Avenues for improvement
In my last post, I discussed the state of the world’s plant and fungi collections, as outlined by the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report and conference, put on by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew this week. In this second half, I’ll outline some of the proposed solutions to our collections shortcomings put forward in that report and its accompanying Plants, People, Planet article by Paton and colleagues.
One of the significant weaknesses of our collections as they currently stand is the geographic bias in collection coverage. This is in part because collecting tends to be driven by specific scientific questions and problems rather than attempts to fill gaps. Coordination of the efforts of individual institutions could be achieved through “regional initiatives such as the Latin American Botanical Network, or the Association pour l’Etude Taxonomique de la Flore d’Afrique Tropicale, the Distributed System of Systematic Collections in Europe or international bodies such as the International Mycological Association,” write the authors.
Attempts at coordinated collection in targeted areas will require stable funding infrastructure that provides for both facilities and expertise-building. “Often funding is project based and focused on short-term delivery. It is crucial that long-term national infrastructure is developed which in turn can provide support to shorter-term projects. The creation and support of expertise in collecting, managing, and using collections is also important.”
As a case in point, a coordinated effort in South Africa’s biodiverse but understudied Karoo region brought together more than 20 NGOs, universities, collections institutions and others to collect specimens and describe new plant and fungal species. This new information was then used to inform environmental impact assessments and choices about development in the area. The project was initiated and led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Alongside focussed and coordinated collecting efforts, the report called for an effort to both expand and demonstrate the user base of specimens, as a way to fend off closures and losses of collections. Two ways of accomplishing this are the creation of extended specimens and the use of persistent identifiers.
Extended specimens are vouchers that have linked data such as photos, DNA samples, seeds, associated fungi, etc., that allow wider usage of the specimen. This approach can also be used in concert with citizen science apps, note the authors: “[L]inking field images to specimen data via platforms such as iNaturalist will also assist broader, community level curation. The more complete the data associated with the specimen, the more potential uses it will likely have. A standard method for identifying the extent of digital information available from specimens in a collection is being developed.”
Persistent identifiers for individual specimens will allow reliable linking of herbarium vouchers to other data types, making them more discoverable by and available to potential users. What’s more, unique identifiers can be more easily referenced when specimens are used in published research, making it easier to track usage and citations when funding decisions are being made.
The next step in both expanding specimen usage and adding a layer of protection in the face of events such as fire or other collection loss is digitization. Due to associated costs, digitization has been concentrated in larger, more well-resourced collections, but many of the smaller ones, especially in biodiverse regions, have high-value single and/or rare specimens at risk of loss. The report recommends intensifying digitization activities where possible and earmarking funding for smaller herbaria to be able to do so. As with collecting, targeting of the most important species may be necessary: “Knowledge of the large proportion of collections which are not digitized could be improved by a standardized approach to gathering metadata about the collections, facilitating targeted digitization of non-digitized collections,” write the authors.
Once specimens are digitized, they should be made available to global users via aggregators such as GBIF, where at present, only one in five collections is indexed. This will not only increase usage of collections, but allow a better understanding of the taxonomic coverage of global specimen holdings.
One example of a successful push to increase digitization is GBIF’s Biodiversity Information for Development (BID) programme. This funding programme targeted several regions under-represented in GBIF: sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. To date, it has resulted in “67 new data publishers mobilizing over 1.3 million new occurrences, including 39,000 taxonomic names of which nearly 2,400 were new to the GBIF network,” write the authors. “In addition to mobilizing biodiversity data, the BID programmes directly trained 120 people in data mobilization and use skills and that impact was multiplied to nearly 1,500 people through 66 replication workshops.”
The theme of the solutions proposed by the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report, vis-à-vis collections, is one of expansion: expansion of the user base, of uses for specimens, and of the collections themselves. As with species in the world at large, greater diversity leads to greater value and more stability.