Monday, December 29, 2014

We Need Books To...Support Conservation

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

Each week, 10-690 species go extinct, according to reports published via Nature. The responsibility for these extinctions rests predominantly on the shoulders of that enigmatic species, the Homo sapiens. Research published in Conservation Biology by senior authors Jurriaan de Vos and Stuart Pimm and their team reports that “extinctions are about 1,000 times more frequent now than in the 60 million years before people came along.” Conservation efforts around the world are striving to undermine this status quo. Species once near extinction (such as the Gray Wolf, California Blue Whales, and the Whooping Crane) are now thriving, and recent studies published in PLoS ONE by authors Bernard W. T. Coetzee, Kevin J. Gaston, and Steven L. Chown demonstrate that protected areas really do save biodiversity.

Whooping Crane, once near extinction is now recovering thanks to conservation efforts. Studer, Jacob Henry. The Birds of North America (1903).

Not surprisingly, historic literature and archives play a crucial role in conservation initiatives.

Identifying Species to Protect

The first step in any conservation process is identifying what species and habitats to protect. This involves determining which are threatened, as evidenced by biodiversity changes over time like population and distribution declines. To truly understand the extent of these changes, scientists must examine the historical record.

Chaetodon trifascialis and Oxymonacanthus longirostris in The Fishes of Samoa (1906). As Dr. Joshua Drew explains, "This book was one of the first comprehensive records in the Southwest Pacific...In it, Jordan and Seale give a great look into what these reefs were like before widespread development. Reading their words is like going through a time machine, and allows us a glimpse into a world that will probably never be again."

“Having access to historical literature is essential to characterizing what ecosystems used to look like, what species were present and what peoples' opinions of the health of the ecosystem were like throughout time,” explains Dr. Joshua Drew, a marine conservation biologist at The Field Museum. “Taxonomic literature allows me to see the whole history of a species laid out before me. I rely on [it] to get a glimpse of how these wonderfully diverse ecosystems used to look… before widespread development...[and use] those baselines to evaluate how current conservation measures are succeeding.”

Refining Conservation Initiatives

Historic literature and archives can also help scientists prioritize conservation efforts. Information about the relationships among organisms and the impacts of past extinctions reveals “keystone” species critical to the health of an ecosystem.

Climate change and biogeographic research can also further refine conservation strategies. NPR reports that climatology records in literature and fieldbooks help scientists predict future climate change patterns, which provide insight into what habitats (and thus resident species) may be at risk. By revealing how well species have adapted to external cues in the past (BioScience, Johnson et al), the historic record can also illuminate those unlikely to successfully cope with climate change (ScienceNews, Sarah Zielinski). With this knowledge, policy makers can prioritize conservation efforts, especially for the keystone species within these groups.

Indus River Dolphin, whose declines are linked to the proliferation of irrigation dams. Brehm, Alfred Edmund. Brehms Tierleben. 3rd rev. ed. v. 3 (1910).

The historic record can also elucidate activities that threaten species and ecosystems. For example, according to a study published in PLoS ONE by Braulik et al, distribution reports from the nineteenth century helped researchers correlate declines in the Indus River Dolphin’s population with the proliferation of irrigation dams. This knowledge has led to appeals for water management reform as part of a conservation strategy for the dolphins. Similar correlations can be made between species decline and forest degradation (as evidenced via a 2014 World Resources Institute release), a heated topic within land management reform.

BHL and Big Data

Recently, big data has changed how scientists conduct research, allowing them to more easily access and link biodiversity information. “There's no question that information about biodiversity now falls firmly in the realm of big data… and the greatest challenge facing biodiversity informatics now is the transition to 21st-century data-management tools,” reports the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK. “The first [phase] is the major task of digitizing over 200 years' worth of information from libraries and collections around the world.”

One major application of big data within conservation activities involves assembling georeference data. “Knowing where to act is vital,” emphasizes Dr. Stuart Pimm, a biologist at Duke University, in a 2015 Vox article. Thanks to big data, “We can map out where species are. That puts us in a position to be very much smarter about how and where to do conservation.”

Species occurrence illustrated in JournalMap from geotagged content in Proceedings of The Biological Society of Washington on BHL, made available through BioStor

Historic literature provides detailed information about the location of the species scientists have collected and observed throughout the centuries. By digitizing natural history literature under open access principles, the Biodiversity Heritage Library allows the embedded information (such as historic distribution records) to be integrated into big data initiatives.

BHL Helps Scientists Save Biodiversity. You Can Help!

