Research Spotlight: December 2019

Tue, 2019-12-03 13:30 -- jvgoodwin

Assessment of North American arthropod collections: prospects and challenges for addressing biodiversity research

Article contributed from Neil Cobb and Larry Gall from the SCAN TCN.
Over 300 million arthropod specimens are housed in North American natural history collections. These collections represent a “vast hidden treasure trove” of biodiversity −95% of the specimen label data have yet to be transcribed for research, and less than 2% of the specimens have been imaged. Specimen labels contain crucial information to determine species distributions over time and are essential for understanding patterns of ecology and evolution, which will help assess the growing biodiversity crisis driven by global change impacts. Specimen images offer indispensable insight and data for analyses of traits, and ecological and phylogenetic patterns of biodiversity. 
We recently published a review in PeerJ ( of North American arthropod collections using two key metrics, specimen holdings and digitization efforts, to assess the potential for collections to provide needed biodiversity data. We include data from 223 arthropod collections in North America, with an emphasis on the United States.
Our specific findings are as follows: 
(1) The majority of North American natural history collections (88%) and specimens (89%) are located in the United States. Canada has comparable holdings to the United States relative to its estimated biodiversity. Mexico has made the furthest progress in terms of digitization, but its specimen holdings should be increased to reflect the estimated higher Mexican arthropod diversity. The proportion of North American collections that has been digitized, and the number of digital records available per species, are both much lower for arthropods when compared to chordates and plants. 
(2) The National Science Foundation’s decade-long ADBC program (Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections) has been transformational in promoting arthropod digitization. However, even if this program became permanent, at current rates, by the year 2050 only 38% of the existing arthropod specimens would be digitized, and less than 1% would have associated digital images. 
(3) The number of specimens in collections has increased by approximately 1% per year over the past 30 years. We propose that this rate of increase is insufficient to provide enough data to address biodiversity research needs, and that arthropod collections should aim to triple their rate of new specimen acquisition (Figure 1). 
(4) The collections we surveyed in the United States vary broadly in a number of indicators. Collectively, there is depth and breadth, with smaller collections providing regional depth and larger collections providing greater global coverage (Table 1). 
(5) Increased coordination across museums is needed for digitization efforts to target taxa for research and conservation goals and address long-term data needs. Two key recommendations emerge: collections should significantly increase both their specimen holdings and their digitization efforts to empower continental and global biodiversity data pipelines, and stimulate downstream research (Schindel and Cook, 2018; Lendemer et al, 2019).
Cobb NS, Gall LF, Zaspel JM, Dowdy NJ, McCabe LM, Kawahara AY.  2019. Assessment of North American Entomology Collections: Prospects and Challenges for Addressing Biodiversity Research. PeerJ DOI 10.7717/peerj.8086.
Lendemer J., Thiers B., Monfils A.K., Zaspel, Ellwood E.R., Bentley A., LeVan K., Bates J., Jennings D., Contreras D., Lagomarsino L., Mabee P., Ford L.S., Guralnick R., Gropp R.E., Revelez M., Neil Cobb N., Seltmann K., and Aime M.C. 2019. The Extended Specimen Network: A Strategy to Enhance US Biodiversity Collections, Promote Research and Education, BioScience, , biz140,
Schindel DE, Cook JA. 2018. The next generation of natural history collections. PLOS Biology 16:e2006125