on its melody! Therefore, scientists use more than one indicator, each monitoring a different component of biodiversity. An indicator can measure anything from how likely a species is to go extinct to the impacts of human activities on entire ecosystems.  

Calculating and using different biodiversity indicators can give us a clearer picture of the state of biodiversity without being overwhelmed by the complexity of ecosystems or the massive amount of data surrounding them. Since indicators are based on different types of data and may use different data science techniques and processes, each indicator will have its own strengths and limitations. For example, some indicators measure biodiversity at the global-level, whereas others may focus on specific species or threats.  

Each indicator tells a story about an aspect of biodiversity. It is therefore important to recognise how indicators are different from one another and what each indicator is measuring.

As Dr Neil Brummitt, leader of the Plants Under Pressure research team at the Museum, puts it, “Different indicators all [measure] slightly different things, but [they are] all informative…Drill down into the data: What is the geographical coverage? What is its taxonomic scope (i.e. the type of species included)? What timescale is it over? What is it that they’re doing?”.

Having a clear understanding of what each indicator is saying and using multiple indicators alongside one another can help us gain a more holistic picture of the state of biodiversity.  

Why are biodiversity indicators important?

Indicators help us to understand ecosystems and appreciate the diversity of the natural world around us, as well as understand how biodiversity is changing in response to threats. From the impacts of global warming, to the loss of natural habitats for farming, biodiversity is facing an uncertain future that will inevitably affect us all – humans rely on biodiversity and nature for our survival.

Indicators can not only be used to monitor these threats and impacts on biodiversity, but they can also track changes over time and help us to plan for the future.  

The United Nations General Assembly in New York, USA. The UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 will gather world leaders in Montreal, Canada to discuss biodiversity issues and global action to protect biodiversity. Image Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Indicators are especially important when we set out global goals and targets for biodiversity and conservation. Biodiversity indicators form an essential part of global monitoring frameworks, such as measuring progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be negotiated and finalised at the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December 2022.

Good targets need to be measurable, and that requires biodiversity indicators. Indicators can be used to track progress towards – or away from – global targets over time and inform global action. It is therefore important for policymakers to understand goals for biodiversity and how indicators can be used to monitor our progress.  

Communicating research – indicators for change in the Museum

Scientists at the Museum work to understand and monitor the state of biodiversity, both by gathering biodiversity data and by improving biodiversity indicators. My science communication work placement is with the PREDICTS research team, working on communicating the science of biodiversity indicators to policymakers. The PREDICTS database contains biodiversity data from terrestrial ecosystems across the world, and researchers in the team use models to understand the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.

These impacts can be seen with the Biodiversity Intactness Index , which estimates the percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance in an area. Meanwhile, scientists in the Plants Under Pressure team are improving our understanding of plant biodiversity and threats to plants.

One of their projects aims to get a clearer picture of extinction risk in plants. They do this by studying a representative set of plant species across all major taxonomic groups, leading the production of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants to track the overall extinction risk of plants. The two indices tell us about two different aspects of biodiversity, with the Biodiversity Intactness Index showing changes in the composition and abundance of species, while the Sampled Red List Index for Plants focuses on the global risk of plant extinction.  

In the lead-up to COP15, as countries re-establish global goals for our planet’s biodiversity, making biodiversity research accessible to policymakers is crucial. This can be through providing channels and platforms for people involved in policy to explore indicators and be informed of biodiversity trends.

One of the Museum’s newest initiatives is the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, a free, interactive, online tool to track changes in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, showing change across time periods, different geographic regions, and even forecasting future changes under different trajectories of human development. Having the Biodiversity Trends Explorer as a platform to communicate biodiversity data in a visual and accessible manner represents a step towards making policymakers aware of the valuable work of scientists at the Museum, and how it can be used to understand the state of biodiversity and make more evidence-informed decisions.

The Museum has more plans for the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, and part of my placement has been to write website text in preparation for the addition of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants onto the platform.  

