From World Museum’s founding collection of study skins and taxidermy mounts bequeathed by the 13th Earl of Derby to the spirit-preserved amphibians collected by curator Malcolm Largen in the 1980s, World Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology collection has continued to expand and reflect the state-of-the-art in specimen preparation and storage.
As ethics around the sacrifice of animals for science have modernised, ‘traditional’ specimen types are no longer being prepared at the same rates, and growth of the collection has slowed abruptly. At the same time usage of the collection has diversified, including increases in requests for destructive sampling. In particular, the removal of small tissue samples, usually bird toe pad scrapes, is regularly requested for use in DNA extraction which produces a ‘pure’ DNA extract that can be used in a number of genomic investigations.
Wednesday the 8th September saw the opening of the new temporary exhibition ‘Extinct’ at the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man, in partnership with Manx Wildlife Trust, which also coincided with the launch of the Red Data bird list published by Manx BirdLife. There are many species that have become locally extinct on the Isle of Man, particularly birds and plants, and this trend is not slowing down, with the Yellowhammer, once one of our most ubiquitous farmland birds, disappearing from our Island only in 2019. Some may ask how these absences impact our day-to-day lives, why this matters, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, the complexity and variety of our environment is what sustains us; if you knock out enough of the bricks the wall will come tumbling down. These disappearances are symptomatic of a grave state of affairs and islands are particularly sensitive to changes in management and climate. The more protected and supported our environment is, the better it is able to withstand and buffer us from the global shifts that are to come.
When Manx Wildlife Trust came to Manx National Heritage with the idea of this exhibition we were fully on board; learning about these stories of the Isle of Man’s countryside has been a journey, sometimes an upsetting one, but it has also been a call to arms. I had no idea that currently 29% of our current resident bird species, never mind the ones that are already gone, are red listed, and 41% are amber. An estimated forty five species of plant are extinct, seventy seven are red listed. We are still trying to compile what invertebrates and fungi we have, never mind assess what has been lost.
1 Botany & Plant Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, National University of Ireland, Galway; * corresponding author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the main aims of creating online databases of herbarium images (or any data set) is to increase the ease of access for researchers, educators, and other users who may want to obtain data from the specimens without having to physically travel to an herbarium. Online herbarium databases have become particularly useful during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when many herbaria are not allowing or greatly reducing the amount of in-person visitation.
For many herbaria, online databases are still being constructed and ease of access and use can vary significantly between collections. Additionally, while a database may list a certain number of specimens held by the herbarium, it can often be the case that only a subset of these specimens are actually imaged and available to view online. Some herbarium databases are better than others in actually allowing the user to narrow down their search to get the data they are looking for. The databases range in ease of use from ‘very easy’ to ‘usable but frustrating’. Any databases that are too difficult to use often dissuade researchers from using the digital resources available on that database.
Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity.
At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide.
We live at a period in time where we are very familiar with the concept of mass extinctions that are likely to be caused by human intervention (from burning of the rain-forests, hunting and desertification through to global warming). As the years/decades/centuries progress, our preserved plant and animal [by which I mean anything that moves] collections find themselves being useful tools to provide empirical evidence for the causes of the above, outside of their main purpose of pure taxonomy (Thiers 2020: 219-242).
Following the recent closure of Kew’s Red Listing department, conservation is a subject that readily springs to mind. With c. 390 million specimens contained within the World’s herbaria, information captured in specimen labels has ultimately provided the data for calculating the Area of Occupancy and Extent of Occurrence, both of which play a large part in assessing the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red listing of a plant.
I am lucky to work with a specialist herbarium collection – one that contains ornamental plants based at RHS Garden Wisley. Yes, highly unlikely to play a role in an IUCN assessment, but all the same, a dried ornamental plant collection does play a vital role in conservation. Whilst Plant Heritage aims to conserve living plants, a herbarium that specialises in ornamentals (cultivars) can preserve material of long lost or even recently lost garden plants.