Since the dawn of man, humans have been dramatically altering the biodiversity landscape, and not always for the better. Conservation is an ambitious endeavor “to preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past” (Stewart Brand, National Geographic News). By providing evidence of population declines and habitat degradation, capturing distribution data, elucidating harmful activities, and revealing ecosystem interdependencies, historic literature and archives are integral to the formation of effective conservation strategies.

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your end-of-year giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, December 25, 2014

12 Species of Christmas

You're probably familiar with the famous holiday song The 12 Days of Christmas, first published in England in 1780 as a rhyme. The song most people know today is based on a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by Frederic Austin.

We decided to do our own take on the song, presenting instead "12 Species of Christmas" as portrayed within BHL books. This list of species is by no means comprehensive, but it presents some of the more well-known plants and animals associated with the holiday, as well as a few surprises!

Merry Christmas from BHL!

1. Christmas Trees!

We tend to think of Christmas trees as a single species, but there are in fact many different species used as Christmas trees around the world, including Fir Trees, Pine Trees, Spruce Trees, Cypress Trees, and Cedar Trees. Explore the species and enjoy this image of one of the varieties, the Norway Spruce, in BHL.

Norway Spruce (Picea abies). Thomé, Otto W. Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. Bd. 1 (1903).

2. Reindeer

Santa can't bring the presents to the children without his reindeer! Quick, take this quiz and see if you can name all 8 of Santa's reindeer in under a minute.

Interestingly, Santa likely has female reindeer! Females retain their antlers through winter, while males lose theirs in the autumn.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Edwards, George. Verzameling van uitlandsche en zeldzaame vogelen. v. 1 (1772).

3. Angelfish

We have our own kind of "angel" for Christmas: The Angelfish! Angelfish can refer to many difference species, including freshwater angelfish of the genus Pterophyllum and Marine angelfish of the family Pomacanthidae.

Pictured here is the Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris), found near reefs in the warm waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. The illustration comes from Bloch's Ichthyologie; ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons, an illustrated, scholarly compendium of all known fishes at the time of its original German (1785-95) and later French (1796) publication.

Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris). Bloch, Marcus Elieser. Ichthyologie; ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons. v. 1 (1796).

4. Mistletoe

Mistletoe in the Christmas tradition most commonly refers to the species Viscum album. Based possibly on Scandinavian origins, tradition holds that if a couple meets under the mistletoe at Christmas, they must kiss. Ironically, mistletoe is a hemiparasitic shrub...what does that say about its association with kissing and romance at Christmas?

Mistletoe (Viscum album). Köhler, F.E.  Medizinal-Pflanzen. v. 1 (1883-1914).

5. Ginger

Love making gingerbread houses at Christmas? Well, powdered, dry ginger root is used as the flavoring for gingerbread, hence the name. The associated taxonomy? Ginger or ginger root is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Köhler, F.E.  Medizinal-Pflanzen. v. 2 (1883-1914).

6. Partridge

Since our blog is based on The 12 Days of Christmas, we can't neglect the species actually mentioned in the song. While we won't present all of them here, we had to at least include the species from the first day of Christmas: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. Partridges are members of the pheasant family, and, interestingly, a ground nesters. So much for "in a pear tree"...

Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). Lilford, Thomas Littleton Powys. Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands. v. 4 (1885-97).

7. Poinsettias

Indigenous to Mexico, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are commonly used for Christmas floral displays. The common name is derived from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico (where the plant had been used as part of Christmas decorations by Franciscan friars since the seventeenth century), who helped popularize the plant in the US.

Did you know you can make a pH indicator from poinsettia leaves? Find out how!

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Curtis, William. Curtis's botanical magazine. v. 63 (1836).

8. Holly

The Holly species (Ilex aquifolium) is commonly used at Christmas time for decorations, often being incorporated into wreaths and adorning Christmas cards. But beware the bright red berries! Ingestion of more than 20 berries may be fatal to children.

European Holly (Ilex aquifolium). Step, Edward. Wayside and woodland blossoms : a pocket guide to British wild-flowers for the country rambler. (1895).

9. Donkey

The song Dominic the Donkey was recorded by Lou Monte in 1960. It tells the story of a donkey who helps Santa bring presents to children in Italy, since the reindeer cannot climb Italy's steep hills.

Donkey (Equus africanus asinus). Schreber, Johann Christian Daniel. Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur. (1774-1846).

10. Turtle Doves

On the second day of Christmas, in the aforementioned song, a gift of "2 Turtle Doves" is given. Members of the Columbidae family, Turtle Doves form strong pair bonds, and as such have become symbols of devoted love.

Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur). Lilford, Thomas Littleton Powys. Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands. v. 4 (1885-97).

11. Polar Bears

Perhaps simply because they're an arctic species, and Santa Clause resides at the North Pole, contemporary Christmas advertisements, toys, and decorations often include festive polar bears. Penguins are another oft-associated Christmas species, commonly seen alongside polar bears in holiday advertisements. However, penguins are found in the Antarctic, nowhere near the North Pole.

First published illustration of a Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus). Schreber, Johann Christian Daniel. Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur. (1774-1846).

12. Fireflies

Nature has its own Christmas tree lights: Fireflies!

Beetles in the family Lampyridae are commonly called fireflies for their bioluminescence. The larvae also emit light and, in Eurasia, are known as glow worms. Thanks to some GIF magic from Smithsonian Libraries, these fireflies from Biologia Centrali-Americana in BHL comes to life!

Fireflies. Biologia Centrali-Americana. Insecta, v. 3, pt. 2 (1880-86).

Have yourself a Happy Holiday, from the staff of the Biodiversity Heritage Library!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In memoriam: Cathy Norton, Founding member of BHL and Chair Emerita of the BHL Executive Committee

The staff of the BHL are saddened to announce the recent death of Cathy Norton. Cathy, former Library Director of the MBLWHOI Library, was a founding member and a guiding force during the early years of the BHL. Cathy served as the first Vice-Chair of the BHL Executive Committee and later as Chair. Nancy E. Gwinn, current Chair of the BHL Executive Committee said "Cathy was an indefatigable spirit whose enthusiasm buoyed the whole BHL group, members and staff, from the beginning. She will be sorely missed." Constance Rinaldo, BHL Vice-Chair added "Cathy was an inspiration professionally and personally. Whatever the circumstances, she never let them stand in the way of adventure and charging ahead."

Cathy Norton (left) with Graham Higley, Former Head, Library and Information Services, Natural History Museum, London (center) and Constance Rinaldo, Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Director (right) - the first BHL Executive Committee. Photo by Martin Kalfatovic.

The global growth of the BHL was a significant part of Cathy's vision for BHL. She participated in the initial meetings with the Chinese Academy of Science and was a member of the BHL delegation that traveled to Beijing in January 2010 to finalize the creation of BHL China.

Cathy (left) with Chris Freeland, founding BHL Technical Director (right), at the Great Wall of China. This photo taken during the 2010 meeting formalizing the creation of BHL China. Photo by Chris Freeland.

She also played in important role the BHL's relationship with the Internet Archive. Working closely with Robert Miller (Director of Books) and the Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, she was instrumental in the creation of the Internet Archive scanning that served the members of the Boston Library Consortium. When told of her death, Kahle remarked, "A star in my sky just went dark."

The opening of the Boston IA scanning center. Bernie Margolis, Boston Public Library, Director (left); Judy Warnement, Harvard Botany Library, Librarian (middle left); Brewster Kahle, IA founder (center); Cathy Norton (middle right); Doran Weber, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (right). Photo by Cathy Norton.

BHL staff who worked with her in the formation of the BHL still recall her can-do attitude and commitment to assuring that BHL would not only succeed, but thrive. As Graham Higley, Founding Chair of the BHL Executive Committee noted, "Cathy was funny, kind, loyal, cuddly and collegiate. Cathy was also fierce, determined, positive, focused, pragmatic and impressive.  A unique combination in a lovely person.  BHL would not exist without her."

Thomas Garnett, Founding Director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, captured Cathy's contribution to the world of biodiversity, the BHL, and the lives of countless BHL participants:
"Cathy Norton was a force of nature.  She made things happen in the world of biodiversity bioinformatics. At the end of a conference or meeting, she always pulled us back to 'so what are we actually going to do?  What are the next, actionable steps?  Who is doing what?'  She never let her colleagues forget the bigger picture and important principles such as open access to research data. She was a mentor, a supporter, and nurturer of many. It is rare to see her combination of broad vision with energy to work through the undergrowth, not to mention a wicked and subversive sense of humor.  To me she was an inspiration and a delight."
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Catherine N. Norton Endowed Fellowship at the MBL,

Cathy & Tom
Cathy (left) with Thomas Garnett, Founding BHL Director.
This photo taken during the 2010 meeting formalizing the creation of BHL China.
Photo by Chris Freeland.

Obituaries and Other Biographical Information

Cathy Norton. Former MBLWHOI Library Director.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We Need Books To...Learn from Past Extinctions

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

Remembering Extinct Species

First published illustration of a Passenger Pigeon, Extinct. Catesby, Mark. The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754).

