Persistent Colonial Legacy: The Impact of Herbaria on Biodiversity
Category Nature Wednesday - July 5 2023, 09:32 UTC - 7 months ago Herbaria are collections of pressed, dried plant specimens and a type of natural history collection. Although herbaria are mostly European constructions, colonies have contributed to the specimens in former colonial countries' herbarium cabinets. Our data suggest that former colonies’ herbaria house fewer plant species than naturally found in the region, reducing these former colonies’ capacity for botanical research. However, 21st century former colonial powers have resources at their disposal that provide a unique edge in the study of the botanical world, requiring us to strive to make herbaria more equitable and inclusive.
Wednesday - July 5 2023, 09:32 UTC - 7 months ago
Herbaria are collections of pressed, dried plant specimens and a type of natural history collection. Although herbaria are mostly European constructions, colonies have contributed to the specimens in former colonial countries' herbarium cabinets. Our data suggest that former colonies’ herbaria house fewer plant species than naturally found in the region, reducing these former colonies’ capacity for botanical research. However, 21st century former colonial powers have resources at their disposal that provide a unique edge in the study of the botanical world, requiring us to strive to make herbaria more equitable and inclusive.
Some of the world’s most popular museums are natural history collections: Think of dinosaur fossils, gemstones and preserved animals. Herbaria – collections of pressed, dried plant specimens – are a less-known but important type of natural history collection. There are some 400 million botanical specimens stored across over 3,500 herbaria around the world, but most are not widely publicized and rarely host public exhibits.
I study biodiversity and global change, and these collections have fueled my work. My collaborators and I have used herbarium collections to study how flowering times respond to changes in climate, how dispersal traits and environmental preferences affect the likelihood that plants will become invasive, and how fires affect tropical biodiversity.
I have had easy access to specimens from every corner of the world, but most researchers are not as lucky. This is partly because herbaria as we know them today are largely a European creation. And like other natural history collections, many of them grew as imperial powers expanded their colonial empires and amassed all kinds of resources from their colonies. Today, over 60% of herbaria and 70% of specimens are located in developed countries with colonial histories.My colleagues and I wanted to understand how many herbarium specimens are not where the plants originated and are housed in former colonizing countries instead. Our international team of researchers from herbaria on every continent analyzed over 85 million plant specimen records from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the largest online repository of biodiversity data, and also surveyed physical herbarium collections across the world.
We found that many former colonial powers have more plant diversity in their herbarium cabinets than they do in nature. Our data suggest that this is not the case, however, for former colonies, whose herbaria often house fewer plant species in their collections than are found naturally in the region. This disparity can limit former colonies’ capacity for botanical research.
A persistent colonial legacy .
Herbaria are centers of botanical discovery and research, and are critical for understanding the diversity of plants and fungi around the world. The specimens they hold were originally collected to document and classify species. Todayscientists use them for additional purposes, such as reconstructing plant evolutionary history, tracking pollution trends and identifying potential new drugs.
Botany was the science par excellence of colonial empires. Botanists moved numerous living and preserved plant specimens to institutions in colonizing nations which sought to exploit their colonies’ biological resources.
For instance, physician and naturalist Hans Sloane, often credited as the inventor of chocolate milk, acquired numerous plant specimens from overseas colonies via his connections with the slave trade. His collections formed the basis of Britain’s Natural History Museum. Well-known scientists, including Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus and their disciples, relocated large numbers of plants from across the globe to European museums and collated physical and living collections.
Historically, European herbaria maintained a monopolistic control over specimens collected from the colonies. This was further fuelled by the need for professional botanists to travel overseas as part of their research, for they could make use of local and regional knowledge that often cannot be acquired from books or specimens stored in distant cabinets.
This imperialist control of herbaria continues to this day. We found that around one-third of the specimens in former colonial powers’ herbaria originate from colonies, while fewer than 20% of specimens in former colonies’ herbaria do. Thus, smaller herbaria in former colonies lack the diversity of specimens of those in former colonial powers. This has led to decreased research efforts and opportunities for botanists based in former colonies. It can also make it harder for botanists to identify species from former colonies, which can be difficult even in the era of digitalization.
In the 21st century, former colonial powers have enormous resources at their disposal - their herbaria provide them with a unique edge in the study of the botanical world. And yet, with this power comes responsibility. In light of the global biodiversity crisis, it is important to recognize that large herbarium collections have had a diverse and inequitable history and to strive to make them more equitable and inclusive. As scientific researchers, we must strive to ensure that valuable collections and specimens are made accessible equally to citizens from all nations.