The Value of Natural Science Collections


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Natural science collections are critical infrastructure for the field of science, which documents, catalogues, describes and names species.

Furthermore, taxonomic research involves the detailing of the geographic distribution of taxa, and enables accurate identifications of biological unidentified materials which is fundamental for all areas of research and practice that involve living organisms. This includes agriculture and fisheries, human health, protection of ecological infrastructure, enforcement in the illegal wildlife trade, climate change adaptation, and indigenous knowledge systems.

‘A fundamental role of natural history collections and herbaria involves safeguarding type specimens. These are preserved specimens of the individuals that were used to describe and name a species. As well as these, every natural history specimen with good data provides a physical snapshot of a species or community at a particular point in time and space. It is this physical scientific record that makes collections so valuable. The specimens play a vital role in our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, population genetics and the environmental impacts of climate change and pesticide use.’ (Jacobs, A. 2020).

Examples from South African collections:

  • Species new to science might be discovered in collections. A plant specimen which turned out to be an as yet undescribed species of Thesium recently reached my colleagues and me when it was submitted to the National Herbarium in Pretoria for identification. It was collected by chance by Mr S.P. Bester, a researcher at the National Herbarium, in 2016 while on a general collecting field trip in the vicinity of Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal. We subsequently visited the locality where the plant was collected and were able to photograph, describe and name new the species: Thesium ovatifolium after its very distinct ovate leaves. Without the herbarium specimen it is unlikely that this rare species would have been discovered timeously’ says Natasha Lombard from the National Herbarium, SANBI. (Visser Lombard, Natasha et al. 2019)
  • New species of leafhopper associated with rooibos tea. ‘Leafhoppers are sap sucking insects capable of transmitting plant viruses and phytoplasmas.
    A recent taxonomic study of local leafhopper species was based on specimens curated at the South African National Collection, Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, as well as specimens donated by Stellenbosch University in 2010, and material collected during field work from 1995–1998. Twelve new species were described in a new genus Geelus, which is named for the yellow colour of these species. One of these new species, G. dundraad, was collected on rooibos tea grown on a number of farms in the Western Cape Province, and also on various other plants at numerous localities, in the Fynbos Biome. At present the major leafhopper pest of rooibos tea is a different species, which feeds superficially and causes leaf shedding, but is not a virus disease vector. The new species belong to a group of leafhoppers that are known virus and phytoplasma vectors. Thus as the rooibos tea industry expands, the possibility increases that new diseases could be transmitted by these insects.’ ARC Plant Protection News
  • Sixty year old slides discovered of first plant-parasitic nematode species described in South Africa. Recently, as part of the preparation for the GRAP 103
    audit of the National Collections at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Pretoria, nematology’s collection manager Dr Chantelle Girgan found slides with the entire life cycle of the little-known species Meloidogyne acronea Coetzee, 1956. These slides, more than sixty years old, were discovered in a cabinet at the Nematology Unit and are currently being incorporated into the National Collection of Nematodes (NCN), ARC in Pretoria. What makes this find so exciting is that Meloidogyne acronea Coetzee, 1956 was the first plant-parasitic nematode species to be described in South Africa, and is probably endemic to Africa. It was associated with the galled roots of Sorghum vulgare, variety Radar (a variety of sorghum developed in South Africa) on a farm in the Vryburg District of the Northern Cape Province. The main hosts of M. acronea seem to be sorghum and cotton, but severe losses due to infestation by this nematode have never been reported from these crops in South Africa. In the 1970’s however, M. acronea was found in large numbers on the roots of cotton in Malawi where it was associated with severe stunting of the crop. Interestingly, at about the same time the bacterium Pasteuria penetrans was found to infect M. acronea in southern Malawi. Glasshouse cultures of M. acronea were almost completely destroyed by this bacterium. ARC Plant Protection News. 

Accurate identification of biological specimens feed into decision-making related to pest and disease control for crops (which pest management strategy to implement or pesticide to use), which impacts on farmers at all scales (subsistence to large scale commercial), and the Department of Agriculture in the case of national risks. Accurate identification of biological specimens in collections also supports biosecurity agents making decisions about imports and exports – whether to authorize, or to request quarantine, or other treatment, (fruit, vegetable, horticultural products) which impacts on food security and the economy.

