The Role of Natural History Institutions and Bioinformatics in Conservation Biology



Natural history institutions (museums, herbaria, zoos, aquaria, etc. whether privately owned or existing in conjunction with universities) and the collections they house play a large role in documenting species diversity. Historically, these collections were a rich source of data that ultimately fueled developments in biogeography and systematics and provided the intellectual framework for conservation biology (MacArthur & Wilson 1967; Mayr & Diamond 2001). Collections have also been influential in the application and development of bioinformatic resources such as integrated digital collection databases (Chakrabarty 2010; Pyke & Ehrlich 2010).

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Conservation Biology, I wish to highlight the roles natural history institutions and the bioinformatic resources they marshal play in conservation. Natural history institutions are positioned to benefit conservation biology in the future in three major ways: development and expansion of collection-based research projects and cultivation of the taxonomic expertise necessary to evaluate collection data; expansion of digitization of collections; and engagement of the public through new education and outreach programs.

Collection-Based Research

Collections are the foundation of natural history institutions. The maintenance and expansion of collections are fundamental to the existence of natural history institutions, and collections represent a valuable resource for conservation biologists.

Because collections represent both spatially and temporally precise data, they can be used to reconstruct historical species ranges and assemblages at extents beyond those encompassed by a single researcher's career. Although most collections have been built haphazardly, and therefore may not represent a complete record, the presence data they contain can still be used to estimate species distributions. Additionally, collections can provide historical data on community composition and may be used to help understand which species have been lost from an ecosystem and to set benchmarks for the restoration of those systems (Hoeksema et al. 2011).

Many major natural history institutions have supplemented their traditional collections with tissue collections for genetic research. By building tissue collections researchers can document genetic diversity baselines prior to environmental disturbance, population decline, or the introduction of pathogens (Harper et al. 2006; Parker et al. 2011). Similarly, ancient DNA resources can provide information on the population dynamics and taxonomic status of extinct species (Fleischer et al. 2006; Kirchman et al. 2010). In some cases, ancient DNA can lead to the rediscovery of species that were thought to be extinct (Steeves et al. 2010) or focus attention on conservation of previously overlooked native populations (Sacks et al. 2010).

The scale of ecological perturbation cannot be described unless the species involved are understood. Taxonomy in general is in decline, and although the larger-bodied vertebrate groups are relatively well studied, the number of people with the taxonomic expertise to characterize invertebrate and microbial diversity is wholly insufficient (Wheeler 2007). Natural history collections also serve as a valuable teaching tool for the identification of alpha diversity, which provides the raw material for engaging local scientists and meets a critical need in the training of taxonomists (Smith & Figueiredo 2009).

Collection Digitization

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the advent of low-cost computer processing and the availability of digitization technology led to a major change in how natural history institutions collaborated with each other. Initiatives such as the North American Biodiversity Information Network (NABIN), Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), and Darwin Core/Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) focused on providing access to databases that provide information on the locations where museum samples were collected and by extension the geography of species distributions. The Taxonomic Databases Working Group ( was created to develop interoperability and data standards for reporting metadata on biological diversity, whereas the Integrated Taxonomic Information System ( was created to manage taxonomic data across various U.S. agencies. Because of these successes, digitization of collections continues to be a major focus for natural history institutions (Sarkar 2007; Baird 2010).

Newer publically available bioinformatic portals, such as the Encyclopedia of Life (, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (, the Atlas of Living Australia (, the European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy (, and Vertnet (, highlight what can be accomplished with a concerted effort across multiple institutions. These information resources could be greatly improved by increasing the efficiency and frequency of automatic data collection from their online data partners and by allowing manual updates from the public.

This democratization of information has far-reaching implications for how people use, share, and interact with information in existing collections. Furthermore, digitization can enhance the quality and diversity of information associated with these collections. Minimally, digital collection resources must contain the species collection date and locality. Additional information, such as an image of the specimen, information on behavior, collectors’ field notes, and environmental associations, may be linked if available. In effect, these expanded digital collections reflect a tradition of recording extensive metadata on the specimen as championed by Grinnell (1912).

