National Museum Bloemfontein

South African Arachnid Biodiversity

Project Details

Grantee Organization: National Museum Bloemfontein
Grant Amount: $180,000
Contact: Bridgit Davis
Contact Email: bridgit.davis 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 6/15/12 - 1/15/15


As both predators and prey, arachnids play important roles in natural ecosystems, cycling energy through the food web and controlling populations of their prey. As a result, they can be used as indicator species to detect changes in invertebrate communities. However, with only 0.03% of described species evaluated (as of 2011), insufficient information on the diversity, distribution, and population status of most of the group leaves the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) unable to identify conservation threats to arachnids. Museums in southern Africa have substantial arachnid collections, offering an opportunity to fill in knowledge gaps on species biogeography and historic ranges. Unfortunately, the potential wealth of information in these collections is largely unavailable to researchers. Some collections are not databased, while other have serious data quality issues, i.e., a large number of unidentified or unreliably identified specimens, that need to be addressed by cleaning and specimen verification. Moreover, many of the collections are databased in different platforms, including Excel, Access, custom-built MySQL databases, and Specify, fragmenting the landscape of arachnid biodiversity informatics for that part of the world. A serious need exists to clean and systematize collections records for this group, such that they can be made publicly-available and inform conservation and sustainable management.

Key Objectives and Activities

In order to improve, integrate, and make southern African arachnid biodiversity information accessible and to facilitate arachnid biodiversity research, this JRS project aims to:

  • Make resources available for arachnid identification, taxonomy, surveys and conservation assessments, including postgraduate projects;
  • Clean existing arachnid databases and migrate them to Specify 6;
  • Train museum staff and scientists to use Specify databases;
  • Capture un-digitized arachnid data in Specify 6;
  • Check existing museum databases against catalog records where necessary;
  • Geo-reference to named place precision where possible; and
  • Produce Darwin Core exports for SABIF (the South African Biodiversity Information Facility) and for GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) using the IPT (Integrated Publishing Toolkit).

The arachnid project is a collaborative effort that aims to bring together available expertise and collections while enhancing the capacity of all the scientists and institutions involved. The collaboration includes: Burgert Muller (Curator, Department of Arthropoda, KwaZulu-Natal Museum); Leon Lotz (Principal Museum Scientist and Head of Arachnology Department, National Museum); Lorenzo Prendini (Head of the Scorpion Systematics Research Group; Curator of arachnids and myriapods, American Museum of Natural History); Audrey Ndaba (was KwaZulu-Natal Museum, now Curator: Invertebrates, Ditsong National Museum of Natural History), John Midgley (Museum Natural Scientist, Department of Entomology and Arachnology, Albany Museum), Tharina Bird (National Museum of Namibia), Bridgit Davis (Database developer, BioCollections-InfoSolutions)

Planned Outputs and Outcomes

The project aims to achieve at least the following targeted outputs:

  • 6,300 scorpion specimens identified;
  • 6 new georeferenced Specify databases including 63,000 new arachnid Specify records;
  • 2 organizations implementing the GBIF IPT;
  • 3 scientific publications;
  • 2 postgraduate degrees awarded; and
  • 1 scorpion survey.

The improved quality, integration and accessibility of the biodiversity collection data will facilitate use of the data in conservation-related projects (e.g Provincial Biodiversity Plan; conservation planning; and Environmental Impact Assessments). Similarly, there will be use of the data in research (e.g. ecological niche modeling; scorpion and solifuge taxonomy; genetic barcoding; conservation assessments; scorpion endemism) which in turn will provide data for conservation projects (e.g. in the KwaZulu-Natal Protected Area network).

Results to Date

By the conclusion of this project, all of the major objectives had been achieved, representing an outstanding volume of data collection, cleaning, digitization, curation, and sharing:

