Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays from BHL and Rangifer tarandus!

As part of BHL's Winter Appeal, we're highlighting some of the amazing species that are especially well-adapted to cold, wintery climes as well as those that often come to mind as we celebrate the winter holidays.  Last week we featured Ursus maritimus, the magnificent apex predator of the Arctic commonly known as the polar bear.  This week, we turn our eyes again to the North Pole to shine the spotlight on a well-known celebrity of  the giving season!

Wild Life of the World: A Descriptive Survey
of the Geographical Distribution of Animals.
London, F Warne and Co, 1916.

Rangifer tarandus
As the holiday season goes into full swing, the festive days of late December bring a dazzling array of familiar images--shiny packages with ribbons and bows, snowy rooftops and fir trees, and of course the ubiquitous Rangifer tarandus.  Whether pulling sleighs or playing games, these antlered animals  feature prominently in decorations throughout the holiday season.  If you've ever watched the holiday cartoons broadcast at this time of year, you could be forgiven for thinking that reindeer are an especially uniform species, intolerant of differences.  But what of reality?  As it turns out, in real life reindeer exhibit a remarkable range of diversity.

Distinguishing them from other deer, reindeer are the only species in which both the male and female grow antlers. Within the species, reindeer display notable variations in size, shape and color.  According to The Animals of World: Brehm's Life of Animals (1895) a comparison of tame and wild reindeer would reveal such differences just in the size and shape of the hooves that one could easily see how they might be considered belonging to separate species.  Antler size and fur coloration are also known to vary in the different regions of the reindeer's circumpolar habitat.  Even within individuals, coloration changes with the seasons, bringing on a more greyish-white hue for the snowy winter months.

Verzameling van uilandsche en zeldzaame vogelen.
Amsterdam, J.C. Sepp, 1772-1781.
But sometimes the differences are significant enough to denote a classifiable distinction and today taxonomists recognize several subspecies of reindeer.  For example, Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus, shown above, occurs primarily in Greenland.  Even for those of us not well-versed in scientific names, this shouldn't be surprising with the obvious phonetic similarity between groenlandicus and Greenland.  What many of us will find surprising, though, is that the common name of this subspecies is the "barren-ground caribou" meaning that, yes, caribou are subspecies of reindeer!  Who knew? (Well, undoubtedly some of you did but for those of us more familiar with the animated variety, let us not be ashamed to admit we are duly surprised!)

Other subspecies include the Dawson's caribou (Rangifer tarandus dawsoni) which once roamed the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia and is now presumed extinct.  While some information can still be derived from the DNA extracted from bones, fur and other remains of Dawson's caribou and other extinct species, the vast majority of scientific knowledge on their appearance and behavior is locked in rare or hard to find literature.

The animals of the world. Brehm's life of animals.
Chicago, A. N. Marquis, 1895.

Habitat destruction, hunting and predators continue to present threats to wild caribou and reindeer.  In 1983, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou as endangered and advocated to protect its habitat.  Even at the turn of the century, reports of diminishing populations of one of the largest subspecies, Rangifer tarandus fennicus or Finland reindeer, were common.  In one of several such reports, cited in Extinct and vanishing mammals of the Old World (1945), the author laments, "The Finland reindeer is thus very nearly exterminated in the greatest part of its former habitat and it looks almost as a bitter irony of fate that it should not be recognized and discerned as a separate race before it was in so imminent danger of becoming entirely extinct..."

While we can't bring the species and subspecies that have gone extinct, we can preserve our knowledge of them to help avoid future extinctions. By making this knowledge widely available, we can become better stewards to those species that are still here and especially to those recovering from diminished populations.

The BHL currently provides access to over 42 million pages and over 87,000 images and is changing the face of research methodology.  Scientists around the world are using BHL to identify and classify species, facilitate further scientific research, and support conservation efforts to help prevent future extinctions.  The ongoing growth of BHL is supported in part by our dedicated patrons whose gifts support the digitization of additional literature, technical development of the program, and improvement of data curation.  We hope you'll take a moment to review how your donation can be put to work and will consider supporting BHL this holiday season!
The wild beasts of the world.
London, T.C & E.C. Jack, 1909

Thank you and Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book of the Week: Malacozoaires, ou, Animaux mollusques

There are approximately 100,000 species 
of molluscs.
Have you ever collected seashells from the sea shore? Ever wonder where they come from or the former inhabitants? Well, they come from Molluscs. Molluscs are invertebrates that include squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, snails, slugs, limpets, sea hares, mussels, clams, oysters, scallops, and other lesser known creatures.

