Working life | Roberto Portela Miguez - Museums Association

Working life | Roberto Portela Miguez

How natural history museums are working together on a digital bat library that will support virus research

As the senior curator in charge of mammals at London’s Natural History Museum, Roberto Portela Miguez explains why he has been helping to create a digital bat library.

How did the digital bat library come about?

The pandemic has highlighted the lack of access to bat data needed for further research into Covid-19 and illustrated the importance of digitising natural history collections. Although it is not certain which species passed on the pathogen that causes Covid in humans, genome sequences of the virus from the beginning of the pandemic are very similar to that of a bat coronavirus.

Specimens held in natural history collections represent a huge and often untapped resource that can contribute to increasing our understanding of past and present biodiversity, where and when specific species lived, and potentially help with identifying viruses from historic specimens.

The project is the brainchild of Gabor Csorba, who is senior researcher at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, and has researched and published extensively on bats.

London’s Natural History Museum is one of nine participating institutions.

What are you hoping the library will achieve?

Firstly, it is about knowing what we have in collections and making this knowledge available to the scientific community. Aggregating
the data from all these organisations in a digital format and making it easily accessible could assist with the identification of a key reservoir of bat species, give us better understanding of their historical distribution and provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to investigate any patterns through time.

This information can also support conservation, pandemic mitigation and policy development efforts that will hopefully prevent similar events from happening in the future.

I expect the information will also be of interest to scientists and organisations from multiple disciplines, such as mammalogy, virology, epidemiology, health organisations, environmental agencies and conservation organisations.

Aggregating the data from nine institutions to create a bat library will help support conservation as well as pandemic mitigation
Have you made any significant discoveries?

It is early days. We are still at the point of collecting data from labels and collectors’ notes. Recording all this information takes time, as we are cross-referencing the relevant parts of the collection, using various sources, and having to review the scientific names associated with thousands of specimens. I expect that there will be plenty to discover from the data collected once we have a chance to look at it in its entirety.

Has Covid-19 changed how you view the museum’s mammal collections?

Natural history collections have infinite potential, so assessing projects that want to apply new techniques and methodologies to historic specimens is what we do on a regular basis. It’s a great reminder of how relevant these collections still are. I am always prepared to be surprised when a new project knocks on my door.

The world is undergoing a damaging and traumatic time due to Covid. The museum sector has been hit hard, but I am sure the sector will recover and that we will regain some resemblance of how we used to work. When the “normal” times return, I hope that we do not dismiss or forget the damage this period caused too quickly, as we need to ensure that the wellbeing of the people that are the lifeblood of these institutions is looked after, and that they get all the support they need.

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