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Plant and animal collections go online

Swiss natural history collections house 41 million objects. NMBE/Schäublin

Swiss researchers are planning to create an online database of the estimated 345,000 type specimens in Switzerland - the original plant or animal material used to describe new species.

This content was published on August 31, 2003 - 11:47

They hope to find out exactly what natural history objects are stored in museums, botanical gardens and herbariums around the country.

The mammoth task requires about SFr20 million ($15 million) to get off the ground and an unprecedented level of coordination between hundreds of different collections.

The major challenge is that the number of type specimens - not to mention the number of species worldwide - is simply unknown.

“Estimates of the number of known species globally vary from 1.5 to 2.5 million,” Peter Linder, director of the institute for systematic botany at Zurich University, told swissinfo.

“The number of anticipated species is anything from five to 30 million so we know only a relatively small number.”

To add to the confusion, some species are known under several different names.

In the plant kingdom, about a million names describe what are believed to be between 200,000 and 450,000 species. This means that there are between two and five names on average per species.

“Only one name is the correct name because we only use the oldest name, but the other names also exist and that means that there can be more names than species and consequently more type specimens than species,” explained Linder.

Easy reference

The botanical institute’s collection in Zurich boasts about three million specimens.

A bomb shelter underneath the building houses about 10,000 type specimens of which 15 per cent have been databased so far.

Most of the specimens are pressed and dried and mounted on sheets of paper along with information such as where and when they were collected and what they were used for.

Creating an online database of all 350,000 type specimens would be a huge boon as the current system is not terribly user-friendly.

“We have all this information in the collections but it is very hard to get at,” said Linder. “It is a bit like going to a library and looking for a book amongst three million books without a card index.”

Historical collections

If the number of known species is one and a half million, Switzerland's estimated 345,000 type specimens is a surprisingly high number for a small, landlocked country which has never been a colonial power.

Geneva boasts an enormous plant collection thanks to, among others, the activities of the de Candolle family in the 19th century who were internationally known botanists.

Other collectors included priests or schoolteachers who were sent to a particular area such as New Caledonia or Paraguay and gathered what took their fancy.

When species disappear from a particular area, sometimes the only record of them having occurred there are these collections.

"The only way we really know when plant species have gone extinct is when we've got herbarium specimens of them but we can't find them in the wild anymore, so it's a unique record of past life over the past couple of centuries," said Linder.

Global concern

Only a tiny fraction of the total holdings in Switzerland have been digitalised so far. Part of the problem is that the objects are scattered throughout hundreds of cantonal, communal, city and school collections.

A national network would provide access to these web-based products, meaning that someone looking for natural history material of a particular orchid species, for instance, would not have to search every single collection in Switzerland.

Linder said several other European countries had a significant advantage in this respect.

“In Germany, France or Britain, the bulk of the natural history collections are held by state institutions centred in one great big building somewhere or at least coordinated by one commission.”

Data is put on the web by picture associated with family name, genus, country of origin and species name, so it is possible to search for any of these combinations.

Other products are being developed which allow direct identification of material on the web.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility is an organisation, which helps the transfer of information between scientists and countries.

Many researchers in Switzerland would like Bern to upgrade from associate to full membership so it can share its resources with other countries.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

It is believed that there are between 1.5 and 2.5 million known species worldwide.
The number of anticipated species varies from five to 30 million.
Very little is known about 99 per cent of identified plants and animals.
According to some estimates, at least a third of all species will die out in the next ten to 20 years.

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