Examples from South African collections:

  • The importance of accurately identified biological specimens held in the collections is illustrated by the identification of the invasive Fall Armyworm (FAW) and Shothole Borer Beetle in South Africa and subsequent development of a guide to control infestations.
Fall ArmyWorm:

 ‘The FAW Spodoptera frugiperda originates from the tropical regions of the United States, Argentina, and the Caribbean region and is a serious pest of maize in Brazil and other countries. The first reports of outbreaks of the Fall Armyworm (FAW) in Africa came from several West and Central African countries early in 2016, but were initially attributed to indigenous Spodoptera spp. During December 2016, the first unconfirmed reports of armyworm damage to maize were received from Zambia and Zimbabwe.



In January 2017, the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) received reports of an unknown armyworm damaging maize plants on farms in the Limpopo and North West provinces. A taxonomist at the ARC-PPRI, Biosystematics Division positively identified the male moth specimens collected, as the Fall Armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda (JE Smith) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

 The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has issued a Preliminary interim guide for the use of agricultural chemicals to control infestations of Fall Armyworm in South Africa and the guide can be downloaded here …. ‘ (ARC Fact Sheet)


Shot Hole Borer Beetle:


  ‘As a participant in the International Plant Sentinel Network (IPSN)Dr Trudy Paap had been tasked to conduct surveys for tree pests and diseases in South Africa’s Botanical Gardens, a project funded by the South Arican Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). It was during such a survey that she noticed small lesions resembling shotgun marks on the stems and branches of mature London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) in the historical avenue of the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Gardens, Pietermaritzburg. Upon closer inspection, she found that the lesions developed around entrance holes of small beetles. When she removed the bark, the sapwood was discoloured by a fungus. She brought samples back to FABI, and with the assistance of FABI team members, the beetle and fungus were identified based on DNA sequences as Euwallacea fornicatus (Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer or PSHB) and Fusarium euwallaceae, respectively. The results were published in the Australasian Journal of Plant Pathology (Paap et al. 2018).’ (Fabinet)

News24 reported in 2019 that a Parys-based company has developed a treatment to rid the trees of the borer. The treatment received the go-ahead from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in June 2019. (News24).


  • Crop Wild Relatives

There are 2 260 crop wild relative species within South Africa’s border; 66 of these have been selected as priority species based on their conservation status, level of endemism, current economic value, their use as food and their breeding potential. The occurrence records from herbarium specimens are used for identifying priority crop wild relatives through georeferencing herbarium specimen data and conducting fieldtrips to obtain new occurrence records. (Raimondo 2015).


South Africa’s Strategy for Plant Conservation states that Conserving traditional landraces of crops, their wild relatives and indigenous edible species is a priority for the following reasons:

  • Traditional landraces constitute ‘within-species’ diversity and provide resilience and local adaptation in traditional farming systems.
  • Crop wild relatives – i.e. species that are related to crops and can potentially donate genes to them in breeding and improvement programmes – provide beneficial traits to crops, such as pest and disease resistance, and drought tolerance.
  • Indigenous edible plant species constitute important components of a diversified diet and provide a food security safety net.
  • Protecting plant genetic resources of traditional landraces and indigenous edible plants has been a priority for the South African Government for the past two decades, with South Africa becoming a member of the Southern African Develoment Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) in 1995 and the National Plant Genetic Resource Centre of South Africa (NPGRC) established by the then Department of Agriculture in 1998. The NPGRC coordinates activities related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources in South Africa, which includes the collection, multiplication, characterisation, evaluation, rejuvenation and documentation of seed, as well as gene bank management. The process of collecting plant genetic resources in South Africa is done in such a way so as to ensure that the indigenous knowledge associated with the use of each species is captured at the same time as seed is collected.

Collections can also be used to predict the viability of growing crops in new areas by studying location details on labels which can be correlated with environmental data such as rainfall, temperature, altitude, soil type etc. (NatSCA 2005).


  • Aspidimorpha (Megaspidomorpha) angolensis Weise (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Cassidinae): a potential new pest of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in South Africa. (Dube, Visser & Grobbelaar. 2019). Six tortoise beetle species from the genus Aspidimorpha have been recorded feeding on sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in South Africa. All these species are reported to have little impact on the crop and have a low pest status. However, another species has recently been observed, causing over 90% leaf damage to crops in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Existing information suggests that A. (M.angolensis is a new pest of sweet potato and its aggressive feeding warrants the speedy development of management strategies. These should include investigations into biological control options, e.g. natural enemies, as well as the efficacy of insecticides for possible future registration.

  • Natural biocontrol of fruit flies by parasitoids in indigenous hosts: a perspective for management of populations in and out of the orchard. (Haran et al. 2019). Fruit flies (Diptera Tephritidae) are a major pest to fruit production in Africa. Most efforts to control these pests are focused directly on the orchards where fruit damage has been recorded. However, fruit flies are generally able to develop on alternative indigenous fruits from which they continuously recolonize the orchards, challenging the ability to efficiently control these pests. In the natural and semi-natural environments, parasitic Hymenoptera remain the primary means of keeping populations of fruit flies at a reasonable level, but little is known about the diversity, the distribution and the ability of these parasitoids to effectively control populations. In this study, we explored the diversity and abundance of parasitoids of fruit fly pests in indigenous and exotic cultivated fruits of two separate regions of South Africa: North-East (Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces) and South-West (Western Cape Province). The fruits of some indigenous trees (Berchemia discolor (Klotzsch) Hemsl.; Syzygium cordatum Hochst. ex Krauss and Garcinia livingstonei T. Anderson) are hosts of high densities of both fruit flies and their parasitoids. These species are good candidates for the application of augmentoria for the mass production and release of biological control agents.




Collections hold specimens and their associated data which is historically important.

‘Together, the millions of specimens chronicle the natural history of animals and plants from Southern Africa and across the world. In so doing, they tell a fascinating story of life on Earth – from the earliest origins to how life has evolved into what we have today. Without natural history collections and research we would not know that some two million years ago, Hipparion (a three-toed horse) was replaced by the single-toed Equus, which is related to the iconic Quagga once resident on Table Mountain. Or that the coelacanth is a living fossil fish – once thought to be extinct, or that there were once bears in Southern Africa, or that all mammals evolved from a shrew-sized common ancestor – the fossils of which are found in the Karoo, or that South Africa’s two oceans has shaped its almost 13, 000 marine species – impressive for its small coastline and useful for coastal livelihoods. The collections are, therefore, a permanent record of existing and extinct animals that would be long forgotten otherwise, as would our understanding of the intricacies of evolution.’ ‘(Iziko Museums of South Africa)

Examples from South African collections:

  • Eggs with embryos belonging to the southern African dinosaur Massospondylus were discovered in 1978 from a road cut-away in the Golden Gate National Park in the Free State. These dinosaurs lived in the early Jurassic, between 200 and 183 million years ago. A clutch of six eggs was removed but this was surrounded by rock and scientists believed that it would damage the eggs and embryos if this and the egg shells were removed, and the appearance of the embryos remained hidden until 2005. Once the detail of the structure of the embryos was revealed, scientists were able to improve understanding about reproduction of this remarkable dinosaur. The embryos are in the Bernard Price Institute collection of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Image: Massospondylus eggs showing the structure of the embryo. Image provided by Bernhard Zipfel, Evolutionary Studies Institute, WITS.

  • The coelacanth was known from fossils dating from about 360 years ago and was thought to have gone extinct about 65 million years ago. In 1938 a specimen was caught by fishermen off the Eastern Cape coast and the Captain of the trawler notified the curator of the East London Museum, Miss Marjorie Courtney-Latimer. She recognised it as being a living version a group of fishes only known from fossils. The living species was described by Dr J.L.B. Smith and the discovery has continued to create interest amongst evolutionary biologists ever since then. The first specimen discovered is now on display at the East London Museum. Since that time several more specimens have been acquired for research collections.

A coelacanth specimen in the collection of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown, was sent on loan to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where it was publically displayed.

  • The oldest preserved plant specimen in the National HerbariumPretoria is Erica mammosa, which was collected by William John Burchell, ( 1781-1863) on the 31st January 1811 on the Cape Flats.

Image: Pressed herbarium sheet in the National Herbarium, Pretoria of Erica mammosa collected in 1811 (image provided by SANBI).