On September 1, 1914, at approximately 1pm in the afternoon, a passenger pigeon named Martha died. Her death marked the extinction of her entire species. It is “one of the fastest and most dramatic extinctions in human history,” according to the Zoological Society of London.  A population of several billion birds was decimated in less than a century thanks to over-hunting and habitat destruction. From the first published image of a passenger pigeon by Mark Catesby in 1754, to a poignant record of population declines by Vernon Bailey in an 1892 fieldbook, and the final autopsy report of “the last living representative of its race,” the passenger pigeon’s tragic demise is well-documented in BHL.

Sloane's Urania Moth (top), Extinct. Kirby, W.F. A handbook to the order Lepidoptera. v. 3 (1897).

As many as 30%-50% of all species may be facing extinction by the mid-21st century, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Some extinctions, such as that of the passenger pigeon, are internationally notorious, while others, such as the Rodrigues Day Gecko, Sloane's Urania moth, or the Saint Helena Olive, are less infamous but no less dispiriting. Each represents another step towards earth’s sixth great extinction event.

Saint Helena Olive, Extinct. Hooker, William Jackson. Icones plantarum or figures, with brief descriptive characters and remarks, of new or rare plants, selected from the author's herbarium. v. 11 (1867-71).

Historical literature, accounts in archival sources like fieldbooks, and museum specimens are the only remaining record of these species. “Historic literature provides written accounts and illustrations of [extinct species] from first-hand observations before they became extinct,” including phenotypic descriptions like habitat, diet, behavior, and phenology, explains Dr. Helen James, curator of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, in a Smithsonian Libraries article. This depth of data does not always accompany museum specimens, not to mention the fact that the physical appearance of some species undergoes a radical transformation in death. Thus, for scientists to obtain a complete picture of the life, morphology, and phylogeny of extinct species, taxidermied specimens must be used in conjunction with written and illustrated primary sources.

Rodrigues Day Gecko, Extinct. Catalogue of the lizards in the British Museum (Natural History) 2d. ed., v. 1 (1885).

Learning from Extinctions

Preserving knowledge about extinct species is about more than just maintaining a record of the life we have lost. These historic accounts can also be used to help conserve endangered species. Examination of the behaviors and anatomy of extinct organisms can help tell us what made them vulnerable in the first place and can be directly applicable to threatened species.

The historic record also provides insight into how an extinction will affect an ecosystem. Species do not live in a vacuum. “The demise of one...species can indirectly cause another to become extinct,” according to a 2012 study from the University of Exeter. “Any extinction can create a ripple effect across a food web, with far-reaching consequences for many other animals.” Examining the relationships within an ecosystem, richly documented in literature and fieldbooks, can help us identify which species will be affected by biodiversity loss, and what form those effects might take. Extrapolating knowledge about ecosystems affected by extinctions to similar environments can help us predict the ramifications of biodiversity loss in expanded locales.

The Thylacine, an apex predator in Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea before it became extinct in the early 20th century. Lydekker, Richard. A hand-book to the marsupialia and monotremata. (1896).

New Hope for Rediscovered Species

Occasionally, species that were believed extinct are miraculously rediscovered. For example, the Arakan Forest Turtle was thought to be extinct for nearly 100 years until a team of conservationists stumbled upon specimens at a Chinese food market in 1994. The information in historic literature about these species is critical to crafting policies to protect remaining populations.

Akaran Forest Turtle. Thought extinct until rediscovered in a Chinese food market in 1994. Anderson, John. Anatomical and zoological researches. v. 2 (1878).

To Clone or Not To Clone...

Recent advances in genetics have ignited the possibility of resurrecting extinct species. While debates over the wisdom of such actions continue, should the passenger pigeon ever take flight again, historic records will be vital for success. What kind of habitat do these species require? What do they eat? What wants to eat them? These answers can be found in the pages of books and journals from days gone by.

Will scientists clone a Woolly Mammoth? Westell, W.P. The Book of the Animal Kingdom (1910).

Fighting Human-induced Extinctions

Over the past 450 million years, Earth has lost up to 90% of its species on five different occasions, reports a 2014 Time article by Jeffrey Kluger. Asteroids, volcanoes, and gamma rays were to blame in the past. Humans are largely to blame today. But while, barring a genetic miracle, we will never again see a dodo waddle through the woods or the Jamaican Giant Galliwasp scurry across the ground, the historic record ensures that these lost species are not forgotten. Knowledge is power, and thanks to BHL and other like-minded open access initiatives, the knowledge necessary to prevent future human-induced extinctions is available to everyone on any corner of the globe.

