Thursday, October 12, 2017

Re-Examining the Jurassic Mammal Fossils of the UK

Elsa Panciroli, Palaeontology PhD candidate, at work on the Isle of Skye. Photo credit: Elsa Panciroli.

Mesozoic mammal palaeontology is in the middle of a revolution. Since the first mammals and their closest mammal-like relatives were discovered in the early 1800s, most of the fossil record for these earliest ancestors of ours were fragments of jaw and isolated teeth, the size of rice grains. In the last fifteen years however, an increasing number of more complete skeletons have been found in China, radically changing our understanding of the first mammals. It turns out they were more diverse and ecologically specialised than anyone previously suspected.

Now we have new skeletons, it is more important than ever to pull together and sort through the historical fossil finds and descriptions. This means tracking down old and often obscure scientific papers. That’s how I discovered BHL.

My name is Elsa, and I’m in the third year of my PhD on the origin and evolution of mammals, at the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland. My work centres on the spectacular fossils found on the Isle of Skye; a beautiful island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. The Middle Jurassic limestones of Skye are yielding the best Mesozoic aged mammal fossils found in the UK, and arguably among the best in the world.

The mammal fossils of Skye come from similar aged rocks to the very first Mesozoic mammal fossils ever described. In 1824, The Reverend William Buckland not only introduced the Victorian world to the meat-eating dinosaur Megalosaurus, but also a sturdy little mammal jaw, complete with little pointed teeth. This came to be called Phascolotherium. These fossils were recovered from the Stonesfield Slate of Oxfordshire. The rocks are Bathonian in age, a Jurassic time period spanning 168-166 million years ago.

Upper jaw and teeth of Megalosaurus. Buckland, William. Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield. Transactions of the Geological Society ser. 2, v. 1: 390-396. Digitized by California Academy of Sciences.

Since Buckland’s initial description, the Bathonian rocks of the UK have been the most productive Mesozoic mammal strata. Many new species and genera have been identified from sites such as Kirtlington in Oxfordshire, and Watton Cliff in Dorset. In order to understand the relationships between the mammals we are now finding on Skye, and previous fossil finds, I’ve had to scour old journal articles and papers.

Thanks to the BHL, I’ve been able to read the original descriptions by William Buckland and Richard Owen, and those by the many great palaeontologists who followed them. To begin with, I had relied on sending hopeful emails to established colleagues to try and beg obscure old scientific papers from them. I came across BHL a few months into the first year of my PhD, via desperate searching for old articles online. To my delight, many of the old journals I needed were on their website. Once I found what I wanted, it was easy to select the relevant pages and generate a PDF, which BHL emailed to me within minutes. This service has to be one of the best things BHL offers.

From Richard Owen’s On the Jaws of Thylacotherium prevostii (Valenciennes) from Stonesfield (1838), to Clemens and Mills Review of Peramus tenuirostrus Owen (Eupantotheria, Mammalia) (1971), I’ve been able to track down papers unavailable elsewhere. These may be old, but without them I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the full scientific history of the specimens we are working on today, nor check on the references of previous authors who cited them.

Panciroli prospecting for Jurassic fossils in Northern Skye. Photo credit: Elsa Panciroli/Davide Foffa.

Some of the papers BHL have been able to provide have had even more direct bearing on my own publications. They’ve also proven a test of BHL’s staff helpfulness – a test they passed with flying colours.

Many of the animals I study were not yet true-mammals; lacking the distinguishing skeletal characteristics that define this group, such as a dentary-squamosal jaw joint. They are instead, the closest relatives, referred to as mammaliaforms and mammaliamorphs. One such group are the Tritylodontidae. These animals would have looked a lot like mammals at first glance, but they are only a close-sister group. They split off from the mammals and charted their own course through evolutionary history, developing grinding teeth for eating vegetation, and growing much larger than their contemporaneous mammal cousins.

The first tritylodontid described was from the Jurassic of England, a creature called Stereognathus ooliticus. In 1857, Sir Richard Owen figured it in one of his papers, from the type specimen which comprises three molar teeth in a piece of upper jaw. My colleagues and I were looking at the related Stereognathus species, S.hebridicus from Skye. Our goal was to determine if the Scottish species was truly different, or whether all of these fossils were actually from the same original English species. To make this comparison we not only had to look at the original fossil, but track down a high quality copy of Richard Owen’s figure from 1857. Online we found plenty of copies of it, but none in the high resolution necessary.

Stereognathus ooliticus. Owen, Richard. 1857. On the affinity of Stereognathus ooliticus (Charlesworth) a mammal from the Oolitic slate of Stonesfield. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 13:1–11. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

I contacted the BHL by email. They had the journal containing Owen’s description. I visited one of their Member libraries at the Natural History Museum in London, where a helpful staff member found the journal and showed me how to use the scanner. When this proved not to yield a high-enough resolution image for my purposes, she took me behind the scenes and we scanned the figures on another, more powerful scanner in the back-office. I was so grateful!

