In the spring of 1905, eight researchers from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco set sail on a mission to complete a major comprehensive survey of the Galapagos Islands, something that no other institution had yet to accomplish. For 17 months, well-trained specialists in the fields of botany, geology, paleontology, entomology, malacology (the study of mollusks), ornithology and herpetology went on a collecting spree. They gathered multiple specimens of plants, birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. While they suspected that the collected specimens would help solidify Darwin’s theory of evolution and inform the world about Galapagos wildlife, they couldn’t have imagined that when they returned home, their city would be recovering from a catastrophic earthquake and conflagration that nearly destroyed their own institution.
“The Galapagos expedition was kind of a way to prove themselves. In the vein of, ‘We’re this scrappy little West Coast institution and we want to compete with the other globally recognized leaders in biodiversity research,” says Rayna Bell, the Academy’s assistant curator of herpetology. “To do that we’re going to do this large comprehensive survey of the Galapagos.”
Last month, the Academy kicked off a two-year endeavor to digitize the bulk of its Galapagos collection, much of which comes directly from the 1905-1906 expedition. Consisting of 78,000 biological specimens, it’s the largest amassing from the Galapagos on the planet. It includes Darwin’s finches, a large variety of aquatic lizards, and more than 260 preserved giant tortoises. At the time collecting these specimens was both normal and legal, though Bell says that’s no longer the case. “Basically, the islands are now a living museum,” says Bell, protected in part by the Ecuadorian government’s Special Law of Galapagos. “It’s difficult even securing research permits to go there.”
The Academy’s Galapagos collection encompasses a specific moment in time, and plays a large role in the study of evolution. It also provides a starting point for researchers, scientists, conservationists, and even the general public to see how the archipelago has adapted, changed and even stayed relatively the same over the last 100 years.
For the next 24 months, Academy staff members and their affiliates will both CT and surface scan multiple representatives of each species from all of the islands on the Galapagos collection into 3-D digital images that will provide virtual access to both researchers and the public alike. The images will be placed online in batches beginning in 2021.
“Many research collections aren’t actually searchable online,” says James Gibbs, co-leader of the Galapagos Tortoise Restoration Initiative at the Galapagos Conservancy in Virginia. “The California Academy of Sciences is. Now, add to that the ability to see and with these visualization techniques, explore these specimens up close, swivel them around, and study them almost as if they were in your own hands?”
While the digitization remains mostly for researchers, teachers, students and really anyone will soon be able to pull up a 3-D images of say, a Galapagos land iguana, and study everything from its distinguishing facial angle