Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Are we tru­ly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinc­tion, an era of “bio­log­i­cal anni­hi­la­tion”? Many sci­en­tists and pop­u­lar sci­ence writ­ers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthro­pocene” to describe what fol­lows the Ordovi­cian, Devon­ian, Per­mi­an, Tri­as­sic, and Cre­ta­ceous peri­ods. Peter Bran­nen, author of extinc­tion his­to­ry The Ends of the Earth has found at least one sci­en­tist who thinks the con­cept is “junk.” But Bran­nen quotes some alarm­ing sta­tis­tics. Chill­ing, even. “Until very recent­ly,” he writes, “all ver­te­brate life on the plan­et was wildlife. But astound­ing­ly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 per­cent of earth’s land ani­mals; human beings, our live­stock, and our pets take up the remain­ing 97 per­cent of the bio­mass… almost half of the earth’s land has been con­vert­ed into farm­land.”

This state of affairs does not bode well for the mil­lions of remain­ing species get­ting edged out of their envi­ron­ments by agribusi­ness and cli­mate change. We learn from extinc­tions past that the plan­et rebounds after unimag­in­able cat­a­stro­phe. Life real­ly does go on, though it may take mil­lions of years to recov­er. But the cur­rent forms of life may dis­ap­pear before their time. If we want to under­stand what is at stake besides our own frag­ile fos­sil-fuel based civ­i­liza­tions, we need to con­nect to life emo­tion­al­ly as well as intel­lec­tu­al­ly. Short of globe-hop­ping phys­i­cal immer­sion in the earth’s bio­di­ver­si­ty, we could hard­ly do bet­ter than immers­ing our­selves in the tra­di­tion of nat­u­ral­ist writ­ing, art, and pho­tog­ra­phy that brings the world to us.

The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library (BHL), an “open access dig­i­tal library for bio­di­ver­si­ty lit­er­a­ture and archives,” has for many years been mak­ing it easy for peo­ple to con­nect to nature through nature writ­ing and illus­tra­tion. In 2012, they announced the “suc­cess sto­ry” of their Flickr streams, both con­tain­ing thou­sands of illus­tra­tions and pho­tographs uploaded by the BHL staff and read­ers from their huge col­lec­tions of books.

The first stream, cur­rent­ly at 122,281 images, has been care­ful­ly curat­ed, and includes search­able gal­leries and albums divid­ed by book title or sub­ject, such as “Exot­ic botany illus­trat­ed,” “The Birds of Aus­tralia v.1,” and “Bats!” The sec­ond stream, con­sist­ing of over 2 mil­lion images, is a mas­sive grab-bag of pho­tos, ill­lus­tra­tions from nature, adver­tise­ments, and imag­i­na­tive ren­der­ings.

Though far less use­ful for the scholar—or the very pur­pose­ful user—this sec­ond pho­to­stream offers more poten­tial for chance dis­cov­ery, through the aim­less wan­der­ing that often leads to serendip­i­tous­ly sub­lime expe­ri­ences. The for­mal BHL stream does not dis­ap­point, though it may offer few­er sur­pris­es. Both of these image archives offer expan­sive views of human­i­ty’s encounter with the nat­ur­al world, not only through sta­tis­tics and aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon, but through the artis­tic record­ing of won­der, sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty, and deep appre­ci­a­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 50 Hours of Nature Sound­scapes from the BBC: Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly Proven to Ease Stress and Pro­mote Hap­pi­ness & Awe

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Down­load for Free 2.6 Mil­lion Images from Books Pub­lished Over Last 500 Years on Flickr

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Sean M says:

    Out­stand­ing work with the BHL.

  • KH says:

    Delight­ed to see the images shared, but this state­ment gets mul­ti­ple Pin­no­chios for miss­ing qual­i­fiers: “human beings, our live­stock, and our pets take up the remain­ing 97 per­cent of the bio­mass… almost half of the earth’s land has been con­vert­ed into farm­land.”

    My inter­nal lie detec­tor went off. A lit­tle dig­ging found that chang­ing this to “97% of mam­malian bio­mass” and “40% of hab­it­able land is farm­land (includ­ing graz­ing pas­ture)” would have made the state­ments reflect sci­en­tif­ic cal­cu­la­tions. That’s a huge­ly dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Sure­ly, a more accu­rate quote could have used to illus­trate the mag­ni­tude of human­i­ty’s effect on the plan­et.

  • Bianca says:

    Thank you KH for that clar­i­fi­ca­tion. Nice to see some­one cham­pi­on facts and sci­ence. How sta­tis­tics are used to express con­cepts or facts, are every­thing.

  • Salman Raza says:

    Amaz­ing Art Work from Prof Salman Raza zool­o­gist

  • Salman Raza says:

    Prof Salman Raza Prin­ci­pal Gov­ern­ment Degree Boys Col­lege 5L New Karachi Pak­istan and Prof of Zool­o­gy

  • Prof Salman Raza says:

    Prof Salman Raza Prin­ci­pal Gov­ern­ment Degree Boys Col­lege 5L New Karachi Pak­istan and Prof of Zool­o­gy World Renowned Zool­o­gist 🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰🇵🇰

  • Linda Swain says:

    I was just going through some old emails look­ing for art class­es I’d signed up for and I found three or four Open Cul­ture announce­ment emails from 2019.

    (For exam­ple, I saved “In 1886, the US Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sioned 7,500 Water­col­or Paint­ings of Every Known Fruit in the World” and “25 Mil­lion Images From 14 Art Insti­tu­tions to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online In One Huge Schol­ar­ly Archive.” )

    I just fol­lowed one of the links today–I’m so glad I kept the emails. What a won­der­ful resource of all kinds of knowl­edge! So many dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories to choose from

    Thank you! My hus­band just jot­ted down your web­site so that he can take a look at it. I’ll def­i­nite­ly be telling oth­ers about Open Cul­ture.

    Lin­da Swain

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