On 23 March 2020, the U.K. went into its first national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and teleworking became the norm, and the walls of our homes became, in many ways, the boundaries of our individual worlds.
Amateur mycologist Clare Blencowe was eager to find a positive distraction from the realities of life during a pandemic. The Biodiversity Heritage Library’s open access collections, which for Blencowe had become a welcome refuge from the continuous onslaught of negative news articles, now became the inspiration for a new, socially distanced way to connect with other fungi lovers—in the form of “The Mycological Book Club”, an online, Twitter-based book club with a particular focus on open access literature.
As I am writing this, Melbourne is at the end of its second wave of COVID-19 and I have been separated from the library collections that I work with at Museums Victoria for six months, 25 days, 21 hours, and around 12 minutes… but who’s counting?!
The pandemic has created a lot of challenges, not least working out how to be a librarian of an overwhelmingly print-based collection from a distance, but this time working from home has also afforded me opportunities to present a handful of webinars, the most recent being a guest lecture on rare book cataloguing for library and information management students.
I can say without a doubt that this would have been a near impossible task without the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Imagine stepping into a world teeming with dazzling biodiversity. Everywhere you turn, colorful birds perch amidst exotic blooms, glimmering butterflies and energetic hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, shimmering serpents wind their way through a jungle of foliage, and an array of mushrooms add color and dimension to the forest floor.
This world, seemingly alive with biodiversity, is composed not of flesh and blood, but of ink and paper. It is a world brought to life from the imagination of Berlin-based American artist Clare Börsch using illustrations and photographs sourced mainly from open access collections like the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and painstakingly cut and arranged into a marvelous, three-dimensional ecosystem. Within this Biodiversity installation of collaged nature art, a wondrous world awaits.
On 5 June 1834, avid amateur botanist Hardy Bryan Croom wrote a letter to botanist John Torrey describing a gymnosperm tree in northern Florida that he was struggling to identify. In this letter, he postulated—with some degree of confidence—that the tree was Taxus baccata, the common yew, and he hoped to acquire some specimens to send to Torrey for investigation.
Torrey was one of the most important 19th century botanists in America. He corresponded with hundreds of scientists in North America and Europe, many of whom sent him specimens from their various explorations for study and identification. As such a well-respected expert and advisor on botanical science, it comes as no surprise that Croom sought Torrey’s expertise regarding this mysterious Florida tree.
The next year, in a letter dated 18 November 1835, Croom wrote again to Torrey, stating:
“The letter which I wrote last summer has had the effect to procure me some perfect fruit of that remarkable Taxoid tree at Aspalaga. The result surprises me. It is an ovate one celled nut entirely enclosed in fleshy covering! as large as a pigeon’s egg! Calix imbricated; thus agreeing neither with Taxus nor with Podocarpus. Besides, the tree, I think, is dioecious, but of this I am not yet certain. What will you do with it? Will it make a new genus?”
The following year, Croom again wrote to Torrey in a letter dated 18 May 1836 that he had determined that the tree represented a new genus. He proposed the genus name Torreya and provided a description and habitat details for “this fine tree,” for which he remarked:
“It is so abundant about Aspalaga (especially on Flat Creek) as to have been sawed into plank and lumber. It is an elegant tree with dark green foliage.”
With this letter, Croom provided the first recorded description of the habitat and abundance of the Florida nutmeg, Torreya taxifolia.
Sadly, Croom and his family drowned in a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Hatteras on 8 October 1837. As such, Torrey arranged that the new genus and species were formally named and described by botanist George Arnott Walker-Arnott in 1838.
While Croom characterized Torreya taxifolia as abundant in 1836, today the species is critically endangered. With a distribution restricted to the limestone ravines and bluffs along the Apalachicola River in northern Florida and southern Georgia, fewer than a thousand individual trees persist in their native habitat. The most significant threat to the species is continued reproductive failure resulting from fungal pathogens—a threat which is continuing but not well-understood.
In 1780, French naturalist François Le Vaillant traveled to the Cape of Good Hope and subsequently spent several years studying the region’s biodiversity. During his three journeys—the first around Cape Town and Saldanha Bay (April to August 1781), the second eastwards from the Cape (December 1781 to May 1783), and the third to the Orange River and into Great Namaqualand (June 1783 to c. May 1784)—Le Vaillant amassed a collection of thousands of specimens. Upon returning to Europe, he published accounts of his travels within Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1790, 2 vols.) and Second voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1796, 3 vols.)—both of which were best sellers and were translated into several languages.
Within these narratives, Le Vaillant writes repeatedly of his Khoikhoi guide, whom he called Klaas (but whose name in Klaas’s own Khoe language seems to be unrecorded). Le Vaillant’s respect and affection for Klaas is evident. In the first volume of his Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique, Le Vaillant writes:
“…le bon Klaas fut déclaré mon égal, mon frère, le confident de tous mes plaisirs, de mes disgrâces, de toutes mes pensées ; il a plus d’une fois calmé mes ennuis, & ranimé mon courage abattu.” [“…the good Klaas is declared my equal, my brother, the confidant of all my pleasures, of my disgraces, of all my thoughts; he has more than once calmed my troubles, & revived my shattered courage.”]
Klaas, of whom Le Vaillant wrote “by long practice [he] had become a naturalist”, also collected specimens for the French naturalist, which Le Vaillant later described within publications such as Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique (1796–1808, 6 vols.). One such specimen was that of Klaas’s cuckoo, a species native to the wooded regions of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Le Vaillant, Klaas collected the specimen “près de la rivière Platte” (“near the Platte river”). It was the only individual of this species that the company encountered during their expedition.
The solitary sea squirt Ascidiella aspersa is native to the Northeastern Atlantic, from the Mediterranean Sea to Norway. Living in shallow sheltered sites and harbors, this species has a fast growth rate and is able to produce a large number of larvae.
These attributes have helped make it a successful colonizer of non-native environments, such as the Southwestern Atlantic, where it has become an invasive species introduced likely via ships.
Dr. Evangelina Schwindt, Head of the Grupo de Ecología en Ambientes Costeros from CONICET in Argentina, studies Ascidiella aspersa as part of her research as a marine invasive ecologist. Her work involves researching the interactions between invasive and native species, the patterns and processes occurring in biological invasions from the historical and present-day perspectives, the impact caused by invasive species, and the management strategies that can be applied.
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The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is the world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. Headquartered at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives in Washington, D.C., BHL operates as a worldwide consortium of natural history, botanical, research, and national libraries working together to digitize the natural history literature held in their collections and make it freely available for open access as part of a global “biodiversity community.”
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