  • The below image is a scan of the Holotype of Acanthopsis tuba collected by H.W.R. Marloth (1855–1931) in August 1925 at Anenous. Anenous (originally known as P/ani P/nous in Nama) was named after a spring in the corner of the kloof and is located 14 km west of Steinkopf. Marloth, a pharmacist, analytical chemist and botanist collected more than 15 000 specimens in South Africa and is best known for his magnificently illustrated Flora of South Africa. The narrow-gauge railway line that transported copper from the mining towns of Nababeep and Okiep via Steinkopf to Port Nolloth used teams of mules to pull railroad trucks along the tracks. The steam engines introduced to the mountainous section of the track in 1871, required a lot of water and often broke down, so, the trusty mules were put back into service, especially during periods of drought. Freight trucks as well as passenger ‘trains’ travelled along this route. Anenous is the site of a former railway station and pieces of porcelain tableware can still be picked up in the veld in the vicinity of the ruins. This specimen is iconic of an era of exploration and plant collecting in the dry interior of southern Africa; a period of history that has inspired many writers to capture its essence in novels. Marloth was probably a passenger on the narrow gauge train and collected this specimen while the train stopped to replenish water… Couldn’t this be the theme for a locally inspired book or film? A tale of adventure, hardships and discovery; an endeavour culminating in the ultimate legacy that anybody can hope to leave generations to come: specimens offering a snapshot in time for the twenty-first century scientist. For more information on the narrow gauge railway line see…/0f9bfbf84c8ed94…/download

Image: Acanthopsis tuba (H.M. Steyn)

  • Type specimens in the Port Elizabeth Museum, South Africa, including the historically important Albany Museum collection. Part 1: Amphibians. (Conradie, W et al. 2015).The Port Elizabeth Museum houses the consolidated herpetological collections of three provincial museums of the Eastern Cape, South Africa: the Port Elizabeth Museum (Port Elizabeth), the Amatole (previously Kaffarian) Museum (King Wil-liams Town), and the Albany Museum (Grahamstown). Under John Hewitt, Albany Museum was the main centre of her-petological research in South Africa from 1910–1940, and he described numerous new species, many based on material in the museum collection. The types and other material from the Albany Museum are now incorporated into the Port Elizabeth Museum Herpetology collection (PEM). Due to the vague typification of much of Hewitt’s material, the loss of the original catalogues in a fire and the subsequent deterioration of specimen labels, the identification of this type material is often troublesome. Significant herpetological research has been undertaken at the PEM in the last 35 years, and the collection has grown to be the third largest in Africa. During this period, numerous additional types have been deposited in the PEM collection, generated by active taxonomic research in the museum. As a consequence, 43 different amphibian taxa are represented by 37 primary and 151 secondary type specimens in the collection. This catalogue provides the first documentation of these types. It provides the original name, the original publication date, journal number and pagination, reference to illustrations, current name, museum collection number, type locality, notes on the type status, and photographs of all holotypes and lectotypes. Where necessary to maintain nomenclatural stability, and where confused type series are housed in the PEM collection, lectotypes and paralectotypes are nominated.
  • New species of dinosaur found after decades in museum. CNN reports that the dinosaur’s remains, which were found in South Africa in 1978 and were being kept in a collection at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, had been identified as a Massospondylus — a dinosaur from the Early Jurassic period.
    However, after a team of researchers from London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Witwatersrand reassessed the specimen, they realized the bones and skull belonged to an entirely new species. The specimen has now been renamed “Ngwevu intloko,” which means “gray skull” in the Xhosa language and was chosen to honor South Africa’s heritage. The findings will give scientists a better understanding of the transition between the Triassic and Jurassic periods — around 200 million years ago — suggesting more complex ecosystems were thriving during the period than previously thought. (CNN 2019)
  • Once lost but now found: a rare snake endemic to South Africa. Read more here about this valuable find in the Kwazulu-Natal Museum. 

  • One of the two most complete skeletons of the Dodo anywhere in the world can be found at the Durban Natural Science Museum. Read more here

Considering the current global climate and extinction crisis, and with increasing recognition of how dependent humans are on adequately functioning ecosystems and natural resources for their survival, the natural science collections, associated data and services are important for understanding impact, mitigation and adaptation, and protecting the systems that sustain life. 

‘By examining museum specimens, researchers have documented the effects of climate change on a variety of organisms and furnished a glimpse of future impacts. The contributions of these studies fall primarily into two categories: ones that document changes in the distribution of species through time (including their extinction) and ones that document changes in the biology of particular species in response to climate changes.’ (Suarez, Andrew & Tsutsui, Neil. 2004).


