Animal and Plant Species – the Basic Elements of Ecosystems – Pose Multiple Challenges for Natural History Museums

GaubrechtArticles, Biodiversity, Earth Observation, Ecosystems, Original

Fig. 1: Distribution of GBIF species distribution data (graphics: GBIF)

Ecosystems are dynamic interactions between plants, animals and microorganisms and their environment that work together as a functional unit (definition by Convention of Biodiversity, Therefore, ecosystems must be defined by their distinctive biotic elements – the millions of animal and plant species – the species diversity. Ecosystems are arranged globally as terrestrial or aquatic and differentiated in an array of biomes as for example tropical forests, mangroves, coral reefs, freshwater rivers and lakes often in combination with their biogeographical realms: Nearctic, Neotropical, Palearctic, Afrotropical, Indomalayan, Oceanian, Australian and Antarctic. The undifferentiated “biomass” of ecosystems consists of multiple and dynamic interacting producers and consumers driven by the selective forces of evolution. The interdependence of these ecosystem elements expresses itself in more or less stable or fragile conditions. Single organisms as elements of ecosystems vary in metric scale from 10-7 to as far as 101, thus reflecting the difficult approach to their understanding. Accepting man as part of biodiversity, the term “artificial ecosystem” seems obsolete because humanity alters ecosystems, uses ecosystem functions and services but does not yet create ecosystems. Literally, all ecosystems are occupied, used or influenced by humanity in some matter. Degradation or change of ecosystems derive from changed functions and interactions and changes in the abundance and numbers of its elements – the animal and plant species.
Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Species – Inseparable Units
The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010) summarizes:

– Species which have been assessed for extinction risk are on average moving closer to extinction.
– Natural habitats in most parts of the world continue to decline in extent and integrity.
– The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.
– The ecological footprint of humanity exceeds the biological capacity of the Earth by a wider margin than at the time the 2010 target was adopted.

The problems faced include the degradations of ecosystem benefits: food, medicinal and genetic resources, for example. The tipping point between safe operating space and altered states of biodiversity (including ecosystems) is not known. Also, it is not well known at which stage less diverse and fewer ecosystem services lead to a degradation of human well being. We simply do not know the thresholds. Therefore, biodiversity research and ecosystem research must focus at the same time on defining measures for action on ecosystem conservation, and on research about the primary elements and functions of ecosystems for their better understanding.
The few hundred years of empirical ecosystem-related science yield amounts of scattered and hidden knowledge which needs to be merged and actualized. The awareness of this historic impediment, and the possibilities of new technologies, led to an explosion of projects aiming to gather, standardize and distribute biodiversity ecosystem knowledge globally.
As biotic units of ecosystems, animal and plant species must bear standardized names (e.g. Homo sapiens – modern man) which are necessary for any scientific comparisons or evaluations regardless of whether they concern ecosystem research, biodiversity research or genetics.
The scientific naming with binary species names was introduced and first published by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, only 250 years ago (Linné C., 1758). “All accumulated information of a species is tied to a scientific name, a name that serves as a link between what has been learned in the past and what we today add to the body of knowledge.” (Grimaldi & Engel, 2005).
Despite all scientific efforts, a huge gap exists between the around 1.7 million species already scientifically described and the estimated 14 million species currently existing. It is a necessary but difficult task to restore or describe ecosystem functions without knowing their elementary variables. Any technician would be deeply distressed with such a project. Charles Darwin’s paradigm (Darwin, 1858) of dynamically changing species by selective forces of undirected evolution and the later discovery of genetic variance made the task of describing and naming species not easier as reported by the International Commissions of Botanical and Zoologcial Codes of Nomenclature (,
Natural history museums store and conserve physical specimens of animal and plants for biodiversity research in their collections. Each species is scientifically described by one specimen, named a holotype – the species standard. Natural history museums also have the experts in naming newly discovered species. Most animal and plant species cannot simply be determined in situ by viewing in the landscape, but need collecting, preparation and determination techniques known by only few experts. Because of lacking standards, the estimation of currently existing specimens in natural history collections cannot be stated precisely. Estimates vary between 2.5 and 3 billion specimens (The Library American Museum of Natural History, 2003). The specimens’ attributed information about their geographic and timely occurrence is now in an early stage of being digitized in order to merge and distribute this information.
The biodiversity database ZOBODAT ( of the Biology Centre of the State Museums of Upper Austria was founded by an amateur entomologist, Univ. Prof. Dr. Rudolf Reichl, who also was one of the first professional informatics scientists. He started his first biodiversity database in 1972. Technical systems grew from desk calculator to database server and webserver in parallel with database records and tools for analysis and communication.
Now in 2010, this biodiversity database holds 3 million records with information of geographical and timely distribution of animals and plants. The tasks and queries available for the users reach from simple species lists and distribution maps to GIS applications and web- suitable communication.
However, the real challenge for natural history museums is not the fast growing information technology. To many observers the real problems sound in fact very basic: Keeping pace with collecting biodiversity, maintaining, conserving and managing the collections, low personnel and financial resources for employing scientists, and last not least, financing the digitizing of the specimens information, and digitizing the information in a reasonable time. Many funds are available on the international level for improving technology for computer-based communication, and for creating distributed databases and analysis tools. But the back-breaking work and funding for collection management and digitizing information is still the sole responsibility of the museums themselves.