  • Arachnid databases of the National Museum, Bloemfontein; KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Museum,  Pietermaritzburg; Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria; Albany Museum, Grahamstown; National Museum of Namibia, Windhoek;  have been cleaned and migrated to Specify. The data quality problems (e.g. in catalog numbers, taxa, geo-referencing) have been attended to, and most of the Specify databases are now in use. (total of 82,066 records)
  • Additional, non-arachnid, collections have been opportunistically cleaned and migrated to Specify from the KZN Museum, Ditsong NMNH, Albany Museum, and National Museum of Namibia,  including crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, and butterflies. (total of 74,975 records)
  • All of the proposed field trips in the KwaZulu-Natal Scorpion Survey have been conducted, and the survey data are being used as the basis for Audrey Ndaba’s Master’s research.
  • The scorpions of Bulawayo Natural History Museum, Iziko, National Museum of Namibia, Ditsong, the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, the National Museum Bloemfontein and the Albany Museum, have been reliably identified. Essential curation of the scorpion specimens was an unexpected output in this process. (total of 22,638 records)
  • Solifuges at Ditsong, Albany, Iziko, KZN received expert review and curation. (total of 3,211 records)
  • The cleaned South African collections that were migrated to Specify databases were shared with SABIF (with the exception of KZN, which implemented the GBIF Integrated Publishing Toolkit directly).
  • Training activities have included: completion of a Ph.D. student (Leon Lotz), and the initiation of a master’s student (Audrey Ndaba) ; Specify user trainings and ongoing support for datacapturers at Ditsong NMNH, Albany Museum, National Museum, Bloemfontein, National Museum of Namibia, and KZN Museum.

Related Publications

Lotz, LN (2014) New species of Cheiracanthium (Araneae: Eutichuridae) from Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. Zootaxa. 3857 (3): 301-330.

Bird, TL; RA Wharton; L Predini (2015) Cheliceral morphology in Solifugae (Arachnida): Primary homology, terminology, and character survey. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. 394: 355p. (link)

Bird, TL; RA Wharton (2015) Description of a new solifuge Melanoblossia anise sp. n. (Solifuge, Melanoblossiidae) with notes on the setiform flagellar complex of Melanoblossiinae Roewer, 1933. African Invertebrates. 56 (2): 515 – 525. (link)

Lotz, LN (2015) New species of the spider genus Cheiracanthium from continental Africa (Aranae: Eutichuridae). Zootaxa. 3973 (2): 321-336.

Lotz, LN (2015) New species of the Afrotropical spider genus Cheiramiona Lotz & Dippenaar-Schoeman (Aranae: Eutichuridae). Zootaxa. 3981 (1): 071-094. 

Prendini, L (2015) Three new Uroplectes (Scorpiones: Buthidae) with punctate metasomal segments from tropical central Africa. American Museum Novitates. no. 3840. (link)

Primary Software Platforms

Lessons Learned

It is not unusual for projects that aim to systematize and modernize archived data to face challenges related to the time-consuming and meticulous nature of this work. In addition, the arachnid specimens are distributed among several institutions, which is both a data-rich opportunity and a management challenge. Clear and comprehensive oversight of the work being conducted at all the museums, as well as effective local project management at individual museums have been key to maintaining progress in databasing and daylighting arachnid records.

The project has incorporated some changes from the original plan, to accommodate these considerations, including:

  • The Specify 6.5 update has such powerful image handling that it no longer makes sense to develop a virtual museum extension to Specify as part of this JRS project.
  • JRS has worked with the project leader to make budget changes (e.g. from publication fee to travel) that have allowed the collaborators to follow established and emergent priorities.
  • Changes in scheduling (e.g. of availability of the new Specify arachnid databases; of the identification of scorpions; of additional collaboration joining the project) places pressure on fitting all contributions into the project timespan.

In addition, the team has taken advantage of opportunities to expand the impact of the work, digitizing several non-arachnid collections, and conducting extensive training. Flexibility in project management has resulted in increased productivity, exceeding the project goals and objectives in several areas.

Notes from JRS

This project is striving for improved arachnid collection information and for a standardized, integrated, versatile, accessible, and sustainable national arachnid biodiversity information system. JRS supports the open access to biodiversity data and knowledge and that biodiversity data should be curated and published according to accepted international standards. To date, JRS has not advocated for particular software platforms, but we recognize that software such as Specify benefits from long-term financial support and a large and engaged user community. This project endeavors to create access to important museum collections and to train personnel in the use of Specify and related best practices. One challenge for JRS is to know how best to support the collaboration among different communities of researchers that use different software platforms as well as among different communities of researchers for a particular species. This grant, like others in our portfolio that aim to digitize museum collections has run into unexpected challenges related to the size, condition, and data associated with collections. We are excited to see the publications and use of the resulting database as well as the long-term impact of training museum professionals and post-graduate students.

Last Updated: July 6th, 2017

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