Examples from South African collections:

  • National Biodiversity Assessment. ‘South Africa’s first national biodiversity assessment in nearly a decade represents the findings of leading institutions such as the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the CSIR, and the contributions of 470 scientific and conservation professionals.

All of South Africa’s 20,500 described plants were assessed: nearly 3,000 are threatened. Mammal, bird, reptiles, amphibian, freshwater fish, butterfly and dragonfly species were also studied, plus selected marine and estuarine fishes and invertebrates. This produced nearly 3,000 assessed species of which 360 face the guillotine of potential extinction. Some 60% of South African fauna and flora are “well protected”. But, by inference, an astonishing 40% is not protected.’ (Daily Maverick. 2019).

  • Predation of fruit and seed of Aloe pretoriensis – A little known effect on reproductive output in aloes. (Van den Bosch, Kaylee et al. 2019). The effect of seed predation by phytophagous/parasitoid wasps on the reproductive output of aloes is relatively unknown. In this study, conducted at a nature reserve in Pretoria East, South Africa, the range of insects utilising Aloe pretoriensis (Asphodelaceae) fruits and/or seeds and the impact of this usage on its reproductive output were investigated. Aloe pretoriensis serves as host to a variety of phytophagous insects and their associated parasitoids, which impacts considerably on its reproductive output with possible implications for the future conservation of this aloe species.
  • Over the last few years, members of the Arachnology unit of the Agricultural Research Council – Plant Health and Protection have been working closely with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) Threatened Species Unit to evaluate all the South African spider species for placement on the IUCN Red List. These spider assessments are used in the protocols for environmental impact assessments and are also included in the National Screening that is used by EIA practitioners. In order to do these assessments, data associated with the National Collection of Arachnida database and the published spider records in the South African National Survey of Arachnida (SANSA) database were used. This data comes from the National Collection of Arachnida, one of the national assets that the ARC-PHP is responsible for. Read more here.




Research into public health, epidemiology and cures for certain diseases, which includes vaccine development, is dependent on properly curated collections (Proa & Donini, 2019).


 Examples from South African collections:

  • Research in parasite control (including malarial mosquitos) at the South African Institute of Medical Research has depended on collections to guarantee not just taxonomic accuracy but breakthroughs in control (Coetzee 1999). (Proa & Donini, 2019).
  • Culicoides species as potential vectors of African horse sickness in the southern regions of South Africa. (Riddin, Megan et al. 2019). African horse sickness (AHS), a disease of equids caused by the AHS virus, is of major concern in South Africa. With mortality reaching up to 95% in susceptible horses and the apparent reoccurrence of cases in regions deemed non-endemic, most particularly the Eastern Cape, epidemiological research into factors contributing to the increase in the range of this economically important virus became imperative. The research provided an updated checklist of Culicoides species within the Eastern Cape, contributing to an increase in the knowledge of AHS vector epidemiology, as well as prevention and control in southern Africa.


Museum exhibitions, events and lectures based on biological collections contribute to a greater public understanding and appreciation of nature, both local and world-wide, and the need to conserve it. The importance of biological collections in contributing to the success of a museum does not just benefit the local community directly but also indirectly by helping to boost tourism and thus the local economy (NatSCA 2005).

 ‘museum collections in South Africa constitute an invaluable record of the natural and cultural heritage of the subcontinent. As such, these collections provide a rich resource both for research and museum-based education programmes. Natural and cultural history collections can be integrated in projects that focus on the interaction between people and their natural environments. Viewed in long-term perspective, museum collections chart changing conceptual approaches in the disciplines they encompass. This gives long-established collections immense museological and historical importance’ (Davison, P. 1994).