Thanks to the images I got that day, my co-authors and I were able to finish our publication: A reassessment of the postcanine dentition and systematics of the tritylodontid Stereognathus (Cynodontia, Tritylodontidae, Mammaliamorpha), from the Middle Jurassic of the United Kingdom (See Figure 3). We saw how the fossil drawn by Owen had been worn and damaged over the years by comparing this image to the existing specimen. The damage has an impact on how we carry out taxonomic comparisons between new material found, and the old type specimens. This knowledge wouldn’t have been available without BHL’s resources and assistance.

I now use BHL at least every month or two. Instead of a last resort, I consider it one of my first stops in any search for historical publications. In an age when researchers increasingly expect to be able to access resources online, it provides an amazing resource. The fact that this resource is open access is just amazing. It is only right that everyone should be able to appreciate our shared biodiversity heritage: BHL is helping make that a reality.

By Elsa Panciroli (@gsciencelady)
PhD Candidate - Origin and Early Evolution of Mammals 
University of Edinburgh / National Museum of Scotland


This post may contain the personal opinions of BHL users or affiliated staff and does not necessarily represent the official Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) position on these matters.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Charles Schuchert: “[He] mapped the ancient seas and fathomed the geologic past”

The Yale Peabody Museum of History has partnered with the Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project to digitize a selection of primary natural history field research. Over the last year, the Peabody Museum has made 69 of invertebrate paleontologist Charles Schuchert’s field notebooks available to the public through Internet Archive and BHL.

Schuchert (3 July 1858 – 20 November 1942) was known for his seminal works on brachiopods, his unprecedentedly detailed and accurate paleogeographic maps of North America, devotedly supporting students academically and financially, and an unwavering dedication to his studies that resulted in over 236 published works, 130 paleogeographic maps, and more than 89,000 invertebrate paleontology specimens in the Yale Peabody Museum alone.

Lore has it that his affinity for invertebrate paleontology was cemented when a worker digging a ditch near his home in Cincinnati casually tossed 8 year old Schuchert a fossil [1]. Collecting such fossils from the local hills led to what would eventually evolve into the 2nd largest brachiopod collection in the nation [2]. Even in those early years, Schuchert’s scientific rigor was evident as he carefully labeled each specimen under his care (even if his first specimen determination of “petrifaction of a nanny-goat’s horn” did turn out to be a coral) [3]. At some point (sources variously say he was 11 or 17), he purchased The Paleontology of Ohio from a local drugstore and began his study in earnest.

Despite the auspicious early years of this lifelong love affair, Schuchert’s paleontological career began late, and was not without obstacles. During his childhood, Charles’ mother Agatha worked in a sewing factory, and his father Philip managed to start a modest business making parlor tables. Charles juggled chores and homework with opening their shop at 7am and continuing work there after school. Upon completing the 6th grade, Charles left school and devoted his days to working in the furniture factory’s varnish room.

 In 1877, when Charles was 19, a fire broke out in the furniture factory and burned it to the ground. After emigrating from Germany and struggling to make ends meet for his small family, the devastation wrought by the fire overwhelmed Philip, and he sickened and died. But Charles, in one of the many instances in which he persevered against great odds, scraped together some $900, rebuilt the furniture business, and over the next few years expanded to become successful.
Schuchert, C. Field Notebook: Alabama. (1894).

In the same year as the fire, Charles befriended Edward Oscar Ulrich, another young man with a love of fossils. Ulrich had some university schooling and was appointed to manage the Cincinnati Society of Natural History collections. Shortly thereafter, Charles visited St. Louis to sell furniture and looked up an expert on crinoids, Dr. G. Hambach. From Hambach, Charles learned lithography, a skill which allowed him to assist Ulrich in publishing material on local brachiopods and bryozoans over the next several years.

In 1884, there was another fire and once again the Schuchert furniture factory burned down. For the next 4 years Charles worked as a laborer in other furniture businesses until the renowned state geologist/paleontologist of New York, James Hall, came to visit Cincinnati. On seeing Schuchert’s collection and expertise, he hired Charles as his assistant.

In Albany, Charles made a number of connections that would serve him well, including one with Charles Emerson Beecher, then faculty at Yale and staff at the Yale Peabody Museum. After some time spent studying Minnesotan brachiopods in Minneapolis, Schuchert joined the staff of the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington in 1893. That April he was sent to the Yale Peabody Museum to assist Beecher in preparing early carboniferous crinoids for display at the Chicago Exposition. Shortly after Schuchert’s return to Washington, he became assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology at the U.S. National Museum.

Hand-drawn map to which Schuchert added notes over many years. This map was eventually published in the second edition of Outlines of Historical Geology (plate 28, map 1, page 230).

