Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post to the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
The stained paper envelope reveals a scattering of the Giant Baobab remains—stems, flowers, and seeds all neatly grouped except for those parts that were already taped down—to show the virtual researcher as much detail of the herbarium plant specimen as possible (Figure 1). Labels of different sizes with different handwriting are glued haphazardly to the sheet to highlight the plant’s scientific endowment: its latin name (Adansonia grandidieri), locality (Mourumdava), and collector (H[enri?] Grevé).1
A small rectangle with the word “TYPE” in red contrasts to the digital barcode in the middle of the sheet (Figure 2).
Two differing yet integrative organizing principles meet on the sheet. The “TYPE” label asserts that the remains of the plant serves as the reference point for when this plant species was first named—termed the type specimen for the entirety of the species delineation. The individual digital barcode locates the specimen within the eleven million plant specimens housed in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.2 Collected in 1891 over five thousand miles away, this specimen was tucked inside a folder where it has slowly dried out and fractured into pieces (Figure 3).
Yet even in death, the remains are immortal as the taxonomization, molecularization, and the digitization of the specimen gives it an afterlife unlike its living and deceased ancestors on the island of Madagascar. By utilizing counter-mapping methodologies onto the collection sites on the island, I argue that digital collections help visualize the historical processes of plant extinction and at the same time de-erases the local Malagasy collectors who made the collections possible.
The Giant Baobab or Reniala, meaning mother of the forest, forms soldierly lines in the L’Avenue des Baobabs (Avenue of the Baobabs), a popular tourist attraction in Madagascar that offers the “real emblem of Malagasy flora.”3 The website of the National Tourist Office of Madagascar describes the island as a “sanctuary of nature” and “ecological jewel” offering tourists an “otherworldly experience” of the approximately one hundred giant 800-year old trees (Figure 4).4 The smooth trunks of these gigantic trees are devoid of stems until a crown of straggly branches seemingly appear unexpectedly from a homogeneously scrubby landscape. In reality, they represent the last vestiges of the dense tropical forests in which they once grew. The one hundred trees are what historians Lydia Pyne and Dolly Jorgensen refer to as “endlings.”5 An endling designates the species who is the last of their lineage.6 Yet if the Baobab’s anatomical parts are salvaged on paper, and can be viewed digitally from any part of the globe, and used in genetic studies, are they truly endlings?
Documenting the flora of Madagascar never started as a race. From the early eighteenth century onwards, colonial botanists from Britain, Switzerland, and France collected plants in a steady stream to study in their respective homelands.7 Collecting and shelving dried plants to draw and describe seems an innocuous way to pass the time but national pride and scientific status were accolades that brought the promise of great power.8
The irony is that herbarium spaces borne from imperial ideology as a botanical accountants ledger also house the very evidence that enables us to count losses line by line as biological entries go extinct in their habitats. Plants represent the vacillating categories nonhuman organisms inhabit and generate questions about value, care, and curiosity. Plants are not just our co-species. We are obligate aerobes and without plants we would go extinct. Shelving plant organisms in folders in museums situates the herbarium as a site of life and death which offers invaluable insights into the systems of ever-changing values that order modern life (Figure 5).
However life and death is blurred as we instill scientific and legal value on plant specimens. The paradox is that they are neither alive nor dead.
An endling designates the species who is the last of their lineage. Yet if the Baobab’s anatomical parts are salvaged on paper, and can be viewed digitally from any part of the globe, and used in genetic studies, are they truly endlings?
In 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species declared the Baobab tree was forecast to face a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. Tourists were encouraged to visit the trees that represent “a legacy of the dense forests that have flourished on the island a long time ago.”9 A tree positioned as having a deep history worth observing at the same time a wholly unpredictable end. The Baobab is not alone on the island of approximately 11,000 species of plants as it sits in the environmental “departure lounge.”10 Madagascar, which is approximately the size of France, hosts more unique plant species than the entire African continent and is a designated “biodiversity hotspot.”11 This scientific designation was proposed by the British biologist and environmentalist Norman Myers in 1988 (Figure 6).12
“Biological hotspots” are areas simultaneously featuring exceptional concentrations of endemic species and experiencing exceptional loss of habitat, making Madagascar a high priority for conservation funding and a site for global environmental investment.13 The ongoing destruction to the land by local and foreign interests has scientists, conservation advocates, and journalists declaring that Madagascar is “on its way out”, “time is running out”, and plant species in particular are “disappearing 500 times faster than normal.”14
The race began in the 1980’s when western-based scientists gained access to the island after a twenty year prohibition. Global environmental destruction was being noted and the scars of industry, agriculture, and forestry were visible in Madagascar.16 Between the desire for plant discoveries was the urgency to record “what is there” before it became “what was there” and botanists (and zoologists alike) took on the task with great speed. Digitization of specimens, such as the open-source website Tropicos managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, enabled researchers readily access to plant specimens on the island.17 Botanists working on single families, genera, or taxa can study the known collections to gather information on location, species, and environmental descriptions (Figure 7).
