Natural History Collections Document Loss of Biodiversity

More+More+ ♦ Published: November 15, 2023; 23:13 ♦ (Vindobona)

Natural history collections are not only valuable cultural archives but also crucial research infrastructures that document the Earth's biodiversity and its loss. In a time of global change, these collections are becoming increasingly important.

Dr. Anja Palandačić extracting and analyzing the Suess' trembling ray. / Picture: © @NHM Wien

Researchers at the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHM Vienna), in cooperation with the international scientific community, are addressing the urgent issue of the rapid loss of biodiversity.

A particular focus is on the torpedo rays (Torpedinformes), a group of rays known for their ability to use electrical discharges to stun their prey or for defense. One of these species, the Suess' electric ray (Torpedo suessii) from the Red Sea, is now an example of the urgency to understand and protect biodiversity.

The Suess' electric ray was named after Eduard Suess, a Viennese geologist, and was first described by Franz Steindachner, a renowned Austrian fish expert, in 1898. The species, which is characterized by its striking, giraffe-like pattern of spots, has not been observed since it was first described and is therefore presumed to be extinct.

More than a century after its description, Dr. Anja Palandačić, together with a team from the NHM Vienna and experts from Germany, analyzed genetic material from one of the historical specimens. Their results confirm that the Suess' electric ray is an independent species. This finding underlines the importance of natural history collections for biodiversity research.

Given the increasing pressure on marine ecosystems and their inhabitants, it is essential to inventory and protect marine biodiversity. However, the case of the Suess' electric ray shows that it may already be too late for some species. This loss underlines the urgency of taking action to protect biodiversity before more species are irretrievably lost.

Natural History Museum Vienna