Upon Beecher’s sudden death in the winter of 1903, Schuchert was hired at Yale as professor of paleontology, curator of collections at Peabody Museum, and a director of the Sheffield Scientific School. At 46 years old with a 6th grade education, he set foot in a college classroom for the first time and taught his first college courses. This unorthodox appointment resulted in uniquely valuable solutions to common problems: when faced with bored students struggling to imagine geographical relationships between places they had never seen, Charles developed extremely detailed paleographic maps.

Although researchers had been drawing paleogeographic maps since James E. Dana popularized them several decades prior [1], Schuchert revolutionized the practice by showing smaller time periods in his maps (on the order of only several million years, as opposed to entire geologic eras, which span several hundred million years). This smaller slice of time allowed Schuchert to represent a geographic area with exponentially greater precision. He argued repeatedly over the course of his career in papers, books, and lectures that mapping too broad a temporal span meant including so many geologic changes that the resulting model did not accurately portray any moment in history at all.

An astute observation about the need for more detailed paleogeographic maps and their utility as stratigraphic teaching tools turned into a lifelong project as Charles undertook trip after trip gathering data, and spent long evenings painstakingly adding details to the array of maps on the custom desk he had built for the task [4].

Schuchert, C. Field Notebook: Michigan, New York, Ohio, Ontario. (1895). 

Schuchert eventually produced maps of North America spanning all of geologic time. In 1910, he published Paleogeography of North America, which would become the standard text on the subject, and is still in use today [5]. The countless carefully recorded observations that made these feats possible are retained in his field notebooks: a historical record of a historical record.

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is honored to have the opportunity to share these notebooks with you. We hope that they continue to inspire the dreams of budding researchers, and that through them Charles Schuchert’s unflagging devotion to his passion can continue to support the efforts of the scientists to come after him as he did during his years as teacher, mentor, and first and foremost: paleontologist.

View Charles Schuchert's field notes in BHL here.

Written by: 
Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, Museum Assistant
Yale Peabody Museum of History

[1] Knopf, Adolph. "Biographical memoir of Charles Schuchert, 1858-1942." National Acad. Sei., Biogr. Mem 27 (1952): 363-389. 
[3] Kaesler, Roger L. "Carl O. Dunbar on Charles Schuchert." (1987): 406-410. 
[4] Schuchert, Charles. Atlas of paleogeographic maps of North America. Wiley, 1955. 
[5] Schuchert, Charles. "Paleogeography of North America." Geological Society of America Bulletin 20.1 (1910): 427-606.
Title quote from: Scientific Notes and News. (1935). Science, 81(2113), 633

The BHL Field Notes Project is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BHL Moves to HTTPS

HTTPS? What does it mean? HTTP is the language that your browser uses to communicate to BHL and the S stands for Secure, encrypted, unreadable, or at least much, much harder to read.

The web is moving to encrypted connections across the board. In 2014 Google announced that their page rank algorithm that decides the order of your search results will now rank insecure pages slightly lower than secure pages. From security to rankings, encrypted connections are better for everyone.

(Source: Sean MacEntee via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY 2.0))

"What does it mean for how I use BHL?" you ask.

Well, not much. If you go to a link that uses http://, you will invisibly be redirected to https:// almost immediately.

"What does it mean for my bookmarks or catalog?"

Those still work, too. If you wish, you may update your bookmarks to use https:// and if it's simple, your catalog and databases, as well. However, the old http:// will continue to redirect indefinitely and forever.

"Why would I want to encrypt my work on BHL? We're not doing top secret work here."

Encryption of the communication between your computer and BHL prevents malicious activity, such as intercepting the content, inserting some nasty code onto the page, and happily sending it along to your browser to wreak havoc on your day.

"How do I know it's really working?" 

You've seen it already: a green padlock icon, sometimes with the text "Secure" beside it. This indicates that the site and all of its content are fully encrypted and hidden from prying eyes and hackers.

"What if I use the BHL API? Do I need to do anything?"

After a minor hiccup this morning, no, there's nothing you need to do. Going forward, however, the best action to take is to update your code to use https://.

"Psst! This very blog post isn't encrypted. Did you forget it?"

Good eye for detail! We are in the process of updating the blog, and website encryption will be part of the relaunch later in 2017.

"And what about all those wiki pages that still refer to http://?"

We'll be updating those as we can. Thanks for your patience, but the links all still work!

In summary, carry on as you would and continue the great work you do. If you have specific questions, please feel free to send us feedback here.

BHL Welcomes Oak Spring Garden Foundation as a New Affiliate

This quarter, the Biodiversity Heritage Library welcomed the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF) as a new Affiliate. The BHL consortium now consists of 19 Members and 18 Affiliates.

With a mission to perpetuate and share the gifts of Rachel (“Bunny”) Lambert Mellon, OSGF is dedicated to inspiring and facilitating scholarship and public dialogue on the history and future of plants. The Foundation operates from Bunny Mellon’s 263-acre estate in Upperville, VA, which includes her residence, garden, and Library.

