Cees Hof is Project Acquisition Manager at Data Archiving and Networked Services(DANS) in the Netherlands 

A first glimpse at the DPC ‘Save the Bits’ announcement on the compilation of a list of Digitally Endangered Species confused me when it passed my screen. Further scanning the text only increased this feeling as I encountered more ‘species’ related references, but it soon turned out I was misled by my own biologically biased search image.

It was especially the ‘IUCN Red List of Threatened Species’ that was steering me wrong. A list very familiar to me as a former coordinator of several large Biodiversity data programmes. But the DPC suggested list had nothing to do with plants, animals and microbes soon to disappear from our planet’s surface. It was all about their digital equivalents occupying binary niches and threatened by the lack of proper digital archives, outdated software formats, or insufficient human efforts to safeguard their existence.

A story on threatened living and digital species reminded me of a case where I encountered both. I once had the privilege to work with a retired Dutch professor who spent most of his scientific career examining rare plant communities in the high Andes of South America. For more than 4 decades he studied and described plant communities, monitoring their changes in composition and phenotypic expression over time. Most of the examined field sites were really remote and could only be reached on horseback. Fortunately he did not only describe the plant communities but also collected specimens of plants, shrubs, lichens, flowers, pollen and the occasional insects that all ended up in herbaria and research collections all over the world. These physical specimens now provide an invaluable reference for current research in the Andes where many of the high-altitude biotopes are threatened by climate change, mining activities and agricultural expansions. The botanical collections act as a reservoir of scientific information on species that are on the brink of extinction or have already disappeared altogether.

Interestingly enough the same professor also captured his expeditions on film. Almost all of the photographs he shot in all those years were digitised, basically to have enough graphical material for publications and presentations at hand. The image collection was exquisite. Plants, trees, flower details, vegetations, but also indigenous people, mountain slopes with geological oddities and scenic landscapes with snow-capped mountains. Without realising, a unique digital archive was created of interest to ethnographers, geologists, climatologist and obviously botanists. The images were telling the story of a biotope, climate and a people in change.

Unfortunately, the plant material was well preserved and safely deposited, but the digital images contained no proper metadata and were stored on some loose disks. Because the owner was retired and could no longer claim financial support from the research department, there were no funds to enhance the metadata. No clear policy within the department on storage of digital image collections. No proper infrastructure in place to guarantee the long-term storage and accessibility of the material. After a life of scientific work on real “Red List” biotopes and species, a digital collection of unique image material on the same biotopes was now under threat and could face a digital extinction in the end.

In terms of severity it is probably not entirely appropriate to compare the threatened status of species, the products of millions of years of evolution, with the disappearance of digital content, but certainly the IUCN Red list is a strong metaphor for items precious to us that might get lost forever. Special programmes, like the ‘DANS grant for small data projects’ we run here in The Hague, can provide little chances to safely deposit digitised heritage. But of course, a more structured well financed programme is needed to prevent a hidden secondary extinction of species information, whether it concerns real “species” or their digital equivalents. Otherwise… we are losing both.

Scroll to top