Dodo, Extinct. Rothschild, Lionel Walter Rothschild. Extinct Birds (1907).

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your holiday giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Stay tuned for our last post detailing the critical roles BHL and historic literature play in saving earth’s biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fun with Seeds

Seed and Nursery Catalogs at The New York Botanical Garden

Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The New York Botanical Garden’s The LuEsther T. Mertz Library, the most comprehensive botanical and horticultural library in the Americas, has recently cataloged all 58,000 items in its Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection. The grant also funded the digitization of public domain pre-1923 American nursery catalogs and their publication to the web.

The Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, one of the largest and most important of its kind in the United States, provides one of the best primary sources of information available on the history and development of American botany, horticulture, and commercial agriculture. Their value to humanities research, however, extends far beyond these subjects alone.

Color, skillful drawing and appealing text popularized American nursery and seed catalogs. Maule's Seed Catalog. 1914.

The Importance of Seed Catalogs

Nursery and seed trade catalogs offer a unique window into other areas of American life, including publishing, landscape design, marketing, industry, and leisure activity, making them valuable resources for humanities research.

Nursery and seed catalogs often provide the first description of a newly introduced species or hybrid, and the establishment of accepted nomenclature for a plant or flower requires knowing the earliest date the name was used. One of the problems facing an International Registrar in establishing name priority is determining the date of the first valid publication for a new cultivar. Very often this publication is a seed catalog. Consequently, botanists and horticulturists utilize nursery catalogs to trace the development of new hybrids, varieties, and mutations.

Fruits for Long Island with abridged list of lawn and street trees, evergreens, shrubs, roses, vines and hardy flowers. 1898.

Enhancing Discovery of Seed and Nursery Catalogs

Searching the text of online vintage seed catalogs, however, has often been problematic. Seed catalogs are notoriously difficult subjects for Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) to parse. The picturesque fonts and elaborate page layouts so endearingly characteristic of seed catalogs have caused the resulting OCR output to be error prone and less than optimal, at least up to now.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has recently awarded a grant to the Missouri Botanical Garden and its partner institutions, including Harvard MCZ, Cornell University and the the Mertz Library at NYBG, to use purposeful gaming and crowd sourcing to improve the precision of OCR, thereby helping to optimize search and discovery of online collections. Despite the technical difficulties to be overcome, the compelling content of vintage American seed catalogs promises to motivate the search for solutions as it once did the efforts of generations of gardeners to grow flowers like the pictures in the catalog.

Fruits for Long Island with abridged list of lawn and street trees, evergreens, shrubs, roses, vines and hardy flowers. 1898.

Seeds and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Beyond their pictorial features, another reason for the continued intense fascination with seed catalogs is that the American nursery and seed business at the turn of the last century was replete with Horatio Alger stories of enterprising individuals who combined impressive horticultural skills with savvy commercial instincts. The prosperous businesses established by James Vick, John Lewis Childs and D.M. Ferry are typical of these self-taught botanical entrepreneurs.

One image from the Luther Burbank seed catalog of 1916 vividly captures the heroic spirit of the era. It depicts the meeting of Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank on the porch of Burbank’s Santa Rosa, California home in 1915. The aggressive herd of newspaper reporters and newsreel photographers who swarmed all over Burbank’s property that day prompted Edison to grumble “Darn these movies.” Burbank featured the meeting prominently in his catalogs as a celebrity endorsement of his plants and seeds.

Left to Right: Edison, Burbank and Ford. Mertz Library image in BHL.

One of the more colorful figures in the American nursery business was another Californian and a close friend of Luther Burbank’s named Carl Purdy (1861-1945). He was called the “Lily Man of Ukiah” by the press and today his life story seems almost mythical. In 1870, at the age of nine, Purdy was brought west in a covered wagon to the still pristine landscape of Mendocino County, California. When he reached adulthood he travelled on stagecoaches to business meetings and botanical conferences. He witnessed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and was a key figure in the spectacular San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915. He was fluent in Spanish and several Native American languages and once wrote a splendid book about the extraordinary baskets fashioned by the Indians of Mendocino County. Above all, he studied and mastered the cultivation of California’s native bulbs and plants, successfully introducing them for the first time to European and American gardens. His self-taught knowledge of California’s flora was acquired first hand through precise observation and experimentation prompting the scholarly Willis Linn Jepson to acknowledge that Purdy’s expertise was of the highest order.