Expeditions could pinpoint locations from the collections to see if the plants were still growing there. In the 1980’s, the advent of molecular data (proteins and DNA sequences) extracted from living and dried specimens enabled new questions to be asked and the elucidation of novel evolutionary histories of plant groups and families (Figure 8). The surge of genetic data thrilled botanists as the race to molecularize the plant world accelerated quicker than botanists could process. As the botanist Michael J. Donoghue of Yale University stated “I think we’ve finally got a resolution on a problem that looked as if it was not going to be resolved ever…this is truly the greatest time to be alive with respect to these problems.”18
The first evolutionary tree, using genetic data, of the Baobab family (Malvaceae) was constructed by David Baum, Randall L. Small, and Jonathan F. Wendel by integrating data from plant specimens from the late nineteenth century and living plants he collected on the island.19 Like Lazarus, Baum, Small and Wendel, raised the Baobab from its paper casket via tiny vials of DNA and computerized genetic sequences. Digital imprints, genetic fingerprints, and computer files were matched to the morphological data creating composites or an artifice of the original plant specimens. A botanical Frankenstein, dried herbarium specimens became the holy grail for understanding historical and biological change over time.
The irony is that herbarium spaces borne from imperial ideology as a botanical accountants ledger also house the very evidence that enables us to count losses line by line as biological entries go extinct in their habitats.
Just as digitization offers a window into the vast floral array of Madagascar, a counter-mapping of collection sites on the island helps visualize the historical processes of plant extinction. Areas bountiful with plants are now depauperate.20 Mapping the collection sites of the early French colonial botanists, such as Joseph Marie Henry Alfred Perrier de la Bâthie (1873-1958) and Raymond Decary (1891-1973) reveal convoluted expeditionary routes that no longer exist today (Figure 9).
Hidden within the stories of colonialism, digitization, and climate change are the collectors and botanists de la Bâthie and Raymond Decary relied on (Figure 10).
While many were fellow Frenchmen, most were the local Malagasy who supported the expeditions with their expert knowledge of the landscape and logistical support, such as carrying gear, equipment, and meals. They are rarely acknowledged in scientific reports or academic publications, but if one looks closely, you find them in the field notebooks and on the most important scientific object, the herbarium sheet itself. H. Grevé only exists on the label of herbarium sheets. His name is forever linked to the Giant Baobab for scientific posterity.
Unlike the zoological world, plants are not taxidermied; the cell wall maintains its shape (mostly) as the softer parts desiccate. Botanical collections form the foundation for botanical theories and hypotheses about the floral world. They are constructed and bounded imaginaries of natural environments in far-off lands. One does not need to visit Madagascar to see the complete collection of plants from the entire island, well, as long as you have access to the internet. However, for many a Malagasy access to the web and the resources to do so remains an ongoing limitation. Therefore this artifice was built by and for western scientists. It’s brought to you by open-access digitization which will do just nicely and far more convenient than long travel journeys to environments requiring vaccine shots and a course of anti-malaria tablets. The race to document life and death can be viewed in your armchair at home. One gets to giggle in sheer delight at the grommets and thread that hold specimens in place at the same time view an organism that no longer exists outside the edges of the herbarium sheet (Figure 11).
Digitizing specimens traverses historical binaries—rebranded cabinets of curiosities, paper labels and plastic barcodes, thread and synthetic glue—as they are digitized to death. On the acid-free herbarium paper is the passage of time, historical layers of stories about an interspecies relationship, a colonial past, a genetic present, and a digitized hopeful future. A co-dependency of life and death as we race to trace their very (in)existence.
1 Grevé was born on Réunion island and a naturalist by trade. He accompanied F.P.I. Pollen and D.C. van Dam on collecting expeditions in Madagascar and Mayotte in the 1860s-1890s. Grevé worked closely with Malagasy locals, and married the daughter of a Sakalava chief.
