Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

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“My Work Is What Will Survive”

Written by Mandeep Matharu, Yvette Harvey & Matthew Biggs.

These were the words of one of the pioneering plant cytologists, E. K. Janaki Ammal, who worked at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Wisley from 1946-51, and was their first female scientist. She studied the chromosomes of a wide variety of plants from magnolias to eggplants and sugarcane in addition to medicinal plants, leaving numerous scientific papers, herbarium specimens, and a large number of small, round-headed Magnolia on Wisley’s Battleston hill (Gardiner, 2012), including one bearing the name M. kobus ‘Janaki Ammal’, a vigorous, multi-stemmed tree, over 6m tall and wide, producing masses of white flowers over several weeks of Spring (Biggs, 2018).

Although Janaki’s life is documented within a small number of articles about her and her work, very little has been reported about her years at the RHS and we attempt to rectify that here.

Magnolia kobus at the RHS ©RHS

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Oldfield Thomas: In His Own Words.

Written by Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals, The Natural History Museum.

One could think that natural history curators are a kind of unidimensional creature because of their secretive nature (preference for collections habitat over open exposed museum public galleries) and their passion verging on obsession for the specimens they look after.

However I like to think that much has been done in the 21st century to change this perception and that our consistent and abundant presence in social media and public events sufficiently demonstrates that we are actually well-rounded human beings capable of entertaining a wide range of interests.

For instance, I myself, am known to be partial to a bit of heavy metal, chocolate spread sandwiches (Wild World Magazine, 2013), have a gentle interest in poetry (Waterhouse Times, 2006) and even have indulged my thespian side by making brief appearances on celluloid alongside Javier Bardem (Mondays in the Sun, 2002) …and therefore, aside from my professional interests, I do enjoy exploring other aspects of my personality and sharing the joy with the world.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – May

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What’s New?

Many of us are freshly returned from a very successful NatSCA Conference, featuring over 20 speakers, trade stands and stores tours. We will be hearing more from them in the coming weeks. Watch this space on the 31st May! In the meantime you can catch up on their exploits by reading the Twitter stream.

In other conference-related news: The Royal Society Sexual Selection Conference is going on as we speak. As before, you can read all about it at the Twitter stream.

In the meantime, I’ve been on a Tyrannosaurus pilgrimage across the Mid-West. I visited some that I can talk about and others that I can’t yet but all of it was very informative.

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The preparators hard at work re-mounting Sue at the Field Museum

Not content with rocking the conference, Jack Ashby has been tearing it up at PubSci too, regaling us with tales from his new book. From cats that are killing Australia, to unrepresented penis worms – the talk was engaging and generated copious questions.

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Why not apply for our £2000 Bill Pettit fund?

NatSCA is pleased to invite applications to this year’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award. Up to £2,000 of grant money, is available to NatSCA members this year to support projects including the conservation, access and use of natural science collections.

If you’re not a member, just join us then submit your application!

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

Charles Arthur William ‘Bill’ Pettit (1937-2009) started his career with the National Institute of Oceanography but moved to the Manchester Museum in 1975 to become Assistant Keeper of Zoology. In his time at Manchester, Bill worked tirelessly for the collections and was instrumental in projects such as FENSCORE as well as numerous publications. It is in recognition of his commitment to natural science collections that we would like to offer this annual award.

Each project will be considered on its own merits by the NatSCA committee and the committee’s decision, including not awarding any money that year, will be final. To apply please put together a 700 word project proposal, which must include:

• The name, contact details and status (e.g. charity, individual, local authority) of the applicant
• The project title and proposed outcomes and benefits
• How the project supports conservation, or access to and use of Natural Science collections
• Detailed costs
• Accurate timescale (including any work undertaken so far and the project end date)
• Details of other funding/match funding already secured for the project

Grants will be considered on an annual basis in January.

Deadline for 2017 applications: Friday 17th November

Successful applicants are required to produce a report/article on their project for publication in either NatSCA Notes & Comments or the Journal of Natural Science Collections before payment.

Applications are open to NatSCA individual or institutional members only.

Please contact David Gelsthorpe (david.gelsthorpe@manchester.ac.uk, 0161 3061601) for further information or to submit a grant application.

NatSCA Digital Digest – August

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What Should I Read?

I encourage you to read Darren Naish‘s recent post on the “Mountain Beaver”, an unusual rodent which is not a member of the beaver family, nor is it mountain-dwelling. The article also goes into other members of the aplodontoidea so, if you like horned extinct cousins of the squirrel (of course you do), it’s well worth a read.

Why do all the beautiful things crack? Paintings by old masters, antique furniture, … and historical taxidermy. The Grant Museum has been running a project where they take their important taxidermy specimens in for essential conservation work and place stuffed toys on display in their place. A chance to see Jack Ashby‘s favourite teddy? You’d be crazy not to. For an example of the beautiful restoration work carried out by Lucie Mascord, check out this piece on the Owl Formerly Known as Googly-eyed.

What Should I Do?

What are you doing on the 22nd September? Keep it free if you can because we have a great workshop event coming up called Bringing the Dead to Life: How to Display Museum Natural Science. Among other things, you will hear testimonies from the Lapworth Museum, who were recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year.

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Portrait of a Sensitive, Armoured Snout

Unraveling an ancient mystery

Picturing the world of the prehistoric is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle: one in which each new piece starts a whole new puzzle. Your pieces are scattered across all the museum stores in the world or weathering out of the ground. The quality is variable and some of the pieces are warped. In some cases we get lucky and find an immaculately preserved specimen, like the ones being uncovered in China, with evidence of soft tissue still preserved. In other cases, we must rely on osteological correlates in living animals to work out what’s going on.

Palaeontologist Mark Witton recently wrote a post about a group of predatory dinosaurs called abelisaurs. These animals have a rough, cornified texture to their skulls. Living animals with a comparable bone texture usually have hardened, reinforced skin. Hippopotamus faces regularly endure blows from rival hippo teeth and, while scarring occurs, lasting damage is usually avoided. Some theropod dinosaurs* show bite scars on their faces which suggest that something similar was happening with these too. Hardened, armoured skin would be very useful here. However…

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