Fig. 1: Distribution of GBIF species distribution data (graphics: GBIF)

GBIF and Catalogue of Life
The largest set of freely available biodiversity information in form of species distribution data is situated at GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility). GBIF is government-initiated and funded, in response to government agency needs in biodiversity information access and management. GBIF has 31 member countries and 65 associates on all continents. As of August 2010, GBIF offered access to 203,173,379 data records on the GBIF network (Fig. 1). These data are shared and distributed via 54 GBIF nodes.
GBIF is a global science/informatics research infrastructure:

– promoting global participation, linking up a global network of participants;
– enabling online publishing and sharing of biodiversity data;
– promoting development of data capture and exchange standards;
– building an informatics architecture; and
– catalyzing development of analytical tools.

The scientific names of species are collected in the Catalogue of Life. The goal of this project is to create a validated checklist of all of the world’s species (plants, animals, fungi and microbes). This is being achieved by bringing together an array of global species databases covering each of the major groups of organisms. Each database covers all known species in the group, using a consistent taxonomic system. The participating databases are widely distributed throughout the world and currently number 80. The existing global species databases presently account for some 60 percent of the total known species, so substantial investment in new databases will be needed for full coverage of all taxa to be achieved. This Catalogue of Life is used by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) as the taxonomic backbone to their web portals.
Mapping Biodiversity
Approaching ecosystems scientifically via their basic biotic elements – the species – was outlined above. One main task of biodiversity databases was and is generating distribution maps of animal and plant species on various scales.
GIS development allows the merging of different information layers and therefore produces new meta-information useable for a variety of applied and basic scientific questions. One problem of historic geographic data is their fuzziness. Geographical records often only refer to place names or even only to regions, for example mountain ranges. Their fuzziness ranges from 100 meters to many kilometers and therefore only allows mapping on regional scales. GPS located data with exact and small scale reference are still scarce. Therefore, most historical biodiversity data are not useful for small scale GIS applications. This makes them only partially useful for questions concerning ecosystems on the habitat level. Such studies need the acquisition of new data and the background knowledge about the quality of biodiversity data. But most available historical information allows good results on the scale of larger landscape elements with an accuracy of around 5×5 kilometer plots. This is the usual scale for regional distribution atlases of animals and plants, and also works for conservation studies in large scale conservation areas. Most evaluations of biodiversity hotspots in ecosystems derive from such biodiversity databases.
Public Awareness Needed
Evidently ecosystems are changing rapidly and in most cases with negative effects for man and biodiversity. Therefore, open access to ecosystem information is only one achievement. Rising public awareness about ecosystems and biodiversity is an equally important challenge linked with most ongoing projects.

Fig. 2: Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) – one of estimated 14 million species of the world’s ecosystems. (Image courtesy of G. Aubrecht)

