In part 2 of this two-part blog series, guest author Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, explores the future of the extensive specimen collection housed at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos.
One of the fascinating aspects about natural history collections is that it’s impossible to predict how new technologies will advance possibilities for making scientific use of these specimens. E.g., none of the first generation scientists who worked at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the 1960s would have thought that their samples would one day serve to extract DNA for 21st century conservation projects. Yet, in our efforts to study long-term changes and animal diseases, this is exactly what is happening now with some of the older specimens.
New technologies regularly open up avenues for using natural history collections in ways that foster science and conservation. That’s why protecting them for future generations is so important. However, an effective strategy to professionally manage and plan the future of such a natural treasure requires much more than to just keep them safely stored away. Modern-day collection management has to cater to a whole range of stakeholders and needs.
One area where the Charles Darwin Foundation has already made significant progress is in making these collections more accessible through digital media. Besides offering information to scientists from around the world through our Datazone (where we have information about 99% of our collection), Galapagos enthusiasts from around the world can view our botany collection, the Herbarium, with Google Maps, and can learn more about the day-to-day scientific use of our vast range of specimens on YouTube.
Securing the physical storage of our collections is currently a major concern. The facilities of the Charles Darwin Research Station were mostly built in the 1990s and early 2000s. Not only have needs changed since then, the tropical climate has also caused damage to the existing facilities, and in some areas we have simply run out of space. As part of an ambitious new infrastructure plan, our organization has now proposed to unite all four of our collections, which are currently spread across three buildings, into a single facility. Such a building should not only include space to house and expand the collections for the next 30-50 years, but also offer more space for laboratories, students, and the public to see at least some of the specimens and to learn more about the value of keeping such a reference tool.
Building a facility for specimen collections is no easy feat, especially 600 miles out in the Pacific ocean on an island where all construction material needs to be shipped in. The potential construction of such a new facility is currently in early-stage discussion. No funding has been secured yet, but a fundraising proposal including an attractive naming opportunity is in the making. Even if it is agreed with all stakeholders and the Government of Ecuador, it will likely be another 2-4 years into the future before ground will be broken.
All of this is ultimately geared towards producing more science for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. There is much that remains to be discovered in Galapagos, and just recently an extensive review of existing lichen collections, carried out by Dr. Frank Bungartz, revealed that there are hundreds of as-of-yet undiscovered lichen species. We will also be enhancing our existing citizen science application, the Darwin for a Day app.
The mandate of the CDF is to provide science-based advice to the Government of Ecuador for conservation of the Galapagos Islands. The natural history collections, carefully built and managed over decades and investing millions of dollars, are providing essential tools to conservation managers to distinguish species, understand their ecology, and ultimately, find the best strategies for conservation management. At the Charles Darwin Foundation, we will continue to work hard to enable the collections to be used to further the knowledge of the natural world and to preserve the Galapagos Islands.
Swen Lorenz, Executive Director
Charles Darwin Foundation
Read part 1 of the CDF Collections blog series for a behind-the-scenes look at the Charles Darwin Research Center’s specimen collection.