  • Citizen science initiatives such as iSpot inspires scientific curiosity and public awareness of the importance of nature conservation. It provides a platform for citizen scientists to connect with experts in the field through a social network. The success of iSpot arises from the structure of its social network that efficiently connects beginners and experts, overcoming the social as well as geographic barriers that separate the two (Silwerton, Jonathan et al. 2015). Platforms such as iNaturalist citizen science initiative ‘provides a standardized and cost‐efficient enhancement to specimen collection and curation that can be easily adapted for specific research goals or other collection types beyond herbaria.’ (Heberling et al. 2018)
  • The article What is a herbarium and what is a herbarium specimen? by Ashton Welcome on the NSCF Medium platform aims to educate the public about the importance of herbarium collections. This publishing platform also features popular articles by other collections staff which explains the importance of natural science collections to the public.
  • The citizen science initiative by Cora Stobie and Michael Bates from the National Museum Bloemfontein uses social media (Facebook) to connect with the public to share observations about reptile and amphibian localities in the Free State. You can go read more about this interesting project and how linking with citizen science can enhance collections data and at the same time foster social appreciation for natural science collections.
  • Ditsong Museum of Natural History’s Unsung Heroes exhibition brings the natural science collections and the staff that maintain and care for the collections to the forefront to increase public understanding:

DNA Barcoding



South Africa participates in an international project that is aimed to enable the use of DNA barcoding of plant and animal specimens in investigation and enforcement activities for illegal harvesting and trafficking of threatened and protected plants and animals. Investigations and prosecutions need accurate identifications for illegally harvested and traded plants and animals. Illegal trade  poses a risk to South Africa’s unique biodiversity, and results in loss in revenue for legal breeders and traders (eg. indigenous plant breeders, wildlife breeders), as well as in tax revenue. 

Read how DNA barcoding is used to snag poachers and wildlife traffickers:

Barcode of Wildlife South Africa site:


Forensic Evidence

Collections are also used to identify plant fragments, seeds, pollen grains, animal hair, or even soil samples linking suspects to the scene of a crime (NatSCA 2005).

The Mail & Guardian reports that ‘In South Africa forensic entomology has proved to be very useful in providing information regarding the prolific cash-in-transit van hijackings. “Just from identifying the bugs in the radiator, you can determine how far the vehicle has travelled, where it has been and even if it has travelled more at night or more during the day. Put simplistically, if there are more locusts and butterflies stuck in the radiator, the car traveled more in the day. Moths, mosquitoes and midges show that the vehicle travelled more at night,” says Villet.’ (Mail & Guardian. 2000)

Examples from South African collections:

  • Entomologist called as expert witness in court case. ARC Plant Protection News.
  • Metrological framework for selecting morphological characters to identify species and estimate developmental maturity of forensically significant insect specimens. ‘Accurate age estimates of immature necrophagous insects associated with a human or animal body can provide evidence of how long the body has been dead. These estimates are based on species-specific details of the insects’ aging processes, and therefore require accurate species identification and developmental stage estimation. Many professionals who produce or use identified organisms as forensic evidence have little training in taxonomy or metrology, and appreciate the availability of formalized principles and standards for biological identification. Taxonomic identifications are usually most readily and economically made using categorical and qualitative morphological characters, but it may be necessary to use less convenient and potentially more ambiguous characters that are continuous and quantitative if two candidate species are closely related, or if identifying developmental stages within a species. Characters should be selected by criteria such as taxonomic specificity and metrological repeatability and relative error. We propose such a hierarchical framework, critique various measurements of immature insects, and suggest some standard approaches to determine the reliability of organismal identifications and measurements in estimating postmortem intervals.’ (Midgley, John & Villet, Martin., 2020). 



Indigenous Knowledge
  • ”Specimen labels might be a source of valuable supplementary information such as previously undocumented traditional uses of species. During an ethnobotanical study my colleagues and I came across a herbarium specimen which stated that the plant Thesium junceum is used by the Xhosa people to treat intestinal worms in both humans and animals, while two specimens from Tanzania noted that Safwa shopkeepers chew on the roots of T. stuhlmannii to attract customers to their shops and that T. fastigiatum is used to restore colour to children’s hair. This information was recorded in a scientific publication thereby contributing to the preservation of traditional knowledge.” Says Natasha Lombard of the National Herbarium, SANBI.
  • The article Using herbarium specimens to map out historical food plant menus: what is available and what is selected written by Ashton Welcome on the NSCF Medium platform explains how herbarium specimens can be used in conjunction with ethnobotanical inventories to show cultural preferences to certain foods which directly relates to their subsistence strategies. 


