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.
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.
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.
Lidia Ponce de la Vega is a Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies at McGill University. As part of her dissertation, she is analyzing the BHL collection from the perspective of Latin America to understand how the region produces and engages with biodiversity knowledge and how knowledge of Latin American biodiversity produced elsewhere represents the region and its nature. As part of this process, she has conducted a critical study of the BHL México program to understand how users in Latin America engage with BHL’s collections as well as how the program can help decolonise biodiversity knowledge and help inform best practices for decolonising digital archives more broadly.
Little Lake Valley, located in northern California’s Eel River watershed, is home to several thousand acres of wet meadows and riparian woodlands that are habitat for diverse plants and wildlife, including tule elk, many bird species, and gorgeous spring wildflower displays. A landscape formed when sediments from several creeks filled an intermountain valley bounded by faults, the Valley is also home to two rare plants: the North Coast semaphore grass (state-listed as Threatened) and Baker’s meadowfoam (state-listed as Rare).
“The large lowland wetland ecosystem found in the Little Lake Valley, if not unique, is quite rare,” asserts Dr. Robert E. Preston, a Senior Biologist in the Sacramento office of ICF, an international consulting firm. “Most or all of the small interior valleys of California’s North Coast Ranges were long ago converted to agriculture or were hydrologically altered. Moreover, it supports almost half of the known occurrences of Baker’s meadowfoam, including the largest and most extensive population.”
In November 2016, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) completed construction of the Willits Bypass Project, a 5.9-mile long bypass of US Highway 101 in Mendocino County. First proposed in 1957, the controversial project, which crosses a corner of Little Lake Valley, raised a variety of environmental concerns due to its impact on endangered species and state and federally regulated resources .
Preston served as the lead botanist for the team that prepared the Project’s Mitigation and Monitoring Plan, which was developed and is being implemented by Caltrans to offset the bypass’ impacts on wetlands and rare plants.
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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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