The Oak Spring Garden Library is home to Bunny Mellon’s personal collection of rare books, manuscripts, and artworks, which she acquired to support her research and design work. Consisting of approximately 19,000 objects, the collection’s strengths include garden and garden design, horticulture, botanical studies, natural history, voyages, architecture, and decorative arts.

Duhamel du Monceau, M. Traité des arbres fruitiers. v. 1 (1768). Contributed by the Oak Spring Garden Library.

As an Affiliate, OSGF will enhance BHL’s collection by contributing rare and unique material from the Library. Providing open access to this significant collection will allow the Foundation to share Bunny Mellon’s legacy with a global community and impact research around the world.

Visit BHL to explore Traité des arbres fruitiers, the first title contributed by the Oak Spring Garden Library to BHL. This title was hand-picked by Bunny Mellon for contribution to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Learn more.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Australia's First Flora

Smith, James Edward. A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland. 1793-95. Engraving by James Sowerby. Digitized by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

As far back as antiquity, Western scholars theorized the existence of a great southern continent that they called Terra Australis. While the continent found its way onto many early European maps, the depictions were theoretical and generally included a single landmass encompassing the South Pole and spreading far north to include Australia, New Zealand and, at its most extreme, even Tierra del Fuego.

With expeditions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the mystery in Europe surrounding this great southern continent slowly gave way to scientific exploration of the landmasses discovered, including New Holland, or Australia.

The published scientific record of Australian flora has its roots in the British Admiralty-commissioned voyage of William Dampier, which reached Australia in 1699. During the expedition, Dampier collected plant specimens, and his A Voyage to New Holland, published in 1703, is the first book known to include published drawings of Australian flora (Hewson 1999, 16-17). It has been digitized in BHL by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Dampier, William. A Voyage to New Holland. 1703. Digitized by Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Seventy years after Dampier’s voyage, the 1768-1771 voyage of James Cook to the South Seas sparked a renewed interest in the study and cultivation of Australia’s botany. The expedition’s natural historians and artists collected, described and illustrated many botanical specimens during the voyage, which were brought back to England for further study (ibid., 22-26).

Further expeditions established additional Australian plant collections, which were accessible to European botanists. For example, at the end of the eighteenth century, England sent the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish a penal colony on the continent. The colony eventually sent plants and animals from Australia back to England (ibid., 33-34).

John White, the First Fleet surgeon and an amateur naturalist, made many of these early collections. He had some of his specimens described and illustrated. Eight botanical species, along with numerous animal species, were published with accompanying illustrations in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790). It has been digitized in BHL by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

White, John. Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. 1790. Digitized by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

White sent his plant collections and drawings to Thomas Wilson, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, who then gave them to James Edward Smith for study (ibid., 34). This collaboration eventually contributed to the first published scientific book dedicated to Australian flora: A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland.

Smith, James Edward. A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland. 1793-95. Engraving by James Sowerby. Digitized by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

Issued in four parts between 1793-1795, A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland was initially published as part of Zoology and Botany of New Holland. Following the production of the first two botany parts, Zoology and Botany was split into two separate publications. James Edward Smith (1759-1828), a prominent botanist and co-founder of the Linnean Society of London (The Linnean Society of London 2017), wrote the plant descriptions for the botany parts while James Sowerby, a prolific natural historian, artist and engraver who produced thousands of illustrations over his career, prepared the engravings. Sowerby also engraved the plates for the aforementioned zoology volume, which was authored by George Shaw.

Smith, James Edward. A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland. 1793-95. Engraving by James Sowerby. Digitized by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

Sowerby prepared the sixteen engravings in A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland based on plant specimens and drawings that Thomas Wilson had received from John White. Several of these drawings were the work of Thomas Watling, a professional artist convicted of forgery. Transported to the penal colony in Australia in 1792, Watling worked under John White to paint the continent’s natural history. He is the only known convict artist whose work was used as the basis for a botanical scientific publication (Hewson 1999, 36-37).

Smith, James Edward. A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland. 1793-95. Engraving by James Sowerby. Digitized by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland has been digitized in BHL by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

The illustrations from the work have also been uploaded to BHL’s Flickr. This not only allows for easy exploration of this important botanical art, but the images have also been taxon tagged with the scientific name of the species depicted, making it easy to identify the plant illustrated in each image. Explore the tags section of each image in Flickr to see the scientific names. 

We encourage volunteers to help taxon tag BHL images in Flickr as part of our citizen science program. Learn more about how you can get involved

A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland introduced many Europeans to Australian flora. The illustrations were an especially important contribution to the scientific record of Australian plants. Sowerby’s work is a broader reflection of the importance of scientific illustration, which has been used for centuries to aid in the accurate identification of species and has supported the progression of the biological sciences at large. These illustrations were propagated through the publication of natural history books, allowing wider access to knowledge about biodiversity across the globe.  

By Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference 2017

Last week the Association of Zoos and Aquariums held its annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The conference draws around 2,800 attendees from a diverse group of institutions and organizations around the world.  The Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature team was able to send representation and take part in the poster presentations. 