Molluscs, belong to the phylum Mollusca, a major division of invertebrates with over 100,000 species, second to Arthropods. Their ability to survive is inspiring. They can be found at all latitudes and in both tropical and temperate regions. There are generally 10 recognized classes of molluscs: Aplacophora, Bivalvia, Cephalopoda, Polyplacophora, Gastropoda, Monoplacophora, Pleistomollusca, Polyplacophora, Rostroconchia, Scaphopoda, and Helcionelloida. Rostroconchia and Helcionelloida are both extinct.

Aplacophora and Monoplacophora are only found in the deep sea. The most diverse class is the Gastropods, which include slugs, sea butterflies, conchs, oyster borers, coweries, and snails. Gastropods account for more than a third of all living molluscs and there are between 60,000 and 80,000 living species. Class Cephalopoda including squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses are among the neurologically most advanced of all invertebrates. All Molluscs produce eggs.

Anatomy of a Bivalve Shell Image: Merriam-Webster's Visual Dictionary Online 

Molluscs are distinguished by their anatomy, which generally consist of a head-foot and visceral mass. They secrete a hard shell that covers and protects the visceral mass (area that contains the internal organs) and mantle, a layer of epidermal soft tissue that covers the visceral mass. This calcium shell protects them from harsh environments and predators. The nervous system of the Mollusc is similar with two nerve cords. The exception is Bivalvia, which has three. In addition, their body structures range in a variety of ways. It is difficult to apply one characteristic to all classes of Molluscs. Aplacophorans are the only species that do not have a well-developed foot.

Some molluscs don't have a head.

As mentioned earlier, the shell is created by the protein conchiolin secreted from the mantle. The shell consists of three layers: periostracum (outer layer) of organic matter, mainly conchiolin; a middle layer of columnar calcite; and an inner layer of laminated calcite, often times nacreous also known as mother of pearl. The first two layers also contain chitin, a derivative of glucose found in the natural world.

Published between 1829-1830, Malacozoaires, ou, Animaux mollusques (English translation: Malacozoaires, or Shell Fish Animals) was written by French zoologist and anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle and a member of the French Academy of Sciences. De Blainville like many scientists, longed to give order to the natural world. Malacozoaires, ou, Animaux mollusques is the result of this desire. This monograph provides several orders and genera for species studied in France. While there is significantly more information about mollusks today, his book was a start to understanding the unknown. 

If French comes natural to you and vous parlez ou lisez francais, read Malacozoaires, ou, Animaux mollusques.

Check out the beautiful shells from the book at the BHL Flickr here.

By Kai Alexis Smith, Marketing Intern, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Fall 2013

EOL Rapid Response Team (n.d.). Mollusca (Mollusks). Encylopedia of Life. Retrieved from

Hayward, PJ (1996). Handbook of the Marine Fauna of North-West Europe. Oxford University Press. p. 484–628.

Porter, S. (2007). "Seawater Chemistry and Early Carbonate Biomineralization". Science 316 (5829): 1302.

Unknown (n.d.). Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville. Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Unknown (n.d.). Mollusca. Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Basionyms, Synonyms, Authorities: Tracking the Names of Macro- and Micro Algae Through Time

As part of our BHL & Our Users series, we recently caught up with Dr. Roberta Cowan, a specialist in Phycology (taxonomy) and information management. Over the last 19 years, Dr. Cowan has been actively involved in nomenclatural work, notably for Australian algal species.  Dr. Cowan was kind enough to provide some background on her work and the role BHL has played in making that work both quicker and easier over the years.

Roberta Cowan, PhD 
Dr. Cowan collecting on Whidbey Island,
Washington State 
In the 1980s a number of countries had nomenclatural plant databases. There was the famous Index Kewensis from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew  and the Gray Cards from the Harvard University Herbaria. In Australia the Australian Plant Name Index (APNI) was being prepared. In the early 1990s proposals were put forward to the Australian Government to create a database for the marine macroalgae (Australian Marine Algal Name Index, AMANI) and the freshwater algae. Later the marine microalgae were included in AMANI. All of this information is now being updated and transferred to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA).

