- MAS served beyond its normal duties: CEO
- 66,000 ICs issued to Sabah immigrants
- Birthday outing takes tragic turn
- ‘ Accept reality, Anwar’
- Mother, daughter stranded at airport
- Malaysia Airlines helps mum, child
- Zahid: Probe into Lahad Datu intrusion completed
- Mama proposes RM6,000 fee
- Malaysians easy target for London tricksters
- Guan Eng: State govt has the right to hold rally
- “I thought I knew him...”
- SUDIRMAN CUP: Kim Her stands by fading pair
- 'Rule of law crucial to nation's integrity'
- Water woes for KL, Selangor folk
- EPL: Wenger vows to spend More
BIODIVERSITY: Specimens taken abroad can be studied via digital means, writes Ghazally Ismail
The honest truth is, we have no idea.
A huge percentage of the biological specimens collected by our scientists remain unidentified on the shelves of universities and research institutions.
We do not know how diverse our flora and fauna really are. We need to know exactly what comprises our biodiversity and where they occur.
Specimen collections are important for keeping inventories of our own natural history. They are archives of our biodiversity.
These specimens serve as reference materials for research. The information gathered and documented for each specimen will allow further refinement by specialists interested in the same species.
Only through a continuous process of probing and expanding our knowledge of the natural history can we increase our current understanding of the species on earth.
New species of plants and animals are discovered and rediscovered all the time in different parts of the world. But many found in our diverse ecosystems remain unidentified.
Herein rests the challenge. To declare a specimen a new species, a scientist must match it to something that's already in a museum somewhere.
This standard reference specimen is called a holotype. Usually it is an off-colour pickled animal sitting in a jar somewhere or a rusty-brown dried plant specimen pressed between old newspapers.
Unfortunately for our students, most of these holotype specimens are today housed overseas. We need to have access to these for comparison study.
Our own colonial history has everything to do with this predicament.
Expeditions by foreign scientists were made into the country from the 1800s. It started as early as 1854 when Alfred Wallace, at the age of 31, spent nine years collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago.
A total of 125,000 specimens were collected. More than 80,000 were beetles.
His entire loot is now housed in private collections and museums all over Europe.
Thousands of biological specimens were deposited in museums overseas, including the Natural History Museum, United Kingdom, the National Museum of Natural History, Holland, the Field Museum in the United States and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington.
Malaysian scientists do have access to these specimens overseas. However, they are often made to pay a bomb to compare their specimens to the holotypes.
Why should we have to pay to research on our own natural heritage?
It is time for us to bring home these invaluable specimens held overseas. It would be politically averse to even suggest that overseas museums transfer to us the actual specimens.
That would be financially prohibitive.
But with the advancement in computer and imaging technology, we can embark on repatriating these resources through digital means.
We may not have the real specimens but functionally, digital images of these specimens can serve similar purposes for taxonomic study. This is even more doable with the incorporation of cutting-edge virtual reality technology.
Malaysia is one of the 13 megadiverse countries in the world. But how many species do we actually have?
The use of computer-simulation, three-dimensional video and hologram technologies are just a few of the tools that can make this idea most beneficial for our scientists.
Such a move will be seen as a mark of a new era for us and future generations.
It would be incumbent on the relevant government ministries, the Science, Technology and Innovations Ministry and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry to look into this. Funds and resources are of course required to achieve this.
I would even suggest that the Malaysian corporate sector adopt this move of repatriating our natural heritage as part of its corporate social responsibility.
In the name of science, the initiative must be seen as a timely tune-up of how we ought to be collaborating and studying earth's biodiversity. It should be underpinned less by Malaysian nationalism.
Given numerous very real threats to those as yet unknown species of flora and fauna, Malaysian scientists are eager to get identification work done quickly.
My guess is we'll probably have double the number of species we currently know, but it could all disappear before we know it's there.
Dr Ghazally Ismail is a fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia