Data in action: museum collections provide evidence for protecting rainforests | Digital Collections Programme

Left: The woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothicha) photographed by Evgenia Kononova via Wikipedia Right: The Scientific paper that inspired this blog.

In this blog, we’re looking at a recent paper that cited some of our data in investigating the conservation potential of protected areas of rainforest using data on the Woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha).

There are now over 4.8 million records of specimens on the Data Portal. The research often addresses some of the world’s most pressing scientific issues, from conservation to agriculture and climate change. We have recently reached a milestone with 1000 papers citing our data. To celebrate this milestone, we are sharing some of the stories behind the research that uses collection data.  

The ever-growing number of specimens in the Museum collection have been amassed over hundreds of years. Most of these specimens have associated data, such as when and where they were collected. This means that the collections hold vast quantities of data from across time and space, which can be used in scientific research. It also means that when this research is used to inform decision-making, these decisions are based on hundreds of years’ worth of data.  

Increasing access to these data through digitising specimens and sharing them openly online means more of this research can take place, and so one of the driving forces behind the Digital Collections Programme is the goal of making the collections data available to everyone, to increase visibility and use of this often-untapped resource.  

Forest conservation 

San Antonio Del Tequendama, Colombia – Photographed by David Riaño Cortés from Pexels 

Forests are home to millions of species of animals and plants. Much of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity – that’s species that live on land – are found in forests.  

Often referred to the ‘lungs of the Earth’ forests are also essential for mitigating climate change. They soak up vast amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to the rapid heating of the planet. 

Sadly, deforestation is a huge threat to the world’s forests and the species that live and rely on them, including humans. Forests are cleared for many reasons including agriculture, mining and urbanisation. 

Conservation efforts around the world try to limit the destruction of forests. One of the ways this is done is through the creation of protected areas such as national parks, conservation areas and game reserves.  

Recently, data from the digital collections were used in research that assessed the conservation potential of protected areas of rainforest in South America. 

Researchers from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, along with a researcher from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Conabio in México, investigated the conservation potential of protected areas in Colombia, using the woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha) as an umbrella species.  

An umbrella species is chosen to represent the ecological requirements of a larger group of species that coexist in the same territory. Therefore, making conservation decisions that protect the umbrella species may indirectly protect many other species and their habitats. 

Alongside sightings of the woolly monkey in the field, the researchers used digital collections data from 63 datasets, ranging from the mammal collections of the American Museum of Natural History in the USA to the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Brazil. 

103 records cited were from our own digital collections, with the researchers looking at when the specimen had been collected and the coordinates of where it had been collected from. These digital collections data were used alongside sightings to work out the distribution of the woolly monkey, and to create models to see how climate change and deforestation may affect this distribution in the future. 

Daniela Linero, a co-author of the paper, spoke to us about the digital data used in the research. 

Digital collections were an important part of modeling the potential distribution of the woolly monkey in Colombia’ says Daniela. ‘Digital collections, in addition to sightings reported in the field, provide key information on the historical distribution of species. In this way, specimen data allow researchers to determine the environmental conditions associated with species presence and can even help to identify changes in their distribution over time.

The maps above show the current potential distribution area of L.lagothricha with image a) showing potential distribution without deforestation and b) removing deforested areas in the year 2016. The numbers that correspond to areas that contain more than 80% of the species range found within the protected territory.

The researchers estimated the distribution of the woolly monkey to be 413,533 km2 in 2016. When various future climate change and deforestation scenarios were modelled, they found that up to 54,548 km 2 of this area could be lost in the future. Just 26% of the woolly monkey’s range is currently within protected areas, and the researchers estimated that this could be decreased by around 18% in the most drastic future scenario. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the current protected areas that are in place are not enough, and that more must be created, expanded and connected to protect the woolly monkey and many other species within the ecosystem. Alongside this, measures need to be taken to halt ever-increasing deforestation. 

The specimens in the collection may be many years old, but their data can contribute to the current and future conservation of tropical forests and the species that live there.  understanding what happened in the past can help scientists model and predict what could happen in the future and make conservation decisions based on hundreds of years of data rather than decades.

We love to find out how our data is being used, so if you are currently using data from the Data Portal in your research, we’d love to hear from you. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram for the latest news on digitising the collection, and keep up to date with our blog posts for more examples of our data in action.