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was originally founded in 1924 as the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, later changing its name to the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums and eventually selecting its current moniker.  The founding officers included  Chairman C. Emerson Brown from the Philadelphia Zoological Park, Vice Chairman Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth of the San Diego Zoological Society, and Secretary Will O. Doolittle.  The original directors were Edward H. Bean of the Milwaukee Zoological Park and George P. Vierheller of the Saint Louis Zoological Garden.  Chairman C. Emerson Brown’s publication “A pocket list of the mammals of eastern Massachusetts…” can even be found in BHL here. 
As a non-profit the AZA is “dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.”  The organization represents over 230 different institutions within the United States and around the world.  The AZA and their institutions have a strong commitment to animal welfare and conservation which is seen through the millions of dollars they commit to scientific research, conservation and educational programing.  

Besides supporting these areas they are also an independent accrediting organization.  With some of the highest and most comprehensive standards, not even 10% of the United States’ 2,800 licensed wildlife exhibitors meet the top standards held by AZA.  Every year AZA accredited institutions allocate $160 million on field conservation around the world- over 2,600 projects worked on by specialists in the field.  The AZA itself has provided a cumulative seven million dollars on over 375 projects in conservation.  Every year 40,000 teachers are trained at AZA accredited facilities, which lend support to state science curricula.  Overall, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ pledge to the natural world furthers the fields of animal welfare and conservation and trains new generations to save the biodiversity.
The conference began on Friday with committee meetings and the pre-conference tour.  On Saturday and Sunday, small session meetings and workshops were held.  Sunday evening an icebreaker was held at the Indiana State Museum ahead of the conference kickoff at the Opening General Session on Monday morning.  Below learn more about a sampling of the meetings, panels, and events that were attended by EABL.
Association of Zoos & Aquariums Signage
Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center (CELC) Meeting
The Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center, a network of 25 aquariums and marine science education centers located in the United States, Canada and Mexico, was originally founded in 1996 by Coastal America.  With strong support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the consortium works to involve the public in protecting coastal and marine ecosystems. One of the major topics at the meeting was aquaculture- cultivating aquatic animals or plants for food.  Not to be left behind the curve, BHL already holds a number of titles on the subject. Do you have any thoughts or feelings on aquaculture?  Let us know in the comment section!

California Association of Zoos and Aquariums
The California Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) is a way to bring together all of those involved in AZA accredited zoos and aquariums in the California area.  California currently maintains more accredited zoos than any other state- twenty-three.  CAZA is dedicated to monitoring the local legislation that would affect the welfare and conservation of the natural world. 

Icebreaker at the Indiana State Museum
Sunday evening the Indiana State Museum hosted a social event that allowed those in the zoo and aquarium field to catch up and enjoy Indiana history.  The museum, located along the Indiana Central Canal built in the 1800s, offered spectacular views of the city and even attracted the Indianapolis Colts’ mascot, Blue to join in the fun.

View from the Indiana State Museum of the Central Canal

Opening General Session
The conference kicked off Monday morning with the opening session.  Dennis Kelly, Chair of the AZA Board of Directors and the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, welcomed attendees to the annual conference and introduced Mike Crowther, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo who hosted this year’s conference.  He prepared attendees for the Indianapolis Zoo Day by throwing stuffed toy macaws into the audience to preface the zoo’s Magnificent Macaw exhibit which allows the birds to fly a half mile across the zoo and back  multiple times a day. 

The Opening General Session also included speeches by Dr. Carl Jones and Wayne Pacelle.  Dr. Carl Jones, winner of the 2016 Indianapolis Prize, is known around the world for his championing work in saving a number of different species that were on the brink of extinction: the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet and the Mauritius kestrel.  Dr. Jones noted that zoos have the answer to saving species and urged attendees to think of zoos as arks and be creative in animal management.  He recalled many instances where other scientists recommended saving species that were not high risk, but maintained his commitment to high-risk species.  His commitment paid off when he restored a species (the Mauritius kestrel) of four to four hundred over the course of a decade.  Dr. Jones noted “it is not hard to save a species, but it takes time” and “we should not tolerate any future extinctions.”  Through his experiences as a world-class conservationist, he challenged the idea that focusing on entire ecosystems was the only way to save a species.  Instead, he found that working with particular species saves entire systems and that it is not about preservation, but looking forward and thinking about the future.

Wayne Pacelle is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS.)  In the position since 2004, Pacelle has helped the HSUS grow and pursue its goal of being the largest animal care and advocacy organization in the nation.  Since the start of his tenure, Pacelle has overseen the passing of over 1,100 state animal protection laws and over 100 federal statutes.  Before Pacelle took the stage, attendees were urged to remember that diversity made us stronger and that this was even true of diverse and differing opinions.  Pacelle lauded the work AZA zoos have been doing in the areas of animal welfare and conservation and highlighted the work the HSUS is doing in animal protection.      

