Natural History Museums Go Digital in a Boon for Science
Until the 1990s, at many prominent natural history museums, the staff would ritually log new specimens into their collections much as they did 200 years ago, using a pen dipped in India ink to inscribe the details into a leather-bound volume.
It was Dickensian, and reliance on that sort of record keeping at museums everywhere was a major impediment to knowing where different specimens were located. That made it difficult, at best, for scientists to put those specimens to work making sense of our world. But this old roadblock is rapidly disappearing because of the digitization of specimens at museums around the world. At the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, recently, entomologist Eulàlia Gassó Miracle showed me how it works.
First, we took a look at what it’s like for scientists to begin to make sense of a collection that hasn’t been properly sorted—specifically tens of thousands of swallowtail butterflies collected by a Dutch physician, JMA van Groenendael, working in Java in the 1930s. A drawer-size sorting box held a dusty jumble of 20 or so of these specimens at a time, each contained in a wax-paper envelope or a page of a colonial newspaper neatly folded into a triangle. The job was to open each specimen, photograph it, identify the species, record the information in a database, and place it in a properly labeled archival envelope for permanent storage. Now and then a rare specimen would be set aside to be pinned, or mounted, as if alive, in a collection drawer.
Van Groenendael and his wife had survived in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, said Gassó, and his collection came back to him only through the help of a Javanese colleague. But most of the villages (or kampongs) where he collected no longer exist, and most of the old forests are now palm oil plantations and rice paddies.
Next Gassó led me to a collection room downstairs to show me how much easier it gets once you have digitized a collection. She picked up a handheld scanner, like the ones used at checkout counters, and with a flash of red light read the label on the front of the drawer and displayed its contents on a nearby computer screen: males and females of Southeast Asia’s common birdwing butterfly, Troides helena. (Check out this short video by Naturalis on the digitizing process.)
In the past, a researcher wanting to know more about a particular specimen would have had to pull up the pin and slide off as many as five or six fragile paper labels on which the collector had written detailed information in tiny chicken scratch. Instead, with another flash of her bar code scanner, Gassó displayed all the labels instantly on a computer screen.
Moreover, these details—increasingly including genetic data for many species—are now visible not just in Leiden but to anyone interested, anywhere in the world, free and on demand through websites like iDigBio.org and gbif.org (the Global Biodiversity Information Facility) or the Naturalis center’s own Bioportal. That universal access matters because most of the world’s natural history museums, and most of the preserved specimens, are in industrialized nations. But most of the undescribed species are in a handful of nations with emerging economies, such as Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Philippines. Digitizing collections gives scientists in those countries easy access to their own natural history. It makes natural history collections less colonial and more global and democratic.
It also matters because digitized collections make it much easier for scientists to locate specimens anywhere in the world and put them to work in their research. Thus digitized specimen collections are helping to answer questions about the natural range of different species and to predict whether they will be able to adapt to climate change. They are also helping to document the spread of invasive species and patterns of extinction.
Digitized specimen collections allow scientists to answer novel questions about how the world works. For instance, many butterflies have eyespots on the upper surface of their wings, and the long-standing theory is that they serve to scare off potential predators. But Antónia Monteiro, a biologist at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, wanted to know how those eyespots got there in the first place. Digitization enabled her to examine a broad sampling of nymphalid butterflies. Sophisticated bioinformatics software identified specimens with eyespots and coded the location and size of the spots.
Monteiro then overlaid that data onto the evolutionary history of nymphalid butterflies and traced the origin of eyespots back 90 million years. Weirdly, she found that the first eyespots were small and in the wrong place, hidden on the underside of the hind wing. It took millions of years of evolution—and many, many butterflies being eaten by predators—for the eyespots to enlarge and migrate to a more useful position on the upper side of the forewings.
At this stage, only about 10 percent of specimens in collections worldwide are available through digitization. It will require a substantial commitment of time and money to complete the job. But as this trend strengthens, it makes natural history collections far more relevant to the pressing scientific questions of our day. As Monteiro’s research demonstrates, it may also help the museums that maintain these collections regain some of the sense of wonder embodied in a question like “Where did the butterfly get its spots?”