Estonia creating virtual museum of natural history

NATARC develops services related to hosting and computing of scientific repositories and data archives, like the pictured butterfly collection (Estonian Museum of Natural History/Natarc.ut.ee)
Riin Aljas
10/21/2015 12:03 PM
Category: Sci-Tech

Estonian universities and national government institutions are building a virtual natural history museum NATARC. Developers hope that some of the database's unique features can be exported to the benefit of natural history museums, research institutions and governments in other countries.

Today, it is estimated that there are tens of millions of species in the world, yet an infinitesimally little number of them is known to humans. At the same time, the amount of information about different species – both alive and extinct – their ecosystems and their DNA is growing rapidly. Although old archives are vital for conserving this information, new ones are also required. What is more, it’s not only about building physical archives but also creating virtual ones.

As data is sometimes fragmented between databases, publications, natural science collections and other data mediums, it’s often difficult to gather and analyse information. So, there is a need for a general infrastructure that would enable the researcher, politician, teacher, and basically anyone to ask general and specific questions about the current state of ecosystems, making inquiries not just in physical archives but also online.

Natural history archives and information network (NATARC) is one of such solutions. It is developing a nationwide central infrastructure of bio- and georepositories, dealing with achiving, researching and databasing the collections. In addition to repositories, NATARC is developing information systems that are able to use most of the existing information about Estonian biodiversity in its analyses. This ability is essential for managing nature conservation problems, monitoring living nature, and discovering changes in the biota that result from climate change, invasive species, and other causes.

“Basically, we’re creating a virtual natural history museum of Estonia,” says Professor Urmas Kõljalg, director of the Natural History Museum of University of Tartu. He points out the uniqueness of the NATARC initiative, which lies in the fact that both Estonian universities and national government institutions are involved in it’s development. While its collections cover various fields such as protists, plants, fungi, animals and rocks, it’s the central information systems that allows to combine data and study hypothesis covering all kinds of taxonomic entities (species), attracting multidiscipinary research teams and international cooperation.

In addition to the vast physical collections, he emphasises the role of online databases and tools, which means there is no need to install any software into one’s computer. According to Kõljalg, NATARC’s public databases are accessible to all researchers, public officials, and nature enthusiasts alike. Right now, Estonians are working on simplifying the online working processes so that creating reports, publishing articles and identifying DNA sequences would be easier and faster.

NATARC is not only about Estonia’s bio- and georepositories, as the PlutoF cloud and SARV information systems are being actively developed for managing biodiversity and geological information respectively. PlutoF and SARV are used by researchers all over the world, with the high usage rate and interest from abroad leading to multiple research collaboration projects.

Right now, PlutoF has more than 1,800 registered users, one third of whom are located outside Estonia. Last year the database was visited by users from 42 countries altogether, most visits being from the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland. Vallo Mulk, who is tasked with developing NATARC’s client base and usage areas, says that the aim is to build versatile biodiversity and geological data management tools with the expetation that some of it’s unique features can be exported to the benefit of natural history museums, research institutions and governments in other countries as well.

NATARC collections conserve items from old archives( Photo: Natarc.ut.ee)

When Mulk is asked about the biggest challenges he faces in digitizing the collections, he says that the difficult factor is, ironically, history itself: “The most difficult part for us is to determine species that are older than 50 years and interpret their metadata (e.g., time, location, etc.) correctly. Also, there is always the question of finding funding to employ qualified people for the work.” It is fortunately getting easier with the development of scanners and digital cameras.

While Estonia is very rich in biodiversity, there are still ways to improve the ways its natural resources and biodiversity are managed and protected. NATARC is a science- and IT-led key initiative to knowledge-based nature management in Estonia.

This article was first published on Research in Estonia website.

M. Oll

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