Speaking to lots of people at the Museum, from scientists to staff members engaged with policy, has been an eye-opening experience, and has shown me the importance of providing channels for scientists and policymakers to share information, discuss issues, and to work together for the future of biodiversity.

The Museum is continuing to build its vision for policy-engagement through its new policy unit. Emma Woods, the new Director of Policy at the Museum, says “Ultimately, I want the Museum to be impactful and to add value, whether that be through building influential networks, translating evidence into something that will resonate with policymakers, or convening leaders across science, government and business to debate the big issues of our time.”

Biodiversity indicators and tools like the Biodiversity Trends Explorer are exciting means to communicate the science of biodiversity to policymakers and beyond, opening up future pathways of engagement and working towards a future for nature.  

When is a book not a book? The bound volumes and exsiccatae in the herbarium at the Natural History Museum | Curator of Botany

The botany curation team have recently completed cataloguing some of the more unusual items in their care, the bound volumes and exsiccatae. A dataset listing those collections has been published on the Museum’s data portal. In this blog, Jo Wilbraham, Norbert Holstein and Mark Carine, discuss some of the treasures to be found among the Museum’s extensive collection of botanical bound volumes and exsiccatae. 

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Digitising beans to feed the world

Legumes are a group of plants that include soybeans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts and lentils. They are a significant source of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and minerals in our diet and some, like the cow pea, are drought resistant.

A new paper has been published in Biodiversity Journal about a project that the digitisation team started in 2018 with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (project Lead) and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to collectively digitise non-type herbarium material from the legume family This includes rosewood trees (Dalbergia), padauk trees (Pterocarpus) and the Phaseolinae subtribe that contains many of the beans cultivated for human and animal food.

This project was made possible through Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)-allocated Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding, distributed by the UK government in its “global efforts to defeat poverty, tackle instability and create prosperity in developing countries”.

ODA-listed Countries

AfricanGuinea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar
AsianBangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, New Guinea and India
Southern and Central AmericanGuatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil

The legume groups Dalbergia, Pterocarpus and Phaseolinae were chosen for digitisation to support the development of dry beans as a sustainable and resilient crop, and to aid conservation and sustainable use of rosewood and padauk trees. Some of these beans, especially cow pea and pigeon pea, are sustainable and resilient crops, as they can be grown in poor-quality soils and are drought stress resistant (Varshney et al. 2009). This makes them particularly suitable for agricultural production where the growing of other crops would be difficult.

Digitally discoverable herbarium specimens can provide important information about the distribution of individual species, as well as highlighting which species occur naturally together. While there have been collaborative efforts between herbaria in the past, these have tended to prioritise digitisation of type specimens – as the example specimens for which a species is named, types are important to identification, but as individual specimens don’t offer insights into species distribution over time. By focusing on the non-types across the world and over the last 200 years, we have released a brand-new resource to the global scientific community.

Searching for beans

This collection was digitised by creating an inventory record for each specimen, attaching images of each herbarium sheet, and then transcribing more data and georeferencing the specimens, providing an accurate locality in space and time for their collection.

We originally had four months and three members of staff to digitise over 11,000 specimens. The Covid-19 lockdown was ironically rather lucky for this project as it enabled us to have more time to transcribe and georeference all of the records.

Map showing breakdown of records by country

We were able to assign country-level data to 10,857 out of the total number of 11,222 records. We were also able to transcribe the collectors’ names from the majority of our specimen labels (10,879 out of 11,222). Only 770 out of the 2,226 individuals identified during this project collected their specimens in ODA listed countries. The highest contributors were: Richard Beddome (130 specimens), Charles Clarke (110), Hans Schlieben (98) and Nathaniel Wallich (79). The breakdown of records by ODA country can be seen in the chart below.

From our data, we can see the peak decade of collection was the 1930s, with almost half (4,583 specimens or 49,43%) collected between 1900 and 1950 (Fig. 10). This peak can be attributed to three of our most prolific collectors: Arthur Kerr, John Gossweiler and Georges Le Testu, all of whom were most active in the 1930s. The oldest specimen (BM013713473) was collected by Mark Catesby (1683-1749) in the Bahamas in 1726.