Purdy was well read, having immersed himself in classical literature from childhood. He wrote all of the text for his catalogs, filling page after page with expert horticultural instructions and elegant prose. His proud description of the scenery on his 180-acre horticultural ranch named “The Terraces” was a regular feature of his catalogs:

“From a scenic point of view, 'The Terraces' are probably the most unique gardens in the world. Large springs feed a mountain stream, which passes through a rich valley, and then, over four limestone bluffs in succession, each from 50 to 75 feet high, it plunges in many most charming cascades and waterfalls. Between the bluffs are the terraced slopes from which the gardens get their name.” 

Purdy’s seed and bulb catalogs of native California plants have for decades been one of the hidden treasures of the Mertz Library, but happily they are now easily accessed on both BHL and Mertz Digital.

Erythroniums (dog-toothed violets). Carl Purdy catalog of 1921.

To read more about Carl Purdy, his life and times, please see the Mertz Library’s LibGuide here.

Thousands of Seed Catalogs in BHL

Browse over 11,000 seed and nursery catalogs in the BHL collection, digitized primarily from the significant collections of The New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University and the National Agricultural Library. The collection will continue to grow supported in part by the Purposeful Gaming grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We welcome suggestions of catalogs to consider for digitizing and adding to the collection.

Andrew Tschinkel 
Digital Imaging Technician 
The New York Botanical Garden

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

We Need Books to…Identify New Species

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

The Science of Identifying Life on Earth

There are an estimated 8.75 million species on earth, of which almost 2 million have been described. Scientists classify about 18,000 new species per year, meaning that it may take hundreds of years to create a complete species catalog.

Short-eared Owl. Illustrated as part of Darwin's Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1839-43), which presented identification and descriptions for the zoology observed and collected during one of natural history's most famous expeditions.

Early explorers documented their observations and data about the world’s biodiversity in historic fields notes and published literature. These discoveries provide a foundation for modern scientific research and fueled the drive to systematically catalog life. The science of taxonomy classifies biological organisms using binomial nomenclature (which identifies organisms by genus and species) and hierarchies based on inferred evolutionary relatedness.

Taxonomists are charged with naming and classifying species, with a goal of one day identifying all life on earth. In order to name a new species, a taxonomist must first verify that the specimen has not yet been described by consulting museum collections, performing DNA sequencing, and reviewing the historic literature record. They may also need to ensure that related species or subspecies have not erroneously been classified as a single species by examining published treatments (species descriptions) and related type specimens.

Linnaeus, Carl. Systema Naturae, 10th Ed. (1758-59). Considered the beginning of zoological nomenclature, in which Linnaeus introduced binomial nomenclature for animals.

“Taxonomy is a science that keeps pace with the present but also draws upon the wealth of knowledge accumulated throughout its history,” stresses Dr. Sandra Knapp, botanist at the Natural History Museum, London, within a History of Taxonomy exhibition at NHM. “The old literature is often just as important as the new,” elaborates Dr. John Sullivan, an evolutionary biologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and Cornell University. “If we were to describe new species without knowing what [previously-documented species really are], we risk re-describing [them] under a different name and creating a synonym.”

Morphology and behavior is also very important in determining taxonomic relationships for new and existing species. Historic natural history literature is saturated with such data, which, alongside original species descriptions, provides a critical foundation for ongoing classification work.

Thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, this crucial historic literature is now online, allowing taxonomists to access it wherever and whenever they need to. “I tend to think of BHL as my personal ichthyology library,” confided Dr. Sullivan. Before embarking on a trip to Africa to confirm the identity of a possible new fish, he downloaded the relevant taxonomic description from BHL. “I had it on my Kindle as I stood at the site,” he recalls. “Even if I lived in a library that had these volumes on the shelf, it would take me longer to locate what I was looking for!”

Spot-fin Porcupine Fish, from Ichtyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière des poissons (1785-97), the French version of Marcus Bloch's Allgemeine Naturgeschichte des Fische, a compendium of all fish known at the time. This work alone described 267 species new to science.

Who Cares if we Identify all the Species?

But why is it important to document all life on earth? “Biodiversity is about the totality of things,” explains Dr. Knapp in the NHM History of Taxonomy exhibition. By identifying species and the relationships between them, taxonomy aims to understand “how nature's wild, wonderful diversity is generated.”

First published illustration of an African Goliath Beetle. From Illustrations of Natural History (1770-82), by Dru Drury.

