Earth Day 2021: Exploring Earth’s Biodiversity through Books
Since its inaugural event on 22 April 1970, Earth Day has grown into an international annual celebration of the Earth and a movement to raise awareness about and support for environmental protection. This year’s theme, Restore Our Earth, emphasizes that, “As the world returns to normal, we can’t go back to business-as-usual.” As we face widespread climate change and unprecedented biodiversity declines—with one million species threatened with extinction—immediate, online access to essential literature is ever-more important, allowing scientists to conduct research more quickly and efficiently and improving our ability to respond to these crises. For fifteen years, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has worked as a global consortium to provide this vital access, empower research, and make a real difference in our ability to improve the health of our planet for every species that calls it home.
This year, several of our global partners have selected a few titles from the BHL collection to commemorate Earth Day. From exploring Asia’s vast and unique biodiversity to inspiring conservation through a popular publication on birds, providing practical methods for conducting surveys and using the data to support conservation practices, and marveling at the extraordinary biodiversity of past ages, these titles highlight the richness of our planet’s biodiversity and remind us of the importance of protecting the wonderful, wild, and beautiful life on Earth.
Asian Biodiversity: An Essential Contributor to Our Beautiful Earth
By Zheping Xu, Xuejuan Chen, and Tian Jiang (National Science Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Biodiversity is essentially everywhere, ubiquitous on Earth’s surface and in every drop of its bodies of water . Biodiversity conservation makes great contributions to the restoration of the earth.
As a continent with the largest area and the most population, Asia holds vast biodiversity, from the equatorial region to the Arctic area, and from the coast of the western Pacific to the borders of Europe and Africa. Here, we introduce several books that review Asian biodiversity, from mammals and insects to some distinctive species from the continent.
Mammals of Eastern Asia (1947) is the first general work on mammals of eastern Asia . The book’s carefully prepared chapters and fine original pen sketches are interesting, useful and invaluable to the amateur as well as the professional zoologist regarding the habitats, relationships, life histories and idiosyncrasies of the widely diversified faunas.
Cerambycidae of Northern Asia (1988) describes the morphology, geographic distribution, and biology of cerambycid beetles in Northern Asia of four subfamilies (Prioninae, Disteniinae, Lepturinae, and Aseminae), comprising 124 species. Many cerambycid species are invasive pests of environmental concern, causing severe damage to forests and crops. Long-term field investigations were conducted on the composition and biology of cerambycids in different parts of northern Asia. Tens of thousands of larvae, pupae, and adult insects were raised in the laboratory for experiments. Keys to taxa of the family Cerambycidae based on different developmental stages are presented in this work for the first time. This book provides important information for informing broad theoretical principles and in resolving practical problems of pest infestation in forests.
Asia is home to endemic and highly distinctive focal species. Tracking tigers (Published in 1998) gives a comprehensive overview of the wild status of the Tiger, Asian Elephant, Gaur and Banteng in Indochina. On this basis, it recommends future survey and management needs, and provides background discussion on issues to be addressed by national action plans. The Philippines’ fauna is characterized by large numbers of endemic and highly distinctive species. During the 1980s, the extent of rain-forest habitat destruction became apparent and underscored the need for extensive and detailed documentation of biological diversity to guide development and conservation for the benefit of both wildlife and the human population of the Philippines. The Mammals and birds of Camiguin Island, Philippines, a distinctive center of biodiversity (published in 2006) presents studies of Camiguin Island, a small island province in the Philippines and an ideal natural laboratory in which to investigate many aspects of the evolution and conservation of biological diversity.Biological species in Asia are important components of Earth’s biodiversity. Biodiversity is closely related to human well-being, but human activities caused rapid changes in biodiversity over the past decades. To restore our Earth, we must identify and assess drivers of biodiversity loss, including habitat change, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution .  Duraiappah, A. K., Naeem, S., Agardy, T., Ash, N. J., Cooper, H. D., Diaz, S., Faith, D. P., Mace, G., McNeely, J. A., Mooney, H. A., Oteng-Yeboah, A. A., Pereira, H. M., Polasky, S., Prip, C., Reid, W. V., Samper, C., Schei, P. J., Scholes, R., Schutyser, F., & Van Jaarsveld, A. (2005). Ecosystems and human well-being: biodiversity synthesis; a report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. World Resources Institute. http://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.354.aspx.pdf.  -S., T. Mammals of Eastern Asia. Nature 161, 188 (1948). https://doi.org/10.1038/161188e0.
Our Southern Birds and Emma Bell Miles: Inspiring Appreciation for and Protection of Birds
By Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D. and Alison Kelly, MLIS (Science, Technology & Business Division, Library of Congress)
Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919) was a talented artist, writer and naturalist whose writings reflect her love of the Tennessee mountains where she spent most of her life. In Our Southern Birds, copyrighted in 1919, she recorded her detailed observations and knowledge of the birds of Appalachia, an area that had received little attention in the popular publications on birds until that time. Through this and her other works capturing the essence of natural life in the Southern mountains, Emma Bell Miles drew attention to the importance of preserving biodiversity and habitat.
In the introduction to this, her last book, she stated:
…while the scientific study of birds is beyond most of us, yet an intimate understanding of them and their ways is within reach of everyone, and may enrich life with a new depth of interest… Go out alone in early morning, keep the sun at your back, be careful to do nothing that will startle these timid creatures, and see what you will see.
Our Southern Birds includes many beautiful illustrations by Miles, who, as a young woman, left her home in the mountains to study art in St. Louis. Plagued by homesickness for the mountains, she returned to Appalachia after two years and married a mountaineer. Their marriage was a difficult one, marked by poverty and illness, and she was often the sole supporter of the family by selling her writings, art and poetry.
