Biodiversity Specimen-Based Data for Studying Global Change: pros, gaps, and action!



While world leaders were gathering in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21), more than 40 enthusiastic scientific researchers from iDigBio, NSF-funded Thematic Collection Networks (TCNs), and collaborating institutions gathered at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St Louis, MO for a two-day workshop (2-3 December 2015) entitled Using Biodiversity Specimen-Based Data to Study Global Change.  Conceived by iDigBio's Larry Page and Pam Soltis and hosted by Missouri Botanical Garden's James Miller and Peter Hoch, the workshop examined the use of digitized specimen-based data for the study of global change, including climate change, landscape modification, and invasive species, and address the issue of geographic and taxonomic data gaps in the currently available natural history collections data. The workshop began with a summary of the gaps in biodiversity data due to digitization priorities related to research, institutional decisions, and funding (Gil Nelson) and the utility of and resources available through the iDigBio portal and API (Renato Figueiredo). The presentations then turned to highlighting examples of studies of global change utilizing specimen-based data.  

Rosemary Gillespie kicked off the research session speaking about integrating biological collections data with environmental data, both biotic and abiotic, using Holos, the University of California-Berkeley Ecoinformatics Engine, to model the distribution of taxa through time and space in the face of global change. Thinking about the hydrological implications of change on biodiversity, particularly that of freshwater species, was the focus of Jason Knouft's talk.  John LaSalle described the data and visualization tools available through the Atlas of Living Australia.  Volker Mosbrugger described the modular digitization of collections and data standards implemented - the service module and research module - at Senckenberg, Frankfurt, and the efforts of gfbio (German Federation for biological data) in facilitating training, data sharing and data intensive biological science research. Paulo Borges described the biodiversity portal for the Azores - Portal da Biodiversidade dos Açores - and PORBIOTA. Mark Schildhauer described DataONE and SNAP, and the importance of terminology harmonization, ontologies and semantic platforms for discoverability and usability. Jorge SoberonErin Saup and Charlotte Germain-Aubrey concluded the session by describing their niche-model research using paleontological and neontological museum collections.

The final session of the day consisted of rapid communications from iDigBio's Deb Paul and TCN representatives outlining current research projects resulting from digitization initiatives.  Broad topics discussed included species distribution and communities through time and space, gap analysis, functional biodiversity, biodiversity as it relates to ecosystems/earth sciences, systematics and taxonomy, effects of climate on biodiversity, and conservation assessment and planning.  The 15 TCN presentations, along with notes from all of the discussion groups, can be found on the workshop Wiki.

Participants felt that among the greatest needs for effective specimen-based global change research were enhanced georeferencing of data and an indication of the accuracy of locality; training in understanding data quality and use, addressing taxonomic impediments; filling data gaps through internationalization, institution-wide and research focussed digitzation, and continuing to develop efficient digitization workflows, tools, algorithms, and ontologies for extracting essential types of environmental and life-history information, such as phenology, habitat, associated species. The digitization of ancillary materials such as field notes and linking of specimen data to molecular and chemical data would also provide useful information for global change studies.

The workshop participants were fortunate to explore the Missouri Botanical Garden's pre-Linnean book collection in the Peter H. Raven Library hosted by Doug Holland, were given a tour of the herbarium collections housed in the Monsanto Center from Jim Miller & Jim Solomon, heard the stories and saw the tools of book conservator Susan Cobbledick,  and roamed the festive Garden Glow display in the living collections, ending a productive and inspiring meeting. 

Several workshops and outreach activities at professional meetings are already in process - stay tuned for more information.

-- Shelley James & Larry Page