Saturday, April 1, 2017

People don't understand the value of biodiversity collections

An American university's decision to eliminate its natural history collection to make room for, no joke!, a running track is currently making the news. Apparently, if no other institution takes it by July it will be destroyed; and of course other institutions are likely operating under tight budgets and have no space to accommodate millions of additional specimens at short notice.

To expand on what I commented at another website:

Collection specimens are the basis of research because whenever scientists present data - morphology, anatomy, cytology, chemistry, DNA - they need to refer to the specimen ("voucher") they got them from, and that specimen needs to be deposited at an accessible, curated collection, so that the research is reproducible. I am not talking Arabidopsis, zebra fish or fruit flies here, but if somebody is doing work on non-model organisms serious journals will not publish a paper unless each data point is vouchered.

Collection specimens are the basis of research because more and more of them are databased, resulting in large databases such as GBIF or ALA, which are then used by species distribution modellers, biogeographers, conservation scientists etc. to conduct spatial studies that would have been unthinkable even just 20 years ago. And who knows what people will come up with in another 20 years? Think about it: millions and millions of data points saying "this individual was found at this time of the year in this location so and so many years ago, and according to this expert it belonged to this species". This is an invaluable resource for research.

Collections are, of course, our only access to specimens from the past. I have seen a talk by a researcher who used insect specimens collected over decades to study how pesticide resistance evolved and spread in a population, hoping to gain knowledge that will be useful for pest management in the future. Without broadly and deeply sampled natural history collections such research would be impossible.

Collections are also our only access to specimens of species that have since gone extinct. Just yesterday I handled two specimens of a plant that was last collected in the 19th century and is presumed extinct; but with modern techniques you could now study its genome! Again, who knows what other things we can do with 150 year old herbarium specimens in fifty years, things that we would not have expected to be possible?

Finally, collection specimens represent a massive investment. Even while acknowledging that they are not really replaceable because you will never again be able to collect in 1859 or from an area that is now covered in apartment blocks, natural history collections can be valued based on how much it would cost to replace them, in the sense of collecting the same number of specimens again. This includes work hours, fuel and other transport costs, equipment, specimen processing, databasing, and much more. People should look at that number and realise that this is the value that they have the responsibility to safeguard. It is not only part of our cultural heritage, it is also an investment that should not be thrown away merely to make room for a sports facility.

And make no mistake, the number that comes out of such a valuation is always going to be in "holy s***, no way" territory even for a small university museum, the kind of number that will make the institution's accountants break out in cold sweat. What is more, the specimens do not depreciate - they only become more valuable over time, because, again, you can perhaps go back and replace a specimen that was collected five years ago in the forest next door but not one that was collected two hundred years ago where the forest has since been turned into pasture.

As I have written before, I am constantly astonished that people would even so much as consider destroying a biodiversity collection, not least because the same people would not do the same to a humanities collection. Seriously, can you imagine what would happen if they said, "if you can't find somebody else to take it, we will throw all our Rembrandt and Dali paintings into the trash" or "either find a new building, or our collection of bronze age artifacts goes to landfill"?

No comments:

Post a Comment