Biological Collections Are Vital to Preserving Species in the Face of Climate Change

The general perception is that while biological collections are mildly interesting, they are largely irrelevant to our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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Among the many different resources that scientists will use to try to forestall some of the effects of climate change, the nation's treasure trove of preserved plants, animals, and microscopic organisms is undoubtedly one of the least known to most people. But these biological collections represent a very powerful tool for understanding how climate change is likely to affect life on Earth.

Our nation has a rich heritage in such collections, which are held at about 1,000 scientific research institutions such as universities, natural history museums, and botanical gardens. What are in these collections? They consist of such things as the skeletons and skins of mammals, birds and reptiles; fossils, tissue samples, and fish and spiders preserved in fluid; dried plants and fungi glued to stiff paper or stored in boxes; and tiny organisms on microscope slides. Although no one knows exactly, we estimate that there are approximately one billion preserved specimens in the U.S. that have been gathered by scientists and explorers since the 1700s.

When most people think about biological collections, they probably envision the stuffed bear they saw on a school trip to a museum or the creatures that came to life in Night at the Museum. The general perception is that while such things are mildly interesting, they are largely irrelevant to our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Similar to the core samples of Antarctic ice that allow climate scientists to reconstruct Earth's past atmosphere, biological specimens provide the only hard evidence we have about what organisms lived where in past times and where they live now. This information is key to just about everything we need to know about how to preserve life in the future.

Climate change is likely to affect all life on Earth. Species may go extinct because they can no longer find a suitable habitat. Relationships among organisms (for example, between bees and pollen-producing plants) may be disrupted, posing a threat to important food crops that rely on pollination. If a group of native species can no longer thrive in a particular environment because the climate has changed, invasive species and parasites may move in or kill plants and animals we depend on. Such disruptions in our environment could result in the poisoning of our water supply (as happened recently with the algal boom in Lake Erie), and food shortages due to crop failure.

A deeper understanding of life on Earth in the past can help us predict and possibly mitigate the worst impacts of climate change in the future, but until recently, the information held in biological collections was difficult to access without seeing the specimens in person. However, now it is possible for collections all across the country to digitize their holdings and share their data online. Such data includes at minimum the name of the organism and where, when and by whom it was collected. High-resolution digital images of the specimens are usually included as well.

This work has accelerated greatly since 2010 when a team of collections professionals and scientists created the Networked Integrated Biodiversity Collections Alliance (NIBA), with support from a wide range of professional societies. NIBA called for the digitization of as many biodiversity collections as possible during the next decade and for sharing data through a common Web-based portal. In response, the National Science Foundation established a ten-year program called Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC), which so far has awarded funds for the digitization of approximately 73 million specimens of plants, fungi, insects, fish, mollusks, and fossils, as well as bird song recordings.

With funding from the ADBC program, The New York Botanical Garden is currently digitizing specimens of invasive plant species, as well as those predated by aphids and scale insects. We are also digitizing all of our North American collections of algae, fungi, and mosses. In total, through projects currently funded through ADBC, we will digitize nearly one million of our 7.4 million herbarium specimen holdings. These digitization projects provide employment for 15 recent college graduates.

How exactly will this enormous nationwide undertaking help us in managing the negative effects of climate change? The data generated from biological collections will allow us to understand what environmental conditions have the most effect on where an organism lives and how changes in those conditions will affect them. As vast amounts of digitized data from the nation's biological collections become available, scientists will use computer modeling techniques to make these projections. Patterns will emerge from this research about which plants, animals, and other organisms tend to live together and how the loss of one might affect others.

Armed with a deeper understanding of these relationships, we will be in a better position to monitor the health of an ecosystem using bellwether or indicator species and may be able to restore a damaged ecosystem by re-establishing key species that were lost. Such information will empower all of us, from managers of large areas such as our national parks to individual homeowners, to understand the threats to our biodiversity, to recognize detrimental changes, and to take action to restore the natural balance that will protect us and the millions of other species with which we share the planet.

This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (that was held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.