Thank you, Patrick Sweeney, for shining light on your work and on the necessity to support digitization efforts in our museums. This was our most recent Tilde Cafe event.
In 2015, Tilde Cafe attendees heard about the significance of digitizing cultural artifacts, from Holly Rushmeier. And while the challenges in digitizing things ranging from monuments to ancient writings on parchment seemed formidable, it’s clear that digitizing biological specimens has its own set of very unique challenges.
Broadly speaking, there are at least two challenges when it comes to dealing with biological specimens – the first, that biodiversity is shrinking; and the second, innumerable specimens that lie in collections across the world are waiting to be identified.
According to some calculations there are between 6-10 million species on earth (land and water included; microbial species may be almost a trillion). Not every species is represented in a collection, and many will become extinct before a collector has a chance to catalog them. Even so, collectors have been working assiduously for the greater good, collecting and cataloging specimens for centuries. In fact there are about 350 million botanical specimens across the world.
Collecting is the start of the process. And because studying and describing each collected specimen requires a special kind of dedication, some 70,000 collected specimens are still untouched and not described. According to some estimates, it can take an average of 36 years between collecting a specimen and having it described. There have been instances when the gap was as long as 150 years – a fruit-eating bat from the Samoan island of Upolu was collected in 1856 but was only described in 2009, by which time the species was extinct!
One reason for the gap between collection and description is the accessibility to collected specimens. Typically, if a researcher wants to study a specimen that is housed at a distant museum, she must either go to that museum or request the specimen be shipped from the museum. And because some specimens might be fragile, shipping might not be a feasible option. This makes digitization an extremely attractive option. Researchers, museum curators, software designers and a number of other specialists continue to work in partnership to develop methods to digitize with the highest fidelity, not only the specimen but also all the details related to its collection.
Using his recent experience at the Yale Herbarium and his previous experiences handling collections at other institutions, Patrick gave us a peek into this exciting branch of science which plays an integral part in us understanding the past of our planet, and guiding us into its future. These collections can help reconstruct important climatic and geological events that have led us to where we are today, and in doing so inform us on how to perhaps buck the current trend in climate change. It was clear from what we learnt that there is a need to do both – enhance digitization capabilities, and also keep adding to the invaluable natural history specimen collections across the globe. Between the time we had our last talk on biodiversity by Michael Donoghue in 2009, and this recent talk about large-scale digitization of natural specimens, we have lost a few thousand species – some of which likely remained uncollected and whose details we will never know; and others that are carefully held in a collection somewhere on this planet, waiting to be described!
Thanks again, Patrick – all of us present were inspired to view and consider our environment more closely, and appreciate even more the fine work done by collectors and curators! And of course, visit these websites to learn more about digitization and biodiversity, and perhaps get involved as citizen scientists: https://www.idigbio.org/, http://www.gbif.org/ and http://collections.peabody.yale.edu/search/
You can view this recent Tilde Cafe event here: https://youtu.be/xwGYDVqwdTE
Our next event will be on December 3, 2016. Professor Lynne Regan will tell us about “The What, Why, and How of Proteins“. Watch this space for more details.
Until then, enjoy November’s gusty gale and flop your flippy tail!*
*In November’s gusty gale I will flop my flippy tail
And spout hot soup-I’ll be a whale!
Spouting once, spouting twice
Spouting chicken soup with rice
– Maurice Sendak