Illuminating BHL’s Dark Data
Citizen Scientists and AI Unlock Key Biodiversity Data in GBIF
Flora, Fauna, and Photography
Five Years of Digitising Content for BHL in Aotearoa
Interlinking BHL Data
in the Wikimedia Project Ecosystem
The Biodiversity Heritage Library thrives on international partnerships and collaborative projects. In the fall of 2021, representatives from BHL participated in a number of planning meetings and conferences in support of global biodiversity projects. Meetings included the BiCIKL hackathon, GBIF Governing Board Meeting, and TDWG 2021 virtual conference.
Carnivorous plants, beguiling vegetables capable of attracting, trapping, and digesting animal prey, have fascinated generations of botanists on nearly every continent. However, there is perhaps no better way to trace their rise to cultural prominence than through the eyes of the Darwin family. The botanical legacy of Charles Darwin, his grandfather Erasmus, and son Francis, conveys the dramatic shift in how carnivorous plants were perceived by general botanical audiences from the late eighteenth century and into the twentieth. From poetic musings about their carnivorous habits to pulp fiction accounts of man-eating vegetal monsters, the BHL carnivorous plant collection offers a glimpse into the powerful spell these plants have cast over readers and observers through the centuries.
Charles Darwin was enamoured with carnivorous plants. As early as 1859, soon after encountering the sundew Drosera rotundifolia on an English heath, the author of On the Origin of Species wrote, “I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world” (Darwin Correspondence Project). By September 1860 he was working with Dionaea muscipula as well, and would later dub the Venus flytrap “one of the most wonderful” plants in the world (Darwin 1875, 286). Darwin’s rigorous experimentation with these enigmatic vegetal carnivores culminated in 1875 with the publication of Insectivorous Plants. This treatise laid the framework for the study of plant carnivory as it exists today and cemented the notion of carnivorous plants in the scientific and public imagination.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library has released an Acknowledgment of Harmful Content to recognize deep prejudices within some of the pages of its collection. As a digital library of natural science publications and archival materials, BHL is a free and open access online resource that primarily reflects the print collections of its contributors. Some of the content in BHL is harmful because it reflects ableist, classist, colonialist, eurocentrist, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and other biased views, especially in descriptions of peoples, lands, and species. The long and, at times, painful history of the scientific record has privileged hegemonic perspectives with the right to print while stifling the voices of the powerless.
BHL joins recent global outcries against racial and environmental injustice. We are assessing our role as a digital library and the responsibility we have to question our neutrality and address harm without reducing access. We are deeply concerned about the continuing crisis of global species loss and the inequitable divisions within our own species. Reflecting on ourselves, we see an organization grappling with inclusion and the acute consequences that these harmful views have on the world and its people today.
In a world where staggering habitat destruction and biodiversity loss have become the new normal, understanding the extraordinary interactions between plants and humans is increasingly urgent. Yet the human tendency to ignore the importance of plant-human interactions remains persistent. The Plant Humanities Initiative at Dumbarton Oaks seeks to address this gap in plant awareness through an interdisciplinary coalition of programs and scholarship tackling the cultural significance of plants in human affairs.
As the Digital Plant Humanities Intern for Dumbarton Oaks this summer, I will be writing an interactive, visual essay on the cultural history of Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) for the Plant Humanities Lab – a new open access portal developed by Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR Labs. Accompanying this essay is a BHL collection highlighting the wealth of digitized scientific literature and botanical illustration surrounding carnivorous plants. These fascinating organisms attract, capture, and digest animal prey in order to supplement the nutrient-poor soil of their natural habitats. Today, over seven hundred species possessing this specialized suite of adaptations have been identified, evolving at least seven times independently!
The large-leaved kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera) is native to the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, where it is widespread and common. While it grows naturally only in Aotearoa, it has been cultivated extensively outside of this range, including as one of a number of New Zealand plants historically introduced into English gardens.
Natural history literature provides a record of such introductions, with many authors remarking on the suitability of Sophora tetraptera—often referring to it under the synonym Edwardsia grandiflora—to the English climate. For example George Loddiges, within his The Botanical Cabinet(1826), remarked that it was “sufficiently hardy to bear our climate, planted against a wall; in very severe frost, a mat should be hung over it.” Two decades later, British writer and botanical authority Jane Wells Webb Loudon included the plant in herThe Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants (1848), where she noted that the original plant could still be found growing in Chelsea Garden in 1848.
Loddiges’ and Loudon’s references are just two of many sources related to the history of Sophora tetraptera that Mark Laird (Professor, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto) identified thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) whilst conducting research for a prospective book. One of the book’s chapters explores a variety of New Zealand plants introduced into English gardens from the 1770s to 1840s, in the context of both Kew’s colonial collecting and Māori heritage. BHL was an invaluable resource for this research—especially during the COVID-19 related lockdowns of 2020.
Plant species worldwide face an increasing barrage of threats to their survival. The deliberate collection of rare plants poses a far greater threat to wild plant species. In Wild Plants in Trade (1992), the reasons and effects of wild collection on plants for cultivation and international trade can be found. The trade of orchids, bulbs, cycads, palms and tree ferns, cacti and other succulent plants, carnivorous plants and air plants were introduced in detail in the second half of this book, as well as the attempts to control the collection of these plants by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and governments.
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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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