Our Collections Online: Opening Up Canadian Museum of Nature Collection data to the World

As the museum launches a new tool for searching our collection data, researcher Jeff Saarela, who participated in this project, shares his thoughts on the impact of global data sharing.

Much of the world’s knowledge of biodiversity (the variety of life, from genes to ecosystems) and geodiversity (the variety of Earth materials and the processes that form and shape them) originates from the study of physical specimens and their associated collection data stored in natural history collections throughout the world. Natural-history collections are a critical and irreplaceable component of the world’s permanent scientific record.

Data and specimens stored in natural history collections are used in many different kinds of research. All of my plant taxonomy research is collections-based. Plant specimens are the basis of all my species descriptions and distribution maps. They serve as references to aid in the identification of newly collected specimens and species new to science. Plant specimens are also sources of genetic materials for my molecular studies reconstructing the evolutionary history of grasses, providing a physical link between machine-generated DNA sequence data and the species and individual from which genetic information is obtained.

Shelves stacked with herbarium sheets.

A cart of herbarium specimens I was working on, as part of a project to develop DNA barcodes for grasses. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

I regularly consult the specimens housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s National Herbarium of Canada, and this where the first set of all of my new collections are deposited. In most taxonomic research, however, it is usually not sufficient to only consult material in one’s home institution. The collections housed at different institutions are often unique, and I regularly consult specimens from other herbaria in Canada and internationally.

In the past, the only way to access collection data from a museum was to either request a loan of material, visit the museum in person, or contact somebody working at a museum and hope they might be able to help with your information request. These methods work, but they take time and can slow research progress.

The search page of the Canadian Museum of Nature's new online collections database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

The search page of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s new online collections database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Like so many things in the world today, the internet has changed this. Collection data—the basic “who, what, where and when” information attached to every museum specimen—can be easily shared with the world over the Internet once they are recorded in a digital format.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has joined the global movement this week, launching its own online tool for searching our collection data that provides open online access to the museum’s digitized information about its collections. Put another way, we are opening up our vast library of biological and geological collection data to all Canadians and the world.

Global Science

A herbarium sheet.

An isotype of the Mexican grass species Bromus attenuatus Swallen, housed at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri. This image is available online. Image: © Missouri Botanical Garden, used under license (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Online access to collection data greatly facilitates taxonomic research. In my work I must consult type specimens, the original specimen(s) from which a description of a new species is made. These are often distributed around the world. Many institutions now provide high-resolution images of their type specimens online, and I regularly consult these. In botany, the images are often so good that it is not necessary to request a loan of the material, or visit the collection in person. (More on our high-resolution botanical images). This kind of access was impossible just 10 years ago, and really helps to speed up taxonomic work.

Online accessibility of collection data all over the world is allowing researchers to ask new questions. Relevant collection data from multiple institutions are increasingly combined and used in climate-change studies and modeling exercises, such as tracking the expanding ranges of newly introduced species. Collections are the foundation of our understanding of biodiversity, and this understanding will increase as more collection data becomes available online in an organized and accessible format.

Collection data from the Canadian Museum of Nature are an important part of the global record of biodiversity and geodiversity.

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