Oceans Online

Digitization of collections unlocks climate clues.

bat stars, starfish
Bat star image by Mario de Lopez.

Let’s just say—you know, for argument’s sake—that you have millions (seriously though, millions) of specimens on shelves, in jars, on your desk—wherever!—that document the history of biodiversity of the Southern California coast for the last, oh, million years give or take a few hundred thousand. What would you do with them?

Keep in mind that this hypothetical collection of living or fossil animals—crabs, clams, octopuses, snails, shrimp—are a record of biodiversity over time. Their little bodies hold nearly endless information about how the animals lived and what their surrounding environment was like. The data from such collections could be used to investigate current and past climate change, inform today’s conservation efforts, understand the slow march of evolution, and inform policy and education decisions. But they can’t do much of that if they continue to sit on your shelf where no one but you can access them. This is the situation in our collections at NHMLA. Many of our marine invertebrate collections were collected over the past 100 years— before computers and printers— and have only handwritten labels. These specimens from our California coast today and the recent past represent everything from snails, octopuses, crabs, sea stars, jellies, worms, and sponges. And Invertebrate Paleontology has some of the same invertebrate organisms but in fossil form: crabs from 10,000 years ago to snails from many millions of years ago. Researchers in these collections are pursuing rigorous digitization efforts, using state-of-the-art equipment and old-fashioned elbow grease to comb through the many drawers and cabinets full of specimens and bring these creatures into the light of the 21st century. This means photographing them, transcribing their labels—some of which have 100- year-old cursive—and entering the coordinates of their original location into public electronic databases.

The same is done for the many incoming specimens to these collections, whether it’s a fossil or a fan worm. Researchers in our Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO) regularly collect new marine invertebrates from tidepools, boat docks, and the open ocean. These new specimens are not only digitized but also sampled for DNA. Their unique sequences are added