Some of the Museum’s invaluable butterfly reference material, previously only accessible to a handful of scientists, has been released onto the Museum’s Data Portal. Over 90% of these specimens were designated as types in the 21st Century, but this is the first time that images of many of these species have been freely accessible to the global community.
My type on paper
When scientists describe and name a new species, they aren’t actually describing every individual that belongs to that species. Instead they select one or a few specimens with ‘typical’ characteristics representing a species to write a detailed description. These name-bearing specimens are known as types, and are used as a reference when identifying and grouping other individuals into that species.
A type bears not only a name, but a big responsibility. If you want to identify and name specimens you have observed or collected you need to look to the type (or an illustration of it) and compare the key characteristics that make that species unique and different from others. For this reason, types are arguably some of the most important specimens in a collection and a priority for digitisation projects.
Recently, the Museum’s butterfly types have been separated from the main collection into a new seperate collection, making it easier to find, use and reference them. To make these types even more accessible, it was also decided that this collection would be digitised and made available on data.nhm.ac.uk – separate curation first makes digitisation of these collections much more efficient, removing the need to ‘pick and choose’ from many different collections drawers.
We digitised 1000 specimens, covering 220 species. These specimens were collected from 46 countries, representing all continents. The oldest type in this project was designated in 1939 and the newest in 2017.
What’s in a name?
Digitisation isn’t just about capturing an image of a specimen. Before these butterflies were ready for their close ups, extensive curatorial work was needed to prepare the collection, ensuring that each specimen is associated with the correct taxonomic information (e.g. the species and genus names are correct).
Among these specimens, we found various examples that illustrated the importance of this digitisation project. For example, six specimens used to describe the species Cacyreus niebuhri, an African species, in 1982, had no identification labels or registration information when they were found in the mixed collections – they had lost their name!
As part of this project, an investigation was mounted to discover the true identity of these six butterfly types. Fortunately, information about when and where the specimens were collected was available on the labels pinned underneath each butterfly, with a small label from the author stating they were part of a type series.
The specimen labels indicated that they were collected in the Republic of Yemen by “T.B. Larsen” in 1980. A former Scientific Associate of the Museum, Dr Torben Larsen was a world renowned expert on butterflies of Africa and wrote many books on the subject. A search of his name, along with the collection event details from the specimen labels, threw up the only book on butterflies written from the area and at the time of the species’ description in 1982. Although the book is currently out of print, “The Butterflies of the Yemen Arab Republic” is available at the Museum library and had been digitised so we were able to search the text. As we knew the family that these butterflies belong to, we were able to find the description and images of the mysterious specimens and their name. Cacyreus niebuhri – named for the 18th century Danish topographer Carsten Niebuhr, one of five men who took part in an ill-fated expedition to Yemen that saw him as the sole survivor.
Further searching online revealed that Larsen’s book is the only place that any images of this species can be found, including recent revisions and websites describing the species. The images included in the book are of a quality that makes it hard to identify important diagnostic characteristics, and resolution is even lower in the digitised copy of the book. Type specimens are the reference material for any specimen identification, so without access to a detailed image, identifying anything as C. niebuhri becomes extremely difficult, leading to misidentifications or no identifications at all. The quality of the images that we have released on data.nhm.ac.uk help to address this problem.
The Museum’s image of the paratype specimen of Cacyreus niebuhri
The only reference image available for C. niebuhri before this project.
Above left: The Museum’s image of the paratype specimen of Cacyreus niebuhri. Right: The only reference image available for C. niebuhri before this project.
Sharing is caring
By sharing data about our specimens we provide a resource that can be used by the scientific community and the public in a number of ways. One of the reasons museum collections remain such an important scientific resource is because they provide a window into a species’ past, allowing us to compare them over time and space, revealing if and how their distributions have altered with the rapidly changing environment. This all starts with being able to give members of the same species the correct name, so that the comparisons are meaningful.
C. niebuhri, a member of the Lycaenidae family, is endemic to the Republic of Yemen, only occurring on the upper reaches of the wetter mountains of that country. These mountains form part of the Arabian Peninsula ecoregion, a region that supports thousands of unique plants and animals and one that is increasingly under pressure from deforestation and soil erosion. Any work aiming to mitigate these pressures on endemic species needs first to know what species occur in this area so that their populations can be monitored. Comparing individuals currently in the area to a name- bearing type specimen should make this easier.
Dingana alaedeus is another example of an endemic species that the Museum holds type material for. Commonly known as the Wakkerstroom widow, this butterfly is found only in South Africa’s high altitude grasslands at elevations of about 2,000 meters and classified as “Near Threatened” during the 2013 Conservation Assessment of Butterflies for South Africa. Similar to the previous example there is little information relating to this species online, with the same single image being used on several different online resources. In fact, for most of the 220 species we have digitised during this project the images that we have uploaded to the Museum’s Data Portal are the first and only images to be easily accessible online.
Unlocking the Museum’s collections and making them available to all is the mission behind many of our digitisation projects and is one of the Museum’s strategic priorities. There are over 1.5 billion natural history specimens in collections around the world. They have the potential to play a critical role in addressing the most important challenge that humans face over the next years: how to map a sustainable future for ourselves and our changing planet. To see the butterfly types digitised during this project, and over 4.3 million other specimens, visit the Museum’s Data Portal.
