Browsing the Bibliographies with the Species Sleuths

Until the formation of OHBR in 2012, almost all the information on the islands’ biodiversity had been gathered by either visiting amateur naturalist or professional scientists engaged in academic research or conducting surveys for various government agencies. Their work has provided the backbone for our species lists and when a potential new species is found on the islands, it is their published scientific reports and papers which are often consulted. In some ways it is reassuring that we can often find a previous record of the species in question, even though there is a significant period of time between the observations. It is equally true that there are some species in the more infrequently studied groups e.g. fungi which have not been observed since the original record was made. This does not necessarily mean that these species are no longer present, but it emphasises the importance of continuing recording to establish our biodiversity baselines. Without this information we are unable to monitor changes and understand the effects of climate change and habitat loss.

Checking the status of an unfamiliar species normally starts with the NBN Atlas to see if it has been recorded in the Outer Hebrides. If it’s not listed, the next step is to investigate some of the websites of the taxonomic recording groups that do not make their records available through the NBN. This may not reveal the full set of information, such as date or location, but it is a start. If there is still no confirmation, searching for clues becomes much more interesting. It is time for the nature detectives to become species sleuths.

Next a quick check to establish whether the prospective new species has been recorded in Scotland or the UK and it’s a good idea to discover whether it’s a migratory. Provided it isn’t endemic to an obscure island in the Pacific or can only be identified by DNA analysis, we can move on. First we need an identity check – over time the names of species can change, so you need to be aware of its various taxonomic aliases or synonyms. These are included in species descriptions used on the NBN Atlas (look under the names tab) or they can be found on nomenclature websites, such as WORMS (World Register of Marine Species) or Index Fungorum.

Now it is time to start browsing the bibliographies or ferreting around in the archives.

Natural History of Barra
Natural History of Barra

For some taxonomic groups their are a few key sources which may provide some leads, e.g.
Forrest, Waterston & Watson – The Natural History of Barra
Morton Boyd – The Natural Environment of the Outer Hebrides
Waterston – Present knowledge of the non-marine invertebrate fauna of the Outer Hebrides
Dennis – Fungi of the Outer Hebrides
Brodie & Wilbraham – Seaweed Survey of the Outer Hebrides 2012.

Time to widen the search. The Outer Hebrides Natural History Bibliography which includes the index for the Hebridean Naturalist journal, is a good source for books, reports and scientific papers on the natural history and wildlife of the islands.

Hebridean naturalist
Natural History St Kilda

Fortunately, we no longer have to spend hours perusing dusty volumes on the shelves of reference libraries or the public record offices, as there is a wealth of material available on-line. Many important journals, such as the Annals of Scottish Natural History, the Scottish Naturalist and the Glasgow Naturalist are available in the Biodiversity Heritage Library; whilst JSTOR provides access to some of the major scientific journals. The major museums and botanic gardens are slowly digitising the catalogues of their collections and some of these can now be found on-line., e.g. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has samples of fungi collected in the Outer Hebrides in its Herbarium.

If you like puzzles or have an interest in the history of natural history, this can be an absorbing way to spend at wet afternoon or an entire winter. Your search will probably lead you down blind alleys, produce red herrings and send you the occasional fool’s errand. You can also become totally distracted and spend hours reading fascinating accounts of the Aquatic Coleoptera of the Outer Hebrides or Sea Bird Fowling in Scotland. With a little luck and determination you can probably discover whether your species has previously been recorded in the Outer Hebrides, it might even be new to the UK. Although we are still finding new species to add to the Outer Hebrides lists1, don’t be too disappointed if the species you are researching isn’t, it is still a valuable record. After all it can be equally rewarding to confirm that it was last recorded in North Uist in 1872 or that it has not been seen since first described as a new species in 1893 from a sample collected in the north east of Scotland! Alternatively if you have other things to do with your time, you could just ask OHBR.


  1. Outer Hebrides species lists can be found on the OHBR website. This is a work in progress.

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