Memory bank: The Ditsong Museum of Natural History is one of about 40 such museums in SA. The Department of Science and Technology will invest millions to preserve this heritage. Picture: KEITH TAMKEI
Memory bank: The Ditsong Museum of Natural History is one of about 40 such museums in SA. The Department of Science and Technology will invest millions to preserve this heritage. Picture: KEITH TAMKEI

Across SA, thousands of plant and animal specimens are languishing in poorly catalogued museum collections. Although an important part of scientific research, the collections have suffered from systemic underfunding and neglect.

But that is about to change with the launch of the Natural Science Collections Facility.

SA is a globally recognised biodiversity hot spot, and has more than 100,000 plant and animal species. Over the past 200 years, scientists have been collecting samples across the country, and more than 30-million plant, animal and fossil specimens are now scattered among about 40 museums.

"The collections are essential as a reference for accurately identifying materials for bioprospecting, agriculture and health sciences," says the South African National Biodiversity Institute, which will act as a hub for the facility.

"They can be used to track pathways of disease and pest spread and to analyse past diets and movements of animal species, which is especially relevant for sustaining biodiversity-based industries."

The new Natural Science Collections Facility is one of the 13 major infrastructure projects laid out in the Department of Science and Technology’s "infrastructure road map".

In this financial year, seven infrastructure projects will be established: a national centre for digital language resources, an expanded environmental observation network, a nuclear medicine research facility, a network of health and demographic surveillance sites, shallow marine and coastal research infrastructure, a distributed platform for "omics" research — including genomics research — and the collections facility.

The other six, which are pencilled in for 2017-18 to 2020-21, are biobanks, as well as facilities for marine and Antarctic research, nanomicro manufacturing, solar research, material characterisation and a biogeochemistry platform.

The virtual Natural Science Collections Facility will receive R50m over three years, says South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) CEO Dr Moshibudi Rampedi.

"There will be a central co-ordinating hub, and Sanbi will be the host for the hub."

The aim is to consolidate and improve access to biodiversity collections, "so that you don’t have multiple points of access", she adds.

A 2011 report for the National Research Foundation, a major funder of research and research infrastructure, found that local and international scholars had complained about the deterioration of SA’s fauna and flora collections. There was also no active research on about 40% of the collections.

Similarly, an article published in 2012 painted a dismal picture of the country’s zoological collections, which include animal specimens.

It found that about 15-million specimens were housed in 22 institutions, and that the total budget to curate these collections of animals and fossils was R1m. The majority had no reliable temperature (72%) or humidity control (92%).

"The value of the collections for academic and applied research cannot be underestimated," writes Sanbi director of biosystematics research and collections initiatives Michelle Hamer in her article that was published in the South African Journal of Science.

"Much of the material is irreplaceable because of its collection over a long time, often from many localities from which the species have been extirpated as a result of habitat loss or degradation."

The new facility aims to create a central point to promote the maintenance and study of these collections. "They are currently scattered in many institutions in the country, and managed under various governance structures," says Sanbi chief director for biosystematics Ramagwai Sebola.

Some of these collections have fallen under national government departments, others provincial. Yet most are the responsibility of individual institutions or herbaria.

"The state of affairs in some of these institutions is appalling, and there is much to be gained from pooling resources," Sebola says. "All of these institutions will be brought under one [virtual] roof for the first time."

The policies and procedures of the collections will be harmonised, with benchmarked standards that will be instituted across all the collections.

"We are improving the value of the information around our collections, so that they can be accessed by anyone in SA or globally who works on our biodiversity.… There will be increased use of these collections for research," says Sebola.

Museum collections are a fundamental part of biodiversity research. For example, earlier this year Prof Yoshan Moodley of the University of Venda and an international team showed that the black rhino had lost more than 70% of its genetic diversity in the past 200 years.

Moodley’s research — which included collaborators in SA, the UK, Austria, Denmark, Kenya, Sweden and the Czech Republic — involved collecting genetic samples from black rhino specimens in museums.

By comparing DNA from these collections, researchers were able to trace and understand the geographic and genetic spread of black rhino that once lived in southern Africa.

Those involved also hope researchers and bioprospectors can use specimens in these collections to develop new products for the bio-economy, such as pharmaceuticals.

Sebola says there are gaps in the understanding of SA’s biodiversity. By consolidating collections and sharing data, "we will be able to map areas in SA where there are gaps in our biodiversity knowledge. We need to focus our efforts in those specific areas."

There is little information available on a major challenge to museum collections around the country. Linked to funding, understaffing has been a giant obstacle to the maintenance and care of museum collections. The 2011 report found that one in four curators of natural science collections would be retiring within five years.

"For now, we do not want to promise that we will hire many people, but obviously, we have done recruitment for some of the staff members," says Rampedi.

"We [at Sanbi] have internal capacity, and some of our scientists are now responsible for the facility, and they already have the knowledge and abilities," she says.

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