Nature of Americans
“The Future of Wildlife Depends on the Connections we Make Today and the ‘Nature of Americans’” was one of the first panels. The speakers- Claire Martin from the Disney Conservation Fund, Dr. Daniel Escher of DJ Case & Associates, and Monica Lopez Magee of the Children and Nature Network - presented a study done between 2015 and 2016 in response to the growing amount of time spent inside and on electronic media.  The major mission of the talks was to discuss what people think about nature and how do those in the field turn that into action.

Dr. Escher, a social scientist, talked about the Nature of Americans study (available at   Some of the key findings were that people like zoos and aquariums, the vast majority of children and adults like visiting zoos and aquariums, interest in nature is high across household incomes, and interest in nature is high and stable across educational levels.  Another major takeaway was that nature is social.  Most of the interviewed returned responses that showed people were more likely to experience nature in social groups rather than alone.

Magee went over some of the examples of using the data found in the study to connect with the community.  The first was “Nature in the City.” The Tracy Aviary in Utah brought nature to the community.  They attempted to go mobile and do activities outside of their institution. However, the initial attempt was not enough.  They eventually found that collaborating with local libraries and using them as a community hub and audience was very successful.  

Another example presented was at the Houston Zoo.  They had a Zoo Sprouts program that had always been indoors. In order to get more engagement with the users they just moved the program outdoors. They found that this caused the children to be more inclined to meet and touch the animals and to explore their surroundings. The idea that nature is messy and unexpected things happen within it versus technology, which can be more stagnant, were shown by both the study and the case studies to be the reason children were drawn to it.

Overall, this panel focused on explaining the study and examples of using nature in education and outreach in order to give those in the zoo and aquarium field ideas of how to use these findings in their own institutions whether in activities or even in branding.

Why Save a Species?
The “Why Save a Species” panel brought together five different international conservation projects that highlighted regional species and animal reintroductions. The presentations focused on lessons on wildlife management, human-animal interactions and public interaction, working with international colleagues and working with stakeholders to aid in saving species from extinction.

Dr. Melissa Songer gave the first presentation from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and National Zoo. It centered on restoring the Przewalksi’s horse to the wild in the Kalameili Nature Reserve located in Xinjiang, China. The Przewalksi’s horse was extinct in the wild in the 1960s with the only living animals being in Western zoos.  Within these zoos, and with careful genetic management, the population grew from 14 founders into 1,900 horses who lived in captivity.  Reintroduction efforts began, and they are no longer nearing extinction. 

This particular presentation was on the reintroduction efforts in Mongolia. Because of the harsh winters, they turned the project into a semi-release of the horses. The project members reached out to the locals to see if they were interested in the project and found that the locals were worried about how the release program would affect local pastures for the cattle and therefore affect the locals' livelihood. Dr. Songer noted that one of the challenges was balancing the goals of the different stakeholders.

Carlos Galvis of the Zoologico de Cali in Columbia presented on the Golden Poison Frog. The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zurich Zoo provided funding to help conserve the species in Colombia.  Through this research, they found that the range of distribution of the frogs was much larger than originally thought.  They are now working to use this new distribution of the species to conduct field studies and help determine if reintroduction is necessary.

Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation of the PanEco Foundation and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program talked about their work in reintroducing the orangutans to their native Indonesia. Through Dr. Singleton’s work, two genetically viable and self-sustaining wild populations have been established. Their goal is to release 350 orangutans at each of their sites.  So far 170 orangutans have been released in Jambi and 99 have been released in Jantho. They have been attempting to tackle the demand for wildlife in the illegal trade through education of the locals, finding that some of those involved just needed to be told that it was detrimental to the population of the orangutans. 

Dr. Amy Dickman, director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, highlighted the struggle between humans and carnivores in the area.  The Barabaig people have long had a tradition of killing African lions. Dr. Dickman’s team wanted to determine why they were killing the lions and other large carnivores which would contribute to eventual extinction of species. After many failed attempts at making contact with the tribe, they found that the people had started using the solar charging station to charge their mobile phones. Eventually they were able to create an understanding and trust with the community. 

She found that there were four major reasons why the carnivores were being hunted: deprecation of cattle, absence of benefit from their presence, rewards to warriors for the killing of the animals, and lack of motivation to care about the animals. To solve the first issue, they helped to build safe areas for their cattle and crops. They then started a point system that rewarded the community members for capturing images of the local wildlife.  The points could be exchanged for something they wanted- healthcare and other benefits. They also started a warrior school in order to allow people in the community to still gain notoriety.  The school provided these ‘warriors’ with educational benefits. Thanks to Dr. Dickman and her team they were able to change an entire community’s understanding of nature.

John Newby, CEO of the Sahara Conservation Fund, talked about another species who has been extinct in the wild since the 1980s- the scimitar-horned oryx. The last surviving oryx was killed inside a game reserve in Chad.  In 2008 the Sahara Conservation Fund started its project to reintroduce oryx into their natural habitat. The first fully wild calves have already been born- there are currently 90 in the wild breeding and 23 offspring.  The Fund’s goal is to have 500 breeding animals that are secure and free-ranging. Newby stressed that the zoo community played a major role in helping stop the extinction of the oryx and that the captive population was imperative for reintroducing the species.

Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, closed out the panel.  He noted zoos and aquariums need to continue to fight for every creature.  This includes the flagship or more well-known animals as well as the lesser known species and even the unknown species that have yet to be discovered.  It is also imperative to ignite visitors- engaging and inspiring the next generation to protect wildlife. Some of the overall takeaways were that while donors may want to give a large amount of money in a short time, budgets for conservation efforts need to be able to adapt and change without being specifically allocated. Each of the presentations mentioned the local communities, and it is important to note that they cannot sustain these conservation efforts.  Therefore, it is imperative that international supporters step up.  Since these conservation efforts take time, donor fatigue happens and those involved should be prepared to get creative with providing results and finding new sponsors.
Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature Poster
Poster Reception
The Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature poster was titled “ZooLiterature Online” and reflected the work the grant had done in the area of zoo and aquarium literature.  Since AZA was a relatively new area for BHL, a portion of the poster was general information about BHL highlighting some of the different ways content could be used and analyzed. The poster also highlighted the Expanding Access project, its goals, grant team institutions, accomplishments and zoo and aquariums contributors and titles in BHL, many added as part of EABL. The poster was well received and introduced many AZA conference attendees to BHL.

Explore the zoological titles highlighted in the EABL poster in BHL here:

Communities Come Together Over Gardens: Using Horticulture to Connect with Our Neighbors
The focus of most of the AZA panels was, logically, zoos and aquariums.  However, one of the final panel options centered around botanical gardens in zoos. The panel began with a look back at horticulture in zoos. Fifty years ago, it involved trimming hedges around the property. Forty years ago, zoos moved towards hiring horticulturists to create convincing habitats. Moving to thirty years ago, some zoos started becoming botanical gardens as well. It was just twenty years ago that zoos and aquariums became more interested in plant conservation as an added component to their missions. 

Presenting at the panel was Steve Foltz, Director of Horticulture at the Cincinatti Zoo and Botanical Garden; Paul Bouseman, Botanical Curator at the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden; Bob Chabot, former Director of Horticulture at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and current Chief of Staff at Zoo New England; and Christine Nye, Horticultural Programs Manager at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. 

Each presenter highlighted the work their zoos and aquariums did both within their institution and in their community in the area of horticulture. The Cincinnati Zoo worked to build bridges in their community by planting trees in areas of the town that were affected by tornadoes or in communities in need of transformation. They worked with master gardeners, Proctor and Gamble, and the Cincinnati Reds to help renew the community and change the way the community looks at the zoo. 

The Shedd Aquarium uses the spaces around its exhibit as a free public garden space and created volunteer and education programs around it. 

The Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden uses horticulture to attract people with the power of plants. Mesker’s local community comes in and volunteers and they gain a better connection with the zoo. 

The Jacksonville Zoo and Garden partnered with a number of different local organizations and even a high school. Chabot and the zoo worked to create gardens in a number of locations and used the local arts high school- Douglas Anderson School of the Arts- to record sounds for the Butterfly Hollow exhibit.
Indianapolis Zoo Garden

Zoo Day at the Indianapolis Zoo
The final event of the AZA Annual Conference was Zoo Day.  The day included full access to the rides and attractions- including the carousel, train ride, skyline, 4D theatre, Kombo Family Coaster, and Race-A-Cheetah. They also set up a number of different chats, demos, feedings and presentations throughout the afternoon and evening.  Between the hosted lunch, happy hour, dinner, and dancing AZA attendees were able to take advantage of a number of different Behind-the-Scenes Open-Houses that allowed those from other zoos and aquariums to get a better understanding of the operations and animal care at the Indianapolis Zoo. 

Also attended were Public Perceptions of Zoos and Aquariums in a Changing World, Classic Continuing Conservation, What’s New in Exhibit Design?, and Cognitive Tasks for Great Apes: Promoting Conservation, Research, Education and Animal Wellness.

Moving forward, the Expanding Access team and the Biodiversity Heritage Library hope to maintain our current relationships with Zoo and Aquarium institutions and publishers.

Are you part of a zoo or aquarium and interested in what you can do to get involved? Here’s some tips on what you can do!
1.       Use BHL!
2.       Consider adding your publications to BHL. 
3.       If you have legacy literature you want scanned from your library or archive, email us!
4.       Suggest titles you would like to see in BHL and we will do our best to include them.
For any of these suggestions please email us at or use our Feedback form here.  You can also check out our poster presentation in PDF format here.