I began work on AMANI in 1994. At that time, in order to check the accuracy of information regarding binomials cited in literature about Australian algae the original literature had to be sourced via the inter-library loan system. By definition much of the literature was contained in monographs and journal runs that were considered rare by the lending library. This invariably meant that the item was not available for photo-copying. Often the full bibliographic details for original literature was not entirely clear and so a ‘catch 22’ situation occurred in that an item may well be sourced to a particular library but could not be copied until the full bibliographic detail was supplied. The detail could only be supplied by accessing the item. Access to the item therefore had to wait until I could travel to the lending library. This meant waiting until travel to the libraries on the other side of Australia--or the other side of the planet--could be afforded.

In 2007, with the founding of the Biodiversity Heritage Library the problems of access and the problems of confirming bibliographic details became increasingly rare. My work changed from submitting inter-library loan forms and waiting for weeks for a requested item to arrive to searching BHL, selecting the item for download, filling in the information: title, author, keywords and waiting a very short time for the pdf to appear via a link in an email.

I am presently editing the algal data relevant to the nomenclature of all names cited in Australian taxonomic literature and all taxonomic literature citing Australian algal names for the Atlas of Living Australia. BHL is one of my most important tools.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ursus maritimus: A Shining Star in the North Pole

As part of BHL's Winter Appeal, we'll be highlighting some of the amazing species that are especially well-adapted to cold, wintery climes as well as those that often come to mind as we celebrate the winter holidays.  Each post will include images, facts and sometimes even stories drawn from the pages of the open access literature in BHL.  The ongoing growth of BHL is supported in part by our dedicated patrons whose gifts we depend on for the the digitization of additional literature, technical development of the program, and improvement of data curation.  We hope you'll consider donating this holiday season!

Ursus maritimus
Imagine being out in a quiet, cold landscape with almost nothing around for miles except for the ice and sea.  In this vast expanse of calm and quiet, you might either wander across the ice in search of a meal or even dive down into the freezing cold waters.  Either way, you would remain quite comfortably warm.  Thus is one of the advantages possessed by Ursus maritimus for surviving in this challenging environment.  A thick coat of fur and insulating layer of fat provide warmth and the distinctive white coloring of the coat serves as excellent camouflage when stalking prey.  A long neck and relatively narrow skull for the species provides the aptly-named "sea bear" with a streamlined figure excellent for swimming.

Wild Life of the World, v.2.  London, F. Warne and Co., 1916. 
Commonly known as the polar bear, Ursus maritimus actually only occurs in one of the poles--the North Pole.  The vast, ice-covered ocean known as the Arctic actually has etymological roots in the ancient Greek word, ἄρκτος, meaning bear.  Antarctic, therefore implying "no bears."

The Quadrupeds of North America.  New York, V.G. Audubon, 1851-54. 
When we consider the growing concerns about the effects of climate change on places like the Arctic, polar bears are one of the iconic species that immediately come to mind for many of us.  How might they fare over the next decades?  Despite all of their physical advantages and their placement as an apex predator, polar bear populations have seen recent declines and are already considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN.  Some of the biggest threats facing polar bears are the melting ice cap, hunting, and human development in the area, including oil spills and other negative impacts on the environs.

Yet even before climate change was a prominent topic in science and the news, polar bears held a special place in the public's imagination.  Tales of exaggerated ferocity were plenty.  One especially eyebrow-raising account tells of the polar bear's invariable habit of charging at any man encountered.  While today we know that polar bears have been known to attack humans they are just, if not more likely, to avoid such encounters, yet this story goes on to insist that not only do they inevitably charge, they can just as inevitably be tricked into grabbing weapons and committing suicide with them.  Polar bears were undoubtedly less studied and therefore not as well understood in 1861, yet even so the author seems barely able to contain his bemusement at the extraordinary claims of this "eye witness."  Today, hunting bans now help to protect this magnificent species.  Groups like BHL and our partners EOL work hard to make sure that scientists and others have access to important information about the species, its habitat and behavior so informed conservation decisions can be made.

The polar bear is documented in over 1,200 pages of open access literature made available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  BHL relies on donations from individuals to support scanning of the biodiversity literature held in some of the world's most renowned natural history and botanical libraries.  To learn more about how your donation supports the continued growth of BHL, please visit  We hope you'll consider making a contribution today!