Today, that diversity is sorely threatened. More than 40% of the evaluated amphibian species, 30% of the evaluated invertebrate species, 21% of evaluated fish and reptile species, 26% of known mammal species, and 68% of the evaluated plant species are threatened with extinction. “It is key to identify species at risk so we can take action accordingly,” emphasized Dr. Rafe Brown, curator in charge of Herpetology at the University of Kansas, in a 2014 National Geographic article.

The inherent problem, however, is that we can’t know what species to protect until we know what species there are. We cannot predict how biodiversity loss will affect an ecosystem until we identify all the players in that ecosystem, their roles, and relationships. We must start by illuminating the unknown.

Butterflies from De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America (1779-82), by Cramer, Pieter. This is the first treatise on Lepidoptera to use the then-newly developed binomial classification system by Linnaeus. This work contains hundreds of "original descriptions" and many new-to-science Lepidoptera species.

A complete catalog of species can help scientists determine if conservation initiatives are focusing on and prioritizing the right environments and species or if efforts should be directed elsewhere. “We know we're losing biodiversity at a rate that is 1,000 times faster than we should be, and if we're going to stop that hemorrhaging of species, we have to know what the species are and most important, where they are. This is a vital first step in making decisions about where to act," explains Dr. Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University, in a 2012 Seeker article.

You can help!

Effective conservation and appropriate responses to environmental changes relies on a complete biodiversity picture. Obtaining a comprehensive species catalog hinges on the work of taxonomists, who in turn are dependent on the knowledge held within the pages of historic taxonomic literature. 

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your holiday giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more posts detailing the critical roles BHL and historic literature play in understanding past extinctions and saving earth’s biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Latino Natural History: Recognizing the contributions of Latino naturalists

While there are plenty of accounts on the natural history of Latin America, many of the best-known stories are from the point of view of outsiders, especially those from the age of extensive European exploration. The new exhibition “Latino Natural History” aims to turn the focus to a few notable naturalists of Latin American origin, and recognizing the work they did to further the study of the world’s flora and fauna.

Some of the featured naturalists, like Puerto Rican American ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, were greatly celebrated by their peers and beyond. However, many of the remaining naturalists would go unrecognized in their lifetime, or over time their names would be buried under those of more well-known scientists. The reasons for the imbalance in recognition were as varied as the countries these scientists are all from.
Flora Mexicana wasn't published until nearly 70 years after Mociño's death.
For some of these naturalists, political turmoil would keep their work from being published in their lifetime. For example, José Mociño was a Mexican botanist and explorer who joined the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain directed by Spain’s Martin de Sessé y Lacasta. Mociño’s work during the expedition was quite extensive; he would eventually be assigned to oversee the remaining tasks of the expedition when Sessé died in 1808. However, his political affiliations during the Napoleonic Wars would result in his exile, and the expedition’s findings would go unpublished until decades after Mociño’s death. Instead, what the scientific community had to rely on were the accounts of Prussian explorer Alexander Humboldt and his travels through Latin America.
Cucurbita moschata | Stahl Collection, U.S. National Herbarium, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Others would be hindered by a lack of financial support. Puerto Rican naturalist Agustín Stahl is best known for the time and effort he put into the study of Puerto Rico’s flora. His Studies of the flora of Puerto Rico  was the first detailed work on the subject. However, the watercolors which were meant to be included in the six installments would remain unpublished because Stahl didn’t have the funds to print them. As a result, Studies remains incomplete, but today Stahl is recognized as one of the fathers of Puerto Rican natural science. He is even commonly attributed as the man who introduced the idea of decorating Christmas trees to the island.
Cyathea albidopaleata. Collector: Ynes Mexia | Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany
The exhibition also features Latinos and Latinas who overcame personal obstacles to become successful in their fields. Ynes Mexia, Mexican-American plant collector, didn’t join the scientific community until well into middle age. Mexia’s life would start in Washington, D.C., and would take her to Texas, and Mexico, where she would eventually marry and settle down. Along the way she’d experience personal struggles with anxiety which she wouldn’t overcome until she left Mexico and settled in San Francisco, California. There she’d discover an interest in botany, and her prolific plant collection resulted in the discovery of 500 new species.

Although the careers of these Latinos and Latinas were often met with obstacles, it’s not to say it was all doom and gloom. Several of the naturalists in the exhibition were members of the greater scientific community and were well-respected by their contemporaries. Many of the scientists even had new species and museums named after them. Although some of these names may be unfamiliar thanks to the test of time and selective history, their contributions to the world of natural science are undeniable.

The exhibition is by no means comprehensive, but I hope you enjoy discovering all the stories we’ve featured here.

