Digitization of natural history collections. Photo: LUOMUS

Science and technology

In a major leap forward for scientific research and policy-making, Finland's natural science collections are undergoing extensive digitalization, as part of a broader European effort. It's estimated that Europe's collections alone contain 1.5 billion specimens, and this wealth of quality nature data is set to become accessible to scientists, policy-makers, and the public alike.

The Finnish Environment Institute, together with the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Oulu, and the Kuopio Natural History Museum, are leading the charge in transforming the treasure trove of natural science into digital form. This effort supports environmental monitoring, such as assessing the vulnerability of species and habitats. Digital records allow for more straightforward documentation and visualization of nature's status assessments. Central to these efforts is the goal of finding solutions to halt biodiversity loss.

In 2023, Finnish institutions have made significant headway in digitalizing their collections. The Finnish Biodiversity Information Facility has already been instrumental in supporting 330 scientific articles this year, disseminating information through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Finnish Digitalization at the Forefront

Within Finland, universities and the Kuopio city natural history museum are diligently converting their collections into digital formats. Progress can be tracked on the newly completed service.

For instance, the University of Jyväskylä has initiated the verification, editing, and transfer of specimen data into the Kotka collection management system, which integrates data into the Laji.fi service. Significant milestones include the digitalization of around 18,000 live plant specimens from botanical gardens and approximately 2,000 beetle specimens. Additionally, 2023 saw the digital recording of 1,600 new specimens, including fungi, lichens, and endangered mosses, primarily collected from the regions of North and South Häme.

The Kuopio Natural History Museum has digitized around 9,000 pinned butterfly specimens from roughly 700 species into the Kotka system. Moreover, nearly 1,000 individual specimens have been accompanied by approximately 1,300 photographs. Most of these specimens, digitized in 2023, originate from collections amassed in North Savo and North Karelia during the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of this millennium.

The Finnish Museum of Natural History, LUOMUS, has digitized approximately 3.5 million specimens to date, which constitutes about 24% of its entire collection. Notably completed sub-collections include foreign vascular plants (660,000), Finnish butterflies (90,000), and Finnish bees (60,000). The digitized samples span centuries, with the oldest from 1785 and the newest collected in the current year.

New Technology and Artificial Intelligence

The University of Oulu is spearheading the development of a digital DNA barcode library for Finnish species. This advancement has facilitated the use of environmental DNA for monitoring ecosystems and has helped researchers explore poorly understood groups of organisms. Finland is at the forefront of this innovative work.

A Finnish Academy-funded development project for the Finnish Species Information Center is also utilizing artificial intelligence to unlock the wealth of information contained within millions of specimens.

"Text recognition technology can automatically convert data from photographed specimen labels, such as collection locations and dates, into a computer-readable format. This can drastically reduce the need for manual data entry, allowing information to be used much faster," states Leif Schulman, the Director General of the Finnish Environment Institute, who is leading the consortium for the development project.

Continued International Collaboration

The ambitious international project to develop natural science collections has been recognized on the European roadmap for research infrastructures, aiming to establish an independent, government-endorsed research infrastructure entity (Distributed System of Scientific Collections – DiSSCo). Finnish participants include the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Oulu, the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), and the University of Turku.

The Finnish Environment Institute is leading the consortium funded by the Finnish Academy, which focuses on the development of the Finnish Species Information Center, marking Finland's significant role in this groundbreaking international endeavor.