About our research

The Naturalis building. Museum on the left, offices and lab on the right. The tower holds our collection.

Naturalis Biodiversity Center is a family friendly museum, a huge natural history collection, and a scientific institute for biodiversity research. When working together, each of these aspects reinforces the other two. We are also at the forefront of digitizing our collection, and working with other natural history museums in Europe to create the largest online collection in the world. 

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Research focus

The sector Research and Education primarily aims to discover, identify, describe, classify, understand and preserve the diversity on Earth. Besides the strong focus on understanding the evolutionary process, we study the ecology of species in their environment and increasingly address the anthropogenic context of global biodiversity. The global natural history collection, assembled from all over the world, is the research infrastructure of taxonomists and systematists, and it is well-known that much is left to be discovered. 

This also applies to the Naturalis collections, which rank among the largest and finest in the world. In recent years, the interactions and collaborations between taxonomy and other biological disciplines, such as ecology, physiology and molecular biology, and non-biological disciplines, such as data science and artificial intelligence, have increased. New technological innovations in these disciplines made it possible to deepen the taxonomic and systematic questions and to set up interesting collaborative projects. Despite these developments, natural history institutes must also continue to fulfill their core task, describing and naming species.

There is urgency for this, and the task is far from completed. We must strive for a good balance between basic taxonomy on the one hand and interdisciplinary biodiversity research on the other. Within Naturalis’ research focus, evolution is our overarching area of interest. 

Other areas of interest are:

Diversity - We are the only research institute in the Netherlands that focuses explicitly on the tree of life of selected taxa. We have built up expert knowledge on corals, foraminifers, molluscs, sponges, mushrooms, mosses and orchids, just to name a few. 

Structure - The study of an organism is inextricably linked to describing its form, organs, tissues and cells which ensure that it is perfectly adapted to its environment. Especially reproductive organs are useful to distinguish and describe taxa, and the definition of good (homologous) characters is a prerequisite for good evolutionary studies. 

Function - The functional interpretation of the characteristics of plants and animals, or species and even entire ecosystems, is becoming an integral part of biodiversity studies. Structure and function are intrinsically linked, which can be explained by natural selection. Our interpretation of what lives on our planet, how organisms are built and what a structure does and how it works is completely dominated by evolutionary interpretation in time and space. The well-known quote from Dobzhansky (1973), ‘Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’, is therefore continuously put into practice in the research projects of Naturalis.

Structure and research groups

Naturalis has about 120 researchers and 200 guest researchers. The researchers are organized into ten different groups, and managed by the the Director R&E, Maaike van de Kamp-Romijn). She is responsible for the Naturalis science policy, scientific staff, budget and the position and visibility of Naturalis research both internally and externally. Naturalis currently has two Scientific Directors, Erik Smets and Koos Biesmeijer, who are both professors and part-time group leaders. Erik Smets focuses on scientific excellence and quality management, whereas Koos Biesmeijer’s scope is the further development of policy research and consultancy.

Find out more about the different groups

Labs & Collection

Naturalis provides the world’s fifth-largest natural history collection and is a unique resource for researchers around the world. The integrated plant, fungal, animal, fossil, rock and mineral collections managed by Naturalis are, with more than 42 million specimens (including >20.000 holotypes), in the global top tier. The collections have global coverage with especially strong representation of Tropical South East Asia, West and Central Africa, the Neotropics and Western Europe. 

The spacious laboratories of Naturalis were completed in 2019. The morphological facilities include an SEM and TEM, and a micro-CT scanner for 3D analyses. For our geological research, we have spectrometers, X-ray and nanoSims equipment and a Field Emission Gun-Electron MicroProbe (FEG-EMP). The latter is located in a joint national facility at Utrecht University. Our molecular labs are equipped for next-gen sequencing, DNA barcoding and metagenomics, and include a clean room for ancient DNA analyses. Our computational infrastructure allows GIS, 3D and HPC capabilities, all set up towards research on the Tree of Life and bio- and geodiversity studies across the planet. Watch the video below for more information about our lab facilities, or read this document with a full list of all our laboratory equipment.

