On March 8, International Women’s Day is observed around the world. Describing a future ‘free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination’, this year International Women’s Day encourages us all to #EmbraceEquity.
At the Natural History Museum, Larissa from the digitisation team and Leo from the Library were reminded of this year’s theme when we came across a handwritten manuscript of Eliza Catherine Jelly. A scientist of the late 19th century, Eliza, like many women of the age, has not received the nearly the level of recognition as her male peers.
The UK holds some of the world’s most important natural science collections. More than 130 million specimens have been collected from around the world and are held in over 90 institutions throughout the country.
The Natural History Museum Library holds over 30,000 rare books including several named collections that have been acquired through donation, purchase or bequest. One such collection is that of the entomologist Dennis Leston (1917-1981). Comprising just ninety-nine volumes, it is the smallest named collection and was donated to the Museum’s Library by Leston in 1958.
January 2023 marks the tenth anniversary since I first started digitising the Museum’s collections. A lot has changed in that time but the main principle of digitisation has remained the same: to transform the access and use of the Museum’s collections through unlocking natural history data and sharing this with the world.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Guinea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar
Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, New Guinea and India
Southern and Central American
Guatemala, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Our pinned mayfly, stonefly and caddisfly specimens are groups of insects that have life cycles reliant on freshwater. Where these insects are plentiful, they are fantastic indicators of water quality.