Estonia Is Creating Its Virtual Museum of Natural History

Earth sciences information system SARV's used in managing the geological collections and associated scientific data of the Institute of Geology at Tallinn University of Technology, the University of Tartu Geological Museum and the Estonian Museum of Natural History. Yet, the database gets more than 20000 visits a year, of which half are outside of Estonia.  From NATARC's webpage
Earth sciences information system SARV's used in managing the geological collections and associated scientific data of the Institute of Geology at Tallinn University of Technology, the University of Tartu Geological Museum and the Estonian Museum of Natural History. Yet, the database gets more than 20000 visits a year, of which half are outside of Estonia. From NATARC's webpage

It’s a mixture of both physical and virtual collections, bringing natural archives to everyone’s home, both in Estonia and elsewhere, as digital tools for archiving, analysing and sharing the natural history collections are used all over the world.

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, their ecosystems, extinct species 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 in physical archives but also online.

NATARC is one of such solutions, as 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 to manage nature conservation problems, monitor living nature, and discover changes in the biota resulting from climate change, invasive species, etc.

“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 Prof. Kõljalg, everybody can use NATARC’s public databases; researchers, public officials, nature enthusiasts. 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 who are located outside Estonia. Last year the database was visited by users from 42 countries altogether, most visits being from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland. Mr. 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 both from old archives but also give digital information about species and their metadata. From NATARC's webpage

NATARC collections conserve items both from old archives but also give digital information about species and their metadata. From NATARC’s webpage

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 e.g. species found, there are still ways to improve for protecting and managing it’s natural resources and biodiversity. NATARC is a science- and IT-led key initiative to knowledge-based nature management in Estonia.

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.