Digital infrastructure

8.4 million specimens have been fully digitised, while the remainder of the collection has been digitised at higher aggregation levels. The digital images and records are accessible via the Netherlands Biodiversity application programming interface (API), the Naturalis Bioportal, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and several other portals, ensuring broad exposure and use.

The collection dashboard provides further information on the taxonomic and geographical distribution of the collection as well as on the degree of digitisation. Furthermore, we have invested in the development of novel research technologies that provide semi-automated species identification. They will form the basis for a new infrastructure for large-scale and reliable species monitoring based on DNA analyses and image/sound recognition.

This infrastructure, named ARISE (Authoritative and Rapid Identification System for Essential biodiversity information), relies on a species reference database, which brings together new and existing biodiversity information on all multicellular species in the Netherlands. ARISE will provide a basis for better monitoring to provide policy makers with more reliable information for effective measures. Furthermore, Naturalis leads the European Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo). DiSSCo represents the largest ever formal agreement between natural history museums, botanic gardens and collection-holding universities in the world. DiSSCo will transform a fragmented landscape of crucial natural science collections into an integrated knowledge base that provides interconnected hard evidence of the natural world.

Research strategy

Foster excellence in science and innovation in the field of biology, including multidisciplinary research 
In 10 years’ time, we have become frontrunner in connecting biodiversity research to new technologies such as DNA, imaging, 3D and data science (from big data to artificial intelligence). In the coming years we will consolidate our level of excellence and expand these promising lines of research. In the next 5 years we want to develop into a hub for biodiversity research and data science. A vibrant hub for young, talented researchers working closely together on one of the biggest, most urgent challenges in society. 

Offer training for scientists, students and experts to provide sustainable capacity building in the field of taxonomy 
Naturalis researchers teach in most Biology BSc and MSc programs of Dutch universities, and are in charge of much of the fieldwork at Dutch universities. They take students from different universities around the world on fieldwork and expeditions.

Provide a vibrant scientific environment for international early-stage and mid-career researchers and foster their academic career
Our level of excellence is the result of the tireless passion, commitment and drive of our researchers. As a national research institute, we will continue to focus on early-stage and mid-career researchers and their personal development towards building their own research group and professorships. Naturalis preferably is not the final station in an academic career, but a boost towards tenure at universities in the Netherlands and beyond.

Provide and maintain a sustainable state-of the-art (inter)national research infrastructure
We strongly believe that infrastructure based on advanced technologies is key to accelerating species discovery and comprehensive species monitoring needed to tackle the most pervasive biodiversity challenges. For this reason, we work on projects like ARISE and DiSSCo, mentioned above.

Further support and strengthen the national research community in the field of biology
We will continue to focus on the advancement of the Dutch green life sciences by offering a state-of the-art infrastructure and a new partnership with national counterparts in the new national Centre of Excellence for Netherlands Biodiversity Research

Further develop an extensive (inter)national network that connects academia, society, government, industry and the general public
As the national expert on biodiversity, we have not only extended our own network, but focused on building consortia, bringing several stakeholders together to work on important challenges on local, regional and national levels.

Extend our outreach to the general public by not only focusing on our visitors but also engaging new audiences outside the museum, and by using citizen science 
We will continue to extend citizen science tools at the national level and increase our online activities, because we see extensive potential outside the walls of the museum and we aim to involve new target groups, either as visitor, participant or fan. 

Expand our role in Dutch national science policy by calling for an ambitious biodiversity strategy in societal and political agendas
Just a few years ago, we had to do our utmost to explain biodiversity and the urgency to conserve it. In just a few years’ time, (inter)national society, politics and industry are much more aware of the importance of protecting biodiversity and rightfully appeal to Naturalis to come up with feasible, evidence-based strategies for local, regional and national agendas.