Chart showing distribution of records through time

An interesting, but perhaps unsurprising, finding is that our collection is strongly male dominated. There are only two women (Caroline Whitefoord and Ynes Mexia) in the list of our top 50 plant collectors and they are not close to the most prolific collectors. We identified more women in the rest of our records, but their contribution is on average less than 25 specimens per person in the dataset consisting of more than 10,000 specimens. In contrast, the top five male collectors contributed 10% of our collection.

The oldest specimen in this collection from 1726.

Releasing Rosewoods

Both the Pterocarpus and Dalbergia genera include species that are used as expensive good quality timber that is prone to illegal logging. Many species such as Pterocarpus tinctorius are also listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. By releasing this new resource of information on all these plants from three of the biggest herbaria in the world is that we can share this date with the people who are taking care of biodiversity in these countries. The data can be used to could be used to identify hotspots, where the tree is naturally growing and protect these areas. These data would also allow much closer attention to be paid to areas that could be targets for illegal logging activity.

Pterocarpus tinctorius is a species of padauk tree that is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is a food and animal feed crop grown in the semi-arid tropics.

The ODA-listed countries are economically impoverished and disproportionally prone to be disadvantaged with the changing climate whether from flood or drought or increase in temperature. Using data to identify good, nutritious plant species that can be grown in such conditions can therefore benefit local communities, potentially reducing dependence on imports, aid and on less resilient crops. 

This dataset is now openly available on the Museum’s Data Portal and a paper about this work has been released in Biodiversity Journal. Stay in touch with the Digitisation team by following us on Instagram and Twitter.

Adapting our training and support for the Big Seaweed Search in Mexico | Community Science

A workshop facilitator and student in a classroom, preserving speciments for a seaweed collection.

In this blog I want to tell you about the amazing work my colleague Ana is doing with our colleagues from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM): Ameyalli, Arely, Carmen and Erika.

For every community science programme we run at the Museum, we provide training and guidance to help people take part. This will be tailored according to the programme and audience. This means that training will sometimes be delivered in person, sometimes we produce written resources, and sometimes we develop video tutorials, for example.

In Mexico, our colleagues delivered training workshops in Sisal and Puerto Morelos in March and April respectively, and have recently returned from delivering workshops in the same locations, but in the rainy season.

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Compromises and trade-offs in adapting the Big Seaweed Search in Mexico | Community Science

A participant in Big Seaweed Search Mexico collecting specimens on the beach from a quadrat square.

Hola! It’s been a busy two months since I last blogged to introduce the Big Seaweed Search (BSS) in Mexico. Today I want to continue by describing the programme that the team has created for BSS in Mexico, highlighting some of the differences with the programme in the UK and discussing some of the compromises and trade-offs we made when adapting the project to a new country.

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Biodiversity biobanks: an invaluable resource for the future

By Samantha Luciano

Biodiversity biobanks are less well known than their biomedical counterparts, but they represent an invaluable asset for meeting the global health and environmental challenges of our century. Whether they are home to animal, plant or micro-organism collections, these infrastructures contribute to research and development in many fields, including medical and veterinary treatments, breeding and reproduction, environment and conservation, agro-industry and biotechnology.

The major advantage of biodiversity biobanks is the variety of samples and taxa present in these collections: tissues, fluids, whole specimens, cell cultures, DNA or RNA from most of the vertebrate and invertebrate species on our planet.

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Highlighting Histories: Women in Exploration

A photograph of a statue of Gudrid-Thorbjarnardottir

Published by Leonie Biggenden on behalf of Learning Volunteer & Women in Science Tour Guide Joanna Tindall

As a taster for the free NHM Women in Science Tours, Learning Volunteers will be sharing blogs on some pioneering women of science.  We can learn more about them, their work and share some information about the Museum’s displays and cutting-edge science.  Our second venture looks at three great and inspirational women explorers.

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