The growth and decline of herbaria

Natural History for the Future of Ecology

Biosciences has a couple of free access papers out on Natural History. Natural History’s Place in Science and Society is a 17 author call for action by Tewksbury et al calling on some biologists to identify as Natural Historians.

Musée national d'Histoire naturelle
Musée national d’Histoire naturelle. Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr

The concept puzzled me slightly. I come from a History of Science background and I’m used to thinking of Natural History as the thing that’s not quite Science in the ancient world. Tewksbury et al have a better definition:

[N]atural history is the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central.

It’s the second half of the definition that makes the paper interesting and distinct from Biology. The paper gives a number of examples to explain why they think Natural History has a contribution to make in the 21st century, but at the heart of them all is the focus on organisms and their connection to the environment. The connectivity and inter-disciplinary character of Natural History should be part of the zeitgeist, but the authors show this is not the case.

The growth and decline of herbaria
Number of registered herbaria (left) and growth rate (number of herbaria added per year – right), in each of 7 regions of the globe. © Tewksbury et al (2014)

The paper shows we may be approaching peak herbaria. In some parts of the world some herbaria are added each year, but in North America and Europe the trend is toward consolidation. The politics of academia with grant income and cost-per-student for teaching are also stated as problems.

American Institute of Biological Sciences (who produce BioScience) have opened a forum to discuss the issues. They also have another free paper available that will be published in May’s BioScience: Scientific Natural History: Telling the Epics of Nature by Walter R. Tschinkel and Edward O. Wilson.

Epic is an evocative word, but justified. They use Wilson’s work with fire ants as an example of how tracking the behaviour of one species illuminates many different questions about adaptation, reproduction and ecological impact.

Another take on the epic approach is Craig Moritz’s talk on the Grinnell Resurvey Project. Joseph Grinnell founded his museum as a snapshot of biodiversity in the early 20th century. The resurvey can now look across a century of change and can be epic in timescale as well as area. The resurvey happens in the field, but it only makes sense if there is also the support of careful curation in the museum to compare against.

For more information about how Tewksbury et al hope to rally Natural Historians you should visit the Natural History Initiative, which they’re promoting with a multimedia website.


Tewksbury J. et al. (2014). Natural History’s Place in Science and Society, Bioscience, DOI:

Tschinkel W.R. & Wilson E.O. (2014). Scientific Natural History: Telling the Epics of Nature, BioScience, DOI:


Musée national d’Histoire naturelle by Trey Ratcliff / Flickr. [cc]by-nc-sa[/cc]

Number of registered herbaria… from Natural History’s Place in Science and Society © Tewksbury et al (2014)

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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