Merlijn Jocque

Digitization-identification pipeline accelerates museum collection management

Curating Natural History Museum collections includes cataloging all material and making the information available to scientists worldwide. This is a daunting task for the millions of invertebrates in collections. Bringing some structure in these collections is challenging because many specimens lack identification or are sometimes even misidentified. Finding the correct name for invertebrates requires an up-to-date knowledge of the taxonomic status of the group and often a decent amount of experience to look at the right diagnostic features to recognize the individual species. For this reason, taxonomic experts are generally invited to contribute to the identification process. Classically, this meant to either send the material to the expert or have the expert visit the collections. Sending specimens is expensive and risky, there are several recent examples of type material that was “lost” at international borders. To help with this challenge, BINCO developed a digitalization-identification pipeline which was based on volunteers and a cheap setup of a point-and-shoot camera. This method limits the material that needs to be exchanged with taxonomic experts and accelerates the identification process and the organization of natural history collections.

In a pilot project, BINCO digitized all specimens and associated information of the genus Calligrapha (Coleoptera - Chrysomelidae) in the collections of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science (RBINS). In collaboration with the taxonomic expert Jesús Gómez-Zurita, the identification of specimens was accelerated. This allowed the reorganization of this part of the RBINS collection. Results of this project were published in the journal Biodiversity Informatics and can be found here.

Why biological exploration is still needed in modern times

We are living in a world with a high demand for living space, a cost paid for by sacrificing parts of our natural capital. Natural ecosystems today are disappearing faster than ever before. Scientists simply do not have the resources to document all organisms in these fading regions before they go extinct. Organisms in these regions include many scientifically unknown species, undisclosed and possibly never encountered by scientists before. We can only guess what lifeforms have been irreversibly lost already. Conservation organizations have a hard time prioritizing nature to protect. Limited resources allow an effective conservation of only a few priority conservation areas. The remaining, also valuable, regions are waiting for a less fortunate future. Additionally a biodiversity knowledge gap creates uncertainty with every decision.

This story also applies to parts of Northern Mozambique. Off limits for a long time due to ongoing civil unrest, the region largely remains terra incognita in its biodiversity. As the situation normalized and the economy is gaining momentum, a growing population is rapidly affecting the natural ecosystems. The deforestation rates of miombo woodland around Lichinga, for example, are messengers for a bad time to come for local natural resources. The question for priority conservation areas in this massive region is on the table. Funded by the CEPF (Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund), RGS (Royal Geographical Society) and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in collaboration with the Museu De História Natural de Maputo, an expedition was mounted to assess the biodiversity on the Njesi plateau, and evaluate the potential as a KBA (Key Biodiversity Area). Receiving the label of KBA would place the region within the group of globally recognized priority conservation areas that are prioritized in conservation efforts. The expedition was in close collaboration with the Rift Valley Corporation that through the LAGRI conservation initiative strives to a sustainable use of natural resources and protection of selected biodiversity hotspots in a large region north of Lichinga.

Preliminary findings of the expedition are promising. The experience of the Belgian wildlife documentary maker Pim Niesten on the BES (Biodiversity Express Survey) in 2016 to the Njesi plateau in northern Mozambique coordinated by BINCO, can be viewed here.