Last week the Museum internally launched its new strategy to 2031. It called us to make our data, insight, knowledge and expertise openly available. Strategic priorities included transforming the study of natural history to benefit people and planet as well as training future generations of scientists.
I immediately felt compelled to write about a paper we jointly published on-line this week in the journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology that features our collections. We provided data for a project run by Yale University to create a portal of calcareous plankton called Foraminifera. It can be used to train the scientists of the future and test a machine learning classifier that could generate large datasets vital for research on our oceans.
by Robin Hansen, Curator, Minerals and Gemstones, NHM Earth Sciences
As part of the Galley Enhancements Programme to refresh the Museum’s Earth Galleries Ground Floor, we’ve been working on the specimens to improve the experience for visitors, improve collection visibility and update the science.
Coordinating Lead Author, IPBES Global Assessment and Life Sciences Research Leader at The Natural History Museum, London
The IPBES Global Assessment estimated that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. It also documents how human actions have changed many aspects of nature and its contributions to people; but species threatened with extinction resonate with the media and the public in ways that degradation of habitats and alteration of rates of ecosystem processes perhaps don’t, so the figure was widely reported.
IPBES is the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent intergovernmental body that was established in 2012 to strenthen links between science and policy to support conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development
Because only the Summary for Policymakers has so far been made available, it wasn’t clear where the figure of 1 million threatened species came from. Some journalists and researchers asked me, so I explained it to them, and will explain it again here. Some other writers, often with a long history of commenting critically on reports highlighting environmental concerns, instead railed against the Global Assessment in general and the figure of 1 million threatened species in particular. Given that these writers often advance empty or bogus arguments, I thought it would be also be useful to explain why these arguments are wrong.
I have therefore written this blog post in the form of thirteen questions and answers.
The Petrology collection at the Natural History Museum is home to about 189,000 specimens; from the rock collection to building stones, including ocean bottom deposits. The building stone collection is one of the largest documented collections of its kind in the UK, particularly useful for matching stone in historical buildings during conservation work. Beside rock samples, it features amazing pieces of art, like this paperweight in Derbyshire black marble executed by the skilled hands of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century marble makers of the time Thomas Woodruff.
Continue reading to learn more about the marble masons in Derbyshire, the stone itself, the techniques used to create the objects, and the many other works of art created out of this stone such as Samuel Birley’s table in the V&A collection.
Some rare treasures are hidden within the Petrology collection of the Natural History Museum, and this brunch of a bush, encrusted with sinter, which formed prior to 1886 around hot springs on the shores of the old Lake Rotomahana (warm lake) in New Zealand, is one of them.
At the Natural History Museum our work is based on scientific collecting to support research on the natural world. In our collections we hold naturally occurring chemical elements in many different forms, compounds and combinations, so with many others, we are marking the 150 years since the periodic table was published in 1869 by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev by celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table. We are aiming to cover all of the elements in our collections in a blog, starting with osmium, rhodium and iridium.
During a conversation with colleagues recently, the topic of “How can we judge that our collections are useful” came up. We can measure the number of visitors into the collections and we can keep tabs on the loans that we send to researchers at different institutes, but is this ever useful. I tasked myself this afternoon to finding out, for just one collection that I care for, just how much our collections are used for relevant science.
For my afternoon task, I chose to use the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology (JWIP) as my example collection. The JWIP is a database using old-style cards (over 250 000 cards in fact) of the written literature on organic-walled microfossils (spores, pollen and algal cysts are a few such things). Many researchers on these organic-walled microfossils (called palynologists) visit the Museum to look through this resource every year. Read more about this collection https://bit.ly/2BiRtlb
Picture 1 A fossil dinoflagellate cyst (Apectodinium augustum) barely the size of a grain of sand, one of several groups of organic-walled microfossil
To find out how useful the collection has been for the visiting palynologists, I searched the internet for all of the published scientific papers that acknowledge/cite the JWIP. To my surprise, there were many more articles than I was expecting in the last 10 years alone. Twenty-three scientific papers and three PhD theses (there is also another from 2003 that appears on the first page of the search engine) have presented data that they found using the JWIP. There are possibly more that I have yet to find or have not acknowledged the data (Please researchers, acknowledge where your data comes from!). The current list of publications citing JWIP can be found by clicking here
The research in these publications is quite varied. They range from climate change through the Cenozoic Era to diversity changes over extinction events to understanding new species concepts in some of the oldest organic-walled fossil groups.
This is timely as a piece of work has just been published in the journal Nature Communications by Dr. Hendrik Nowak and his colleagues on the greatest extinction event of all time – the Permian/Triassic mass extinction ~250 million years ago. This study uses extensive data collected during a two-week visit that Hendrik had to the JWIP in 2017. You can read about his work in this blog
Simply acknowledging museum collections might not be on the front of all researchers’ minds, but it does help advocate the use of these important scientific materials. It is fantastic to see that in the last ~10 years, one of our collections has contributed so much and that people have felt the need, without pressure to do so, to acknowledge the resource.
We are trying to put as much information about our collections online, so that researchers understand more about what there really is to study here. Hopefully, this will be a positive step in making even more use of the museum and its incredibly vast resources.
Picture 2 Dr. John Williams in part of his index (Picture taken around 2005)
Read on to find out how NHM/Southampton PhD student Marina Rillo used the microfossil content of these collections to develop a method to assess their usefulness in providing details of the state of the ocean floor as long as 150 years ago.