Digital records are not a replacement for further development of collections; rather, they represent a rethinking of what natural history collections represent and whom they serve. With increasing availability of low-cost, web-accessible mobile devices, these collections have the potential to reach new segments of society currently constrained by geography or economics. Digital collections place high-quality, voucher-referenced information in the hands of managers in species-rich areas who previously found it difficult to access these collections. For example, making collections accessible to government agencies will help with monitoring of invasive species (Sarnat 2008), management of national parks (Stohlgren et al. 1995), and tracking of emergent diseases (Pinto et al. 2010).

Education and Outreach Opportunities

Natural history institutions are in a unique position to convey authoritative information to an engaged audience. By the very act of passing through their doors, visitors are predisposed to learning (National Research Council 2009; Falk et al. 2010). Issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, and renewable energy feature prominently in societal debates. Educating people on these issues will have a real and tangible effect on, for example, conservation policy and, more broadly, on what communities value. Natural history institutions are one of the few forums for direct interaction and communication of objective information between conservation science and the general public.

Natural history institutions are not, nor should they be, strictly entertainment venues. The strength of these institutions is their collections and the research and education the collections are predicated on. This does not mean, however, that the presentation of collections needs to be static. Multiple opportunities exist for institutions to engage with the public in ways that leverage the strength of their collections. For example, the California Academy of Sciences has released an iPhone field guide to Golden Gate Park that includes commonly encountered species, scavenger hunts, and the opportunity for users to upload and share their own species observations ( (Koontz 2010).


There are several challenges facing natural history institutions and their role as nodes within a large, far-reaching bioinformatic network. Some of these, such as lack of funding for both infrastructure and primary research and dwindling taxonomic knowledge, represent serious and chronic challenges for the long-term sustainability of natural history institutions (Agnarsson & Kunter 2007). Other challenges are new and include development of consistent and high throughput technologies for collecting and standardizing collections data (Sarkar 2007; Pyke & Ehrlich 2010).

Collections and the research that they enable are at the core of natural history institutions, and institutions must not rest on collections made 50–100 years ago. Without continued sampling, natural history institutions cannot effectively serve as loci for research on conservation, biogeography, and systematics. Furthermore, new collections must be made with bioinformatics in mind. New systems that allow for the seamless entry of records into multiple linked databases will greatly improve the value of new collections.

An additional challenge is maintaining attendance and public engagement in a time of competing entertainment opportunities. This is where natural history institutions must play to their strengths. Administrators must eschew visually engaging but scientifically light exhibits. There needs to be greater emphasis on substantive exhibits that focus on immersive narratives grounded in empirical data derived from collections-based research. Natural history institutions have an advantage over nonscientific entertainment venues because they have the ability to engage the public in scientific discourse by using collections to display the variety of life in a way that cannot be mimicked through technology.

In 1863 Alfred Russell Wallace issued a call for the role of natural history museums in conservation:

[The collector] looks upon every species of animal and plant now living as the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth's history; and, as a few lost letters may make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this invaluable record of the past.

Wallace's message still has meaning today in that it highlights the role of collections in conservation. He could not have imagined the greatly expanded role of natural history collections in the 21st century that includes bioinformatics resources and digitization networks. Natural history institutions are storehouses of biological diversity. They represent our collected knowledge about species evolution and biogeography, and they provide a critical standard against which to judge future changes in species and ecosystems.


I thank E. Fleishman for support and encouragement. Comments were provided by J. Bates, P. Chakrabarty, K. Feldheim, L. Haney, J. Henss, H. Mays, C. McCord, J. Parham, J. Price, C. Starger, and two anonymous reviewers. Support was provided by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship to J.A.D. (DBI-0805458) and an NSF grant to M. Westneat (DEB-0844745) with additional support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation support of the Encyclopedia of Life.