Bioinformatics data handling for analysis and distribution alone does not help to make people aware of the beauty, benefits and variety as well as of the dangers in changing and degrading ecosystems. As long as a minimum of aesthetic landscapes, such as national parks or conservation areas exist, the awareness of global ecosystem conservation keeps being low, especially because ecosystems and their species seem to have no or low monetary value. Rising awareness of ecosystem values by education at all age levels is increasing slowly. As in bioinformatics, it needs experts to explain, show and market these values (Fig. 2).
Natural history museums can play an important role. The two largest natural history museums in London and New York each count around 3-4 million visitors annually, as shown in their press releases. Nature excursions and travels as a tourism sector are a growing market as well, despite not being always in harmony with nature conservation. It is ironic that an increasing number of people seem to be interested in visiting intact ecosystems while their burgeoning use causes these ecosystems to degrade continuously. The economic upside for biodiversity and ecosystem conservation is still not general knowledge.
The latest Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB, 2010) study on the economy of biodiversity and ecosystems found that not meeting the Convention of Biological Diversity 2010 Target would result in 7 percent losses in GDP by 2050. This means that the annual cost of forest loss will be between € 2-5 trillion ($ 3-7 trillion), dwarfing the current losses by the global financial crisis.
Biology Centre Linz, Upper Austria
Promoting knowledge about ecosystems emotionally and increasing knowledge about ecosystem values and services by bioinformatics are two approaches for the welfare of ecosystems that are equally necessary.
Because both approaches are closely tied with strategies and practices in modern natural history museums, we present the case of a middle sized natural history museum – the Biology Centre in Linz, Austria – to demonstrate how such projects are dealt with in practice.

– The Biology Centre is a natural history and research museum. It was founded privately in 1833 and has been publicly owned since 1920.
– The staff increased from two voluntaries to 32 paid staff members.
– Professional scientific collection management and work started around 1914.
– Botanical, zoological and geo-scientific collections now hold almost 10 million specimens.
– The scientifically and globally outstanding collections refer to Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants, etc.), microscopic protozoa (Ciliates), birds of prey, botanical herbaria and ammonites.
– Collections increase annually by around 150,000 specimens.
– Technical equipment includes genetic and preparatory laboratories.
– The biodiversity database ZOBODAT was one of the earliest founded and now holds around 3 million records with distribution data.
– Five regional and international journals are published (e.g., Linzer Biologische Beiträge).
– Seven scientific staff members publish regularly in regional and reviewed journals.
– Scientific projects are carried out regionally and internationally (e.g., Upper Austria, Costa Rica, Madagascar, Azores).
– Membership in CETAF (Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities) and ICOM (International Museum Committee)
– Austrian technical node for GBIF and important data provider.
– Contribution to Catalogue of Life: providing nearly 5,000 species names of the wasp family Vespidae.
– Regular participation in European Commission projects and Upper Austrian legal node for EU related research (e.g. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Europeana, 500,000 pages of Austrian biological literature digitized and web-provided at
– Supervising extended regional networks of amateur naturalists.
– Permanent and 2-3 annual special exhibitions with reference to ecosystems and biodiversity.
– Extensive nature education programs in the museum and by guided nature excursion.
– Integrated in cultural networks.

The challenge to increase use and offer collections for biodiversity and ecosystem research, to distribute results and make them publicly available as well as raising public awareness and education about ecosystems and biodiversity is met successfully as outlined above. According to contemporary needs, the Biology Centre took the steps necessary to move from a regional to an international program in orientation and communication. Problems of struggling with funding and low personnel resources are balanced by scientific and public acceptance.
The path forward from collecting specimens to mapping biodiversity for ecosystem studies can be long and laborious but it is essential for studying, promoting and conserving ecosystems. Natural history museums play an important role along this winding road.
Darwin C. (1858): On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life. John Murray, London, 502 pages. (
Grimaldi D. & M.S. Engel (2005): Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge Evolution Series. 772 pages.
Linné C. (1758): Systema naturae. 10th ed., Stockholm.
Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2010): Global Biodiversity Outlook 3. Montréal, 94 pages. (
TEEB The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2010): Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A synthesis of the approach, conclusions and recommendations of TEEB. (
The Library American Museum of Natural History (2003): A Preliminary Worldwide Survey of Systematics Collections Holdings conducted for The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).
Author biography
Gerhard Aubrecht. Born 1953 in Lower Austria. Scientific education in zoology and botany at the University of Vienna, Dr. phil. Since 1980 curator for the vertebrate collection; since 2002 director of the Biology Centre of the Upper Austrian State Museum in Linz, Austria. Scientific interests lie in ornithology, population monitoring, history of ornithology and natural history collections as well as biodiversity databases, resulting in numerous papers and books at regional, national and international level. Member of Wetlands International (1980-2003), CETAF, BirdLife Austria, RSPB etc. Promotion of biodiversity and natural history museum related topics.