Post by Mariah Lewis
Metadata Specialist
The New York Botanical Garden
Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature Project

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

NDSR Residents Update

BHL NDSR Mentors and Residents at the Missouri Botanic Garden [Photo by Martin Kalfatovic]
Hello again from the NDSR Residents! Since our last update in July we’ve been focusing on transforming our research into recommendation outlines that we presented to the BHL Tech Team last week. As we head into the final quarter of our residencies, we’ll be focusing on tweaking these ideas, developing workflows and proof of concepts, and finalizing our recommendations in a Best Practices White Paper by December. For this update, we wanted to give a preview of what some of these recommendations will look like and invite some preliminary feedback from the BHL Blog-o-sphere that we can consider as we move into these final months.

Katie has been evaluating current and investigating long term crowdsourcing projects to enhance BHL data and metadata. This has mostly focused on manuscript transcriptions and OCR corrections, but has broadened to include data extraction, named entity recognition, and optimizing, cleaning, and disambiguating collections data for use in large scale computational research.

Her recommendations include the following:
  1. Develop a sustainable, long term transcriptions and corrections crowdsourcing platform in which users identify items to correct or transcribe, tag text with scientific and common names, locations, events, dates/times, and other valuable observation data, and enjoy immediate access to updated text;
  2. Since crowdsourcing is likely not going to scale up to meet the transcription and corrections needs of 52+ million pages in BHL, staff and partner institutions should continue to investigate automated data recognition and extraction methods. Crowdsourced data will likely prove to be valuable training data for future algorithms;
  3. Add already transcribed content to the portal as plain, not marked up text;
  4. Disambiguate and add authority control to bibliographic metadata; and
  5. Donate data to Wikidata to expose collections to the semantic web. A linked data knowledge based, Wikidata will allow users to connect content in BHL to related collections and information across data repositories. Focus on bibliographic metadata to ultimately enrich structured citations across Wikimedia Foundation projects including Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, WikiSpecies, and Wikisource; and BHL’s rich index of taxa that can improve the discovery of protologues and other heritage descriptions and treatments in BHL literature.

Alicia has been performing content analyses on the BHL corpus to determine how much of the world of biodiversity literature has been digitized by BHL thus far in order to focus future digitization efforts. These analyses have required her to dive into some data and text mining to create proof of concepts for analyzing the 50+ million pages of BHL.

Her recommendations include the following:
  1. Improving BHL data exports and documentation to encourage more users to manipulate BHL data and look at the “collection as data”;
  2. Adding BHL citations to Wikidata; and
  3. Exploring filtering scientific names into kingdoms for browsing BHL content and for targeting underrepresented taxa in BHL.

Ariadne has approached the goal of searching and browsing for illustrations in the BHL portal with a wide lens: Understanding its strategic context, conveying lessons about data production and engagement from BHL’s illustration crowdsourcing efforts, and investigating the role of illustrations in the scholarly research cycle and among the BHL portal’s taxonomic users. She is looking forward to trying her hand at the interface design process, developing proof of concepts, and continuing to work with collaborators and advisors towards well-rounded final recommendations.  

Her preliminary recommendations include:

  1. Build upon scientists’ and the public’s mutual love of illustrations to further the cause of biodiversity (ex. Inviting scientists to share information about their work, species, and history of the field using illustrations as a touchpoint);
  2. Fulfill the desire of crowdsourcing volunteers to make information accessible according to personal or group interests, within constraints of limited management (ex. Pursuing connections with the Wikipedia community); and
  3. Pursue computer vision as a method of data production.

Pam has been distributing and analyzing user surveys to inform the next version of BHL. Over the summer, a survey was posted on the BHL website to capture the feedback of individual users coming to BHL for their research needs. Currently, two surveys are in progress - one gathering the feedback of those users affiliated with the consortium of BHL libraries, and the other seeking the input of organizations and individuals who use BHL at the system level.

Results are still preliminary at this time for the first survey, but her initial recommendations include:
  1. Performing usability studies to help inform the design process after seeing navigation and user interface issues appear in the survey comments;
  2. Conducting focus groups to delve further into user needs and priorities for requirement gathering of particular features and enhancements; and
  3. Focusing on top needs identified by users in the survey: -improving search and browse; -providing a more streamlined download experience; and -enhancing named entities, including author name, scientific name, and geographic name.

Marissa has been researching best practices in digital libraries to make recommendations for Version 2 of the BHL portal. Through examining Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America, Trove, and other large-scale digital libraries as case studies, she is researching which tools, services, and standards are being used to present their collections.

Her preliminary recommendations include:

  1. Utilizing BHL’s current APIs to improve website functions. APIs from other libraries have been used to improve access to content in many ways, including letting users search collections by item type, by creating Twitter bots to broadcast thematic or random items, and offering a Google Chrome extension to showcase high-res images, to name a few;
  2. Exploring data visualizations through tools including Kumu and Tableau. Visualizing BHL’s data would not only add another discovery layer to BHL but would also help BHL staff and members track statistics as well. In the coming months, Marissa will be working with Tableau to create visualizations; and
  3. Create a beta site when BHL Version 2 is in development. To ease users into a completely revamped website, having a beta site active before making the full transition over will help users get accustomed to new features.