2 “The Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle ranks among the world’s foremost natural history institutes and has one of the world’s most extensive plant collections, known as the Paris Herbarium.” https://plants.jstor.org/partner/P
3 Office National du Tourisme de Madagascar. https://madagascar-tourisme.com/en/what-to-do/fauna-and-flora/baobab/
5 Jørgensen demonstrated that although the concept of the endling is a well-established trope in science fiction, it has been increasingly employed and adopted in biological conservation circles to refer to the last members of a population(s) of species deemed critically endangered or on the brink of extinction. What is unusual about these species is that they have expired under the watch, and at times care, of humans. Dolly Jørgensen, “Endling, the Power of the Last in an Extinction-prone World,” Environmental Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2017): 119-138. See also: Lydia Pyne, Endlings: Fables for the Anthropocene, (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
6 Dolly Jørgensen, “Endling, the Power of the Last in an Extinction-prone World,” Environmental Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2017): 119-138. p.119.
7 Thomas Anderson, Reassembling the Strange: Naturalists, Missionaries, and the Environment of Nineteenth-Century Madagascar, (Lexington Books, 2018); Richard Baron, “The Flora of Madagascar,” Journal of the Linnean Society 25, no. 171 (1889): 246-294; Alfred Grandidier, Histoire physique, naturelle et politique de Madagascar, Vol. 1. Société d’éditions géographiques, maritimes et coloniales, 1885; J. G. Baker, “Further contributions to the Flora of Central Madagascar,” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 21, no. 135 (1884): 317-353.
8 James Delbourgo, “Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018): 343-348; Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Londa Schiebinger, and Claudia Swan, eds., Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
9 Office National du Tourisme de Madagascar. https://madagascar-tourisme.com/en/what-to-do/fauna-and-flora/baobab/
10 Interviews with Malagasy and non-Malagasy botanists, 2020-2023. The count is not final as the inventory of the flora continues today.
11 Norman Myers, Russell A. Mittermeier, Cristina G. Mittermeier, Gustavo AB Da Fonseca, and Jennifer Kent, “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities,” Nature 403, no. 6772 (2000): 853-858.
13 Malavika Vyawahare, ”Madagascar off pace to meet Aichi targets, which is bad news for the world,” Mongabay, March 18th, 2020
14 Maddie Burakoff,“Plant Species Have Been Disappearing 500 Times Faster Than Normal, Thanks to Humans,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 11, 2019; Robin McKie, “Time is running out for Madagascar evolution’s last, and greatest, laboratory: Kew scientists warn that unique plants on Madagascar are at risk of extinction,” The Guardian, May 13th, 2017.
15 In 1960 when the Malagasy gained independence from the French they prohibited all scientists from the west to study the biodiversity of the country. For twenty years western-based scientists, such as Peter Raven and Patrica Wright campaigned and courted for access to study the flora and fauna of the island. Luck would be on their side as by the 1980s the Malagasy administration was financially bankrupt and opening the doors to the west was the only option to salvage the economy. With industry came science interests, and vice versa.
16 Brian Ikaika Klein, “Dina, domination, and resistance: indigenous institutions, local politics, and resource governance in Madagascar,” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2023): 1-30; Catherine A. Corson, Corridors of Power: The Politics of Environmental Aid to Madagascar, (Yale University Press, 2016); Annah Zhu, “Rosewood Occidentalism and Orientalism in Madagascar,” Geoforum 86 (2017): 1-12; J.P. Jones, S. Rakotonarivo and J. H. Razafimanahaka, “Forest Conservation in Madagascar: Past, Present, Future, “ In S.M. Goodman (eds), The New Natural History of Madagascar, (Princeton: Princeton University Press); Catherine A. Corson “A history of conservation politics in Madagascar,” Madagascar Conservation & Development 12, no. 1 (2017).
17 Peter Raven, then the Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, would send his postdoctoral student Laurence Dorr to the capital of Antananarivo with some funds to buy a Land Rover vehicle and start a field station . After three years at the helm, Dorr would pass the botanical baton to Pete Lowry who noted that the flora of Madagascar was not entirely complete (personal communication, March 2022). Lowry coordinated with the Muséum in Paris and the Tsimbazaza Herbarium (established in the 1920s) in Antananarivo to record all botanical life on the island. This vast, and ongoing project, led to the collection being digitized in the 1980s to make this information available to everyone on the open-source website Tropicos.
18 Michael J. Donoghue quotation from Susan Milius, “Botanists Uproot Their Old Tree of Life,” Science News, August 7, 1999. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Botanists+uproot+their+old+tree+of+life-a055588038
19 David A. Baum, “A systematic revision of Adansonia (Bombacaceae).” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden (1995): 440-471; David A. Baum, Randall L. Small, and Jonathan F. Wendel. “Biogeography and floral evolution of Baobabs Adansonia, Bombacaceae as inferred from multiple data sets.” Systematic Biology 47, no. 2 (1998): 181-207.
20 Conversation with New York Botanical Garden Botanist January 2020.