Written for all levels of readers, this engaging book will appeal to anyone with an interest in birds. Part of the genius of Emma Bell Miles’ work is that she succeeds in presenting not only a careful description of over 100 birds and their habitats, but captures the individual personalities and demeanor of any given species through words and pictures. Her desire to recruit readers to active birdwatching is shown in the inclusion of blank pages for recording observations.
“Shadows from the Past,” the final chapter of the book, mentions several species that are extinct or close to extinction. “Let the disappearance of these winged lives from their one-time haunts lead us to set a higher value on those that remain,” she writes. In poetic language she goes on to describe the tragic extinction of the passenger pigeon, concluding with an appeal that we can learn from the past: “…it is not too late to learn from the mistakes of our fathers, and though we have lost some valuable species, we may yet save others that are following these to extinction”.
In celebration of Earth Day we want to shine a light on Emma Bell Miles, whose skills in observing and recording the natural world around her will inspire readers to appreciate and preserve biodiversity in their own special place on Earth.
Environmental Evaluations Using Birds and Their Habitats
By Samantha Lindgren (University Library, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
In their 1976 book, Environmental Evaluations Using Birds and Their Habitats, Jean and Richard Graber offer practical methods for surveying birds in Illinois with the purpose of curating data for environmental impact statements. Published as one of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Biological Notes, the book details the data they have collected from these methods, including bird populations and habitat acreage. Throughout the book are also tables, graphs, and images supporting their methods and findings. While the book was published 45 years ago, it came at a time when concerns for environmental protection was just beginning to affect change, and it remains relevant in its advocacy for environmental conservation and restoration.
Earth Day 2021’s theme is Restore Our Earth. This theme resounds throughout the book in details of habitat surveying and restoration. As the authors posit, Illinois is a large state with diverse habitats and niches, some of which are difficult to redevelop once they are threatened. The authors discuss seven categories of gross habitats found throughout the state: forest, shrub, marsh, residential, grassland, small-grain fields, and row-crop fields. Some of these habitat types are more specific to regions of Illinois than others—such as natural marshes occurring most frequently in northeastern Illinois—however each mention comes with information on habitat replacement cost (the time required for restoration of a habitat or community), acreage data, and associated flora and fauna. Alongside this information, the authors also describe their experimental surveying methods. Through these factors, the authors garner concern for habitat conservation and restoration.
The methods discussed for collecting data on bird populations garner this concern as well. As the authors state, “…in the conservation of species we must be concerned for the welfare of all the populations that comprise the species” (11). In the context of this book, this means assigning a fair value to birds when applying an avifaunal index during surveying. However, this sentiment can be applied to Earth Day 2021 as well; in the restoration of our Earth, we must be concerned with the welfare of all aspects of Earth. Moreover, the authors supplement discussions of how and why to collect data on bird populations by speaking in-depth about the derivation of their models, and using them in practice. In this way, the authors are not only advocating for conservation and restoration, they are also providing tangible means to implement conservation and restoration practices.
Environmental Evaluations Using Birds and Their Habitats is a great representation of how to turn concern for Earth’s restoration into meaningful action, and should serve as an example that all levels of skills and fields of interest can be utilized to help Restore Our Earth.
Description of the Skeleton of an Extinct Gigantic Sloth
By Cat O’Carroll (Natural History Museum Library & Archives, London)
In the year 1841, a discovery by M.Pedro de Angelis in Argentina unearthed the skeletal remains of a long extinct species……
Following on from the theme of Earth Day 2021 to Restore Our Earth, and raising issues of climate change, I’ve reflected on a title which highlighted a once extraordinary species which used to roam the earth, Description of the skeleton of an extinct gigantic Sloth, Mylodon robustus, Owen, with observations on … Megatherioid quadrupeds in general by Richard Owen (1842).
Owen, once curator at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, was later in his career put in charge of the British Museum (Natural History) collections. As a result, he campaigned that a new building was needed to house the ever-expanding collections, which later built in 1881, became the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London as we know it today.
After exhuming the finds of the Mylodon robustus, it was then purchased by the Royal College of Surgeons and shipped over to London. In November 1841, it arrived in many pieces and fragile, in need of much restoring. Fossils discovered by Charles Darwin indicated several species of large quadrupeds had become extinct in South America. Owen compares descriptions of fossil remains of the Mammalia, which were collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle and accounted in The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle … during the years 1832-1836.
Megatherium (so named and described by Cuvier, 1795), discovered in the 18th century, was shipped to the Museo Nacional de Ciencias in Madrid. However, if you happen to walk down Fossil Way at the Natural History Museum today, you cannot miss the full Megatherium skeleton cast which stands on display. In terms of scale, Owen compares some of the bones of the Mylodon to that of Megatherium and a full-sized elephant.
The Life of Richard Owen (1894), by his Grandson Rev. Richard Owen, summarizes how Owen was puzzled by the habits of these extinct creatures: “Their teeth showed, by their simple structure, that they lived on vegetable food, and probably on the leaves or tender twigs of trees”. It was hard to see how, like sloths today, they could possibly adapt to climbing trees given their sheer size and weight. Owen conjectured that they may have pulled the branches down from the trees instead of climbing them. Mylodon was also furnished with a “long tongue like a giraffe’s, which would help it to reach its leafy food”.
The NHM Library & Archives holds a large collection of natural history drawings and original artworks amongst its collections. In November of 2019, the Images of Nature Gallery saw the installation of George Johann Scharf’s (1786-1860) watercolour drawing of a Megatherium on full display. Completed in 1842, this one drawing comprises of fourteen sheets approximately 2463 x 5745 mm which Scharf completed for Owen. A MEGA task in itself!
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