Digitisation on demand: mobilising natural history data to address society’s biggest challenges

Access to natural history collections can be added to the ever-growing list of things that became virtual in 2020. Along with virtual coffee breaks, virtual meetings and the ubiquitous virtual pub quizzes, SYNTHESYS+ users are now able to request Virtual Access to natural history collections. 

SYNTHESYS+ is a European Commission funded collections infrastructure project, which aims – among other things – to provide researchers with access to the vast natural history collections held in Europe. Until recently, this access has been physical, with the programme providing support and resources for users to visit collections throughout Europe to carry out their research. However, in the spring of 2020 the programme put out a call for researchers to propose ‘digitisation on demand’ projects, whereby they could make a case for a collection to be digitised by the holding institutions, to meet a specific need of the research and collections communities. 

Five projects were selected for funding from the first call, based on them providing a broad benefit to the European Research Community (ERC) and contributing to addressing Societal Challenges as outlined by the European Commission. The Digital Collections Programme (DCP) at the Museum is involved in two of these projects: ‘Data mobilisation for IUCN conservation assessments of global freshwater bioindicators’ and a ‘COVID-19 Chiropteran knowledge base’. 

Riverflies and redlists

Green drake mayfly (Ephermera danica)

The DCP, along with Royal Museum for Central Africa and Museum fur Naturkunde, have been tasked with providing access to parts of the freshwater insect collections, to support the project ‘Data mobilisation for IUCN conservation assessments of global freshwater bioindicators’. The aim is to expand our understanding of the distribution of three key groups of riverflies. These insects play a vital role as bioindicators of water quality and habitat health, yet there are still vast gaps in our knowledge. We will use our tried and tested, high-throughput, Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction system (or ALICE to her friends) to digitise 75,000 specimens from the Orders Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies) and Trichoptera (caddisflies) – or EPT for short. 

We are undertaking this huge task on behalf of the IUCN Species Specialist Group (SSG), who want to use the vast temporal and geographical data held on EPT specimens in the collections to ‘red-list’ as many species from these groups as possible. The IUCN Red List is an indicator of the health of biodiversity. It is a checklist of species whose extinction risk has been assessed using the IUCN Red list categories and criteria. Part of the ‘red-listing’ process involves assessing how a species’ geographic distribution has changed over time, thus making the historic data describing when and where a specimen was collected a valuable source of information for assessing these species’ vulnerability to extinction.

Contributing to knowledge on coronaviruses

Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)

The origin of the very pandemic that has forced so many things to go virtual remains a mystery, and one that is critical to solve. The most similar virus to the one that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic was found in a common horseshoe bat species, Rhinolophus affinis. In order to predict spillover transmission events (when a virus moves from one species to another), it is important to understand how a species maintains a virus within a population. As spillover events can occur within a defined timeframe and location, museum collections can contribute to uncovering these patterns. 

To utilise important information from museum collections, the CETAF COVID-19 Taskforce has suggested that information from not only the horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae), but also their phylogenetically most closely related families, Hipposideridae and Rhinonycteridae, should be gathered to further our knowledge about their distribution and ecological demands. There are around 6000 specimens in the collections across these three families, consisting of skins, skulls, skeletons and those preserved in spirit. Data gathered from these specimens, together with data from specimens held at eight other European institutions, will be used to form the COVID-19 Chiropteran knowledge base. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the project as we start work on digitising them!  

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