Adriana Marroquin
Digital Exhibits Coordinator

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Friday, December 12, 2014

We Need Books to Save Biodiversity

This month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts outlining the importance of biodiversity literature, made available for free and open access through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to today’s scientific research and conservation initiatives. With your help, we can help save biodiversity. 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is revolutionizing the way scientific research is conducted by providing free and open access to biodiversity literature and archives representing over 500 years of scientific exploration, research, and discovery.

What’s so special about Historic Literature and Archives? 

Historic literature and archival fieldbooks provide information that is critical to studying biodiversity. These documents are replete with data detailing the morphology, phylogeny and ethology of earth’s species. In many cases, this literature constitutes the only available knowledge for rare, endangered, and extinct species.

The Mascarene Parrot. Now Extinct. Rothschild, Lionel Walter Rothschild. Extinct Birds (1907).
In addition to species data, published books and fieldbooks capture ecosystem profiles, distribution maps, inter-dependency observations, and geological and climatic records. They also provide an historical perspective on species abundance, habitat alteration, and human exploration, culture and discovery.

This information has a multitude of applications in modern-day science. It is used to populate species databases and datasets that inform present-day research. It not only allows scientists to study biodiversity, but also to save it by enabling new species identification and facilitating the development of holistic conservation methods that integrate all of the factors necessary for a species’ wellbeing into its overall protection strategy. Furthermore, the discoveries captured in historic literature provide the foundations upon which contemporary models, theories and disciplines are based.

Cane Toad. From the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America: Catesby, Mark. Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-47).

Sadly, much of these publications and archival content are available in only a few select libraries in the developed world.

“Science is all about disseminating knowledge and building upon what has come before, yet so much of our knowledge of plants and animals has remained inaccessible to those who could make use of it,” laments Dr. John Sullivan, an evolutionary biologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and Cornell University. “This has been a big part of the ‘taxonomic impediment.’”

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is Alleviating the Taxonomic Impediment 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library boasts a collection of over 45 million pages from over 150,000 volumes and has served more than 3.5 million people in nearly every country since its launch in 2007. Additionally, BHL has made over 93,000 of the illustrations within its collection available in Flickr, which in turn have been viewed over 80 million times. Services such as taxonomic name finding tools, custom PDF downloads, and open APIs allow users to easily locate and reuse these resources.

“BHL is radically changing the status quo and democratizing access to knowledge about biodiversity,” lauds Dr. Sullivan. “Now anybody in the world has instant access to the original species description in a couple of clicks!”

The first published illustration of the Duck-billed Platypus. Shaw, George. The Naturalist's Miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects, Vol. 10 (1799).

Of Global Importance 

Open access to biodiversity data is beneficial on a global scale, advancing scientific fields more quickly and connecting scientists and their research more efficiently than ever before, especially in developing countries with traditionally limited access to vital resources. “[The Biodiversity Heritage Library] has done an enormous amount to enhance the capacity of developing countries to undertake taxonomic research on their biota,” asserts Dr. Dai Herbert, a malacologist at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in South Africa.

The repatriation of knowledge can also help countries better assess, monitor, and protect their native biodiversity. Recognizing that “identifying the factors that shape biodiversity locally helps to preserve them better in the future,” the United Nations, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, requires every signatory country to “identify and monitor the biodiversity of the organisms within its borders.” Thanks to BHL, countries now have access to information about and catalogs of the species within their boundaries, which can be used to form the basis of national biodiversity indexes and direct local conservation efforts.

Insects. From Biologia Centrali-Americana. As this work contains all of the known information about the biodiversity of Mexico and Central America at the time of its publication, this title is still fundamental to the study of the biota of this region.

Help Save Biodiversity 

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is helping scientists save biodiversity, which in turn sustains our well-being as humans. “We need biodiversity to satisfy basic needs like food, drinking water, fuel, shelter, and medicine...Ecosystems provide services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, control of agricultural pests” (Source: American Museum of Natural History website) and the “regulation and control of infectious diseases" (Convention on Biological Diversity).

Coffea arabica, which accounts for 75–80 percent of the world's coffee production. It is also believed to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated. Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1883-1914).

As we face a global biodiversity crisis that threatens the future of many species and habitats, unfettered access to biodiversity information has never been more important.

We rely on donations from users like you to help grow our library and keep it free and open. As you think about your holiday giving, we hope you’ll consider making a tax-deductible donation to help save biodiversity.

Stay tuned for more posts detailing the critical roles BHL and historic literature play in discovering new species, understanding past extinctions, and saving earth’s biodiversity.

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library