Local Identity

Policymakers often disregard the role that collections have in a local community’s identity (Proa & Donini, 2019). Samu Mtshali from Iziko Museums of South Africa explains: The geology collection at Iziko holds an array of minerals and rocks from around the world famous mineral sites. Also of note is the rock part of the collection which was donated by the Geological survey of South Africa. These are assumed to record the early exploration of the South African geology and the association to history of mining. The development of South Africa is greatly rooted /associated with mining of minerals. This has an impact on the peoples geography i.e. cultures, economies, and interactions with the environment economy.

 This collection is not actively used at the moment but elsewhere, geology specimens are used in/for

Data from collections are used for assessing the threat status of ecologically / economically important biodiversity. Assessments are included in the National Biodiversity Assessment, and the Department of Environment’s land use decision-making tool, and Marine Information Management System. These are used by conservation authorities and the national Department to make decisions on development applications (eg. infrastructure such as mining, housing, roads).

In addition to being included in spatial plans, information on the status of species can be used to develop management plans for landowners / conservation authorities to protect not only the species but also the critical role that they play in ecosystems.

These assessments rely heavily on natural science collection data (originating directly from specimen collections).




  • The status and distribution of freshwater biodiversity in southern Africa. ‘Biodiversity within inland water ecosystems in southern Africa is highly diverse and of great importance to livelihoods and economies, however, development activities are not always compatible with the conservation of this diversity and it is poorly represented in the development planning process. One of the main reasons is a lack of readily available information on the status and distribution of inland water taxa. In response to this need for information, the IUCN Species Programme, in collaboration with the South Africa Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) conducted a regional assessment of 1,279 taxa of freshwater fishes, molluscs, odonates, crabs, and selected families of aquatic plants from across southern Africa. In the process of the study, which is based on the collation and analysis of existing information, regional experts from five of these countries were trained in biodiversity assessment methods, including application of the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria and species mapping using GIS software. Distribution ranges have been mapped for the majority of species so providing an important tool for application to the conservation and development planning processes. The full dataset is made freely available through distribution on CD and through the IUCN Red List website.’ (IUCN)

  • National Biodiversity Assessment: This landmark assessment measures the threat status and protection level of species and ecosystems across the terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine and marine realms, and provides detailed information about the coast and South Africa’s sub-Antarctic territory (Prince Edward and Marion Islands and associated waters). New analyses in the NBA 2018 include trend analyses for species threat status, and an assessment of land cover change in the terrestrial environment, and an examination of potential ways to assess genetic diversity on a national scale. Read more here:

The data associated with the specimens in natural science collections are also part of the infrastructure and includes not only the species’ identity, but also the date of collection and the locality where the specimen was collected. Data sets integrated across institutions and when analysed, can provide an understanding of past and present patterns in the distribution of biodiversity, and allow future predictions that can inform decision-making.

Specimen data are used in a wide range of research and practical applications,from modelling species distribution ranges and developing a better understanding of biodiversity patterns to IUCN Red List assessments and environmental impact studies. There has been a global drive to mobilize these data online, openly and freely through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and other platforms; to facilitate research and applied uses and to ultimately address the global environmental crisis currently faced by humanity. Specimen data are important, and they should be treated and managed as an asset in their own right, at the institutional level.’ (Natural Science Collections Facility. 2021)

Examples from South African collections:


ARC Plant Protection News. Spring 2020.

Agricultural Research Council Fact Sheet


Conradie, Werner & Branch, William & Watson, Gillian. (2015). Type specimens in the Port Elizabeth Museum, South Africa, including the historically important Albany Museum collection. Part 1: Amphibians. Zootaxa. 3936. 10.11646/zootaxa.3936.1.2.

Daily Maverick.

Davis, A.L.V., Scholtz, C.H. Dung beetle conservation biogeography in southern Africa: current challenges and potential effects of climatic change. Biodivers Conserv 29, 667–693 (2020).

Davison, P. (1994). Museum collections as cultural resources. South African Journal of Science90(8–9), 435–436.

Dube, Zakheleni & Visser, Diedrich & Grobbelaar, Elizabeth. (2019). Aspidimorpha (Megaspidomorpha) angolensis Weise (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Cassidinae): a potential new pest of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in South Africa. Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection. 127. 10.1007/s41348-019-00284-y.

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Welcome, A.K., 2021. Using herbarium specimens to map out historical food plant menus: what is available and what is selected.

Welcome, A.K. 2021. What is a herbarium and what is a herbarium specimen? 

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