Getting Fishy with BHL: Empowering Discoveries and Connections Around Museum Collections

Photograph of a fish specimen.

Type specimen of Cubiceps capensis in the Natural History Museum of London’s dry specimen store, which houses most of the Museum’s skeletons, skins and stuffed fishes. Many specimens in the collection are well over 100 years old. James Maclaine, senior curator of fishes at the Museum, often uses BHL when conducting research on specimens in the collection. Photo by: Kevin Webb, NHM Photo Unit.

Twitter is a popular communication channel amongst the scientific community. Scientists use the platform to communicate with colleagues and share their research findings with both other scientists and the public.[1]

Twitter may also be a valuable source of data for researchers. For example, ecologists from the University of Gloucestershire found that “Twitter-mined” data is useful for phenological studies, such as winged-ant emergence or the appearance of house spiders in the fall.[2]

Twitter conversations can also spark unexpected discoveries. For example, a recent @BioDivLibrary Twitter conversation helped uncover a connection between the scientific literature and a museum’s collections.

It began with Boops boops, a fish — commonly called a bogue — native to the eastern Atlantic. @BioDivLibrary posted an illustration of the species in response to a tweet from Deborah Paul (@idbdeb), who shared the species as an example of a name uncovered while experimenting with parsing taxon names as part of the recent BHL data mining workshop at the University of Illinois.

The illustration, published in A History of the Fishes of the British Isles (1862-65), was based on a specimen collected in October 1842 and deposited in the Museum of the Royal Cornwall Institute at Truro. The text also mentions a second specimen, which was presented to the British Museum by a “W.P. Cocks, Esq.”. Paul tweeted an inquiry to see if anyone could help track down the current location of the specimen.

@NHM_Digitise called on James Maclaine (@beardiddley), senior curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum in London, for help tracking down the specimens. Pulling from a reference in Albert Gunther’s Catalogue of the Fishes in the British Museum, Maclaine responded that the Museum likely held the “W.P. Cocks, Esq.” specimen (with the label reading “Cork” instead of “Cocks”) and proceeded to tweet a picture of the specimen itself.

Beyond providing an example of the kinds of discoveries possible on the Twitterverse, this conversation also highlights the value of scientific literature for providing information on museum collections.

“Sadly, despite their many other qualities, the Victorians weren’t great at recording some details which we now would consider essential, so it is often difficult to determine the history of a 19th century fish specimen,” shares Maclaine.

When information is missing on specimen labels, the literature may be able to help fill in the gaps. For Maclaine and others managing collections, having access to this literature through BHL is incredibly valuable.

Maclaine finds BHL’s collections particularly useful when researching type specimens, the specific specimen used to describe a new species and the “typical” example of that species.

“Types are the most important part of our collection and are essential to any research on the species that they represent,” explains Maclaine. “However, many currently lurk unrecognized on our shelves, and it’s part of my job to find them, correctly identify them as types, and then update our records accordingly. This is where BHL comes in.”

Man in a white shirt standing in front of a dried fish specimen.

James Maclaine, senior curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum in London, with a seabream collected from Cornwall by naturalist Jonathan Couch in 1843. The specimen is housed in the Museum’s dry specimen store. Photo by: James Maclaine.

Maclaine uses BHL sometimes several times each day, using the taxonomic name finding feature to locate literature on specific species, downloading relevant documents as PDFs, and linking to useful references using page permalinks.

“BHL has been fundamentally useful in two ways,” asserts Maclaine. “Firstly, it’s very easy to quickly get old references. Secondly, being able to download them is very helpful too. When investigating potential type specimens, I often have to go back to those first original species descriptions in the 19th century journals, which is now so quick and easy to do online. If I’m lucky, the species author will give a collecting locality, a collector and a measurement. If all three of those and the species name tie up with the specimen, I can be fairly certain that it was used when the species was described and is a type.”

Maclaine first discovered BHL via Eschmeyer’s Catalog of Fishes, a fish taxonomy database of all known fish names, the history of those names and where they were first published.

“One day I noticed a blue hyperlink next to a reference with the message ‘See ref. at BHL’, and that was that,” recalls Maclaine.

Man inspecting fish specimens in a museum drawer.

James Maclaine, senior curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum in London, inspecting specimens in the Museum’s dry specimen store, which houses most of the Museum’s skeletons, skins and stuffed fishes. Photo by: Kevin Webb, NHM Photo Unit.

As the manager of the fish collection at the Natural History Museum, Catalogue of the Fishes in the British Museum (1859-1868) is one of the most useful books in BHL’s collection for Maclaine’s work. In fact, it was this title that led him to the “W.P. Cocks, Esq.” specimen that he shared on Twitter.

Managing a 250+ year old collection means that Maclaine is responsible for ensuring that the information available for the specimens in his care is correct and up-to-date. BHL not only helps him provide reliable data for current researchers, but is also a valuable contributor to the legacy he will leave for future researchers.

“I have to think of all the generations of curators and researchers who will come after me and think, will what I’m doing be clear and comprehensible hundreds of years after I’m dead?” says Maclaine. “So, it’s great that I can now download the relevant references and then attach them to the specimen record so that everyone can see what I’ve done and why. I think the only bad thing about BHL is that it means I now spend less time in our Museum Library, another fantastic and irreplaceable resource!”

Man standing in a storage room for fish specimens.

James Maclaine, senior curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum in London, inspecting specimens in the Museum’s dry specimen store, which houses most of the Museum’s skeletons, skins and stuffed fishes. Photo by: Kevin Webb, NHM Photo Unit.

By making their literature digitally available, our Partners have ensured that anyone, anywhere can access important collections data. We’re proud to be a part of empowering new discoveries and connections, whether that be through a Twitter conversation or the diligent work of a museum collections manager.


[1] 2016. “New Study Reveals How Scientists Use Social Media.” Social Sciences, October 12. Accessed on July 9, 2019.

[2] Adam G. Hart, William S. Carpenter, Estelle Hlustik-Smith, Matt Reed, Anne E. Goodenough. “Testing the potential of Twitter mining methods for data acquisition: Evaluating novel opportunities for ecological research in multiple taxa.” Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13063.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.