“You can’t get back specimens”: Ukrainian scientists rush to save irreplaceable collections | Science

On the morning of 24 February, conservation biologist Anton Vlaschenko awoke to the sound of shelling outside his apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The first thing he did was eat a big breakfast. Then, he headed straight to the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center; the bat rescue and research facility is the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe. “I didn’t know if we would return home, or what would happen next,” he says. “But I understood the war had begun, and we needed to do something.”

Worried that the city’s power would be cut, Vlaschenko spent the next 24 hours transferring hundreds of rescued bats hibernating in the center’s refrigerators to special cages for release. As the winged mammals flew into the frigid night to look for new spots to spend the remaining winter, Vlaschenko heard gunfire in the streets: the first Russian troops to enter the city outskirts were clashing with the Ukrainian army.

Next, Vlaschenko moved the center’s collection of over 2000 Nyctalus noctula bat skulls—each carefully padded with shredded newspaper and labeled and stored in a numbered matchbox—to his apartment, an hour’s walk away. More than a week later, the skulls are still there, wrapped in plastic shopping bags by the door in case they need to be moved again in a hurry. He also brought home rescued bats too sick to release.

“We had a huge explosion close to my home 2 days ago,” Vlaschenko said in a call this week from his apartment, the peeps of bats audible in the background. “You never know what moment you could be hit.”

As war rages, Vlaschenko and researchers across Ukraine are scrambling to protect, hide or evacuate irreplaceable specimens, collections, and data. One group is uploading 3D scans of fossils to colleagues abroad, and a loosely organized international effort has sprung up to save digital data from Ukrainian scientific and cultural collections to servers outside the country.

For heritage experts, the threat to Ukraine’s scientific collections and cultural monuments is frighteningly familiar from recent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Mali, and elsewhere. “How do you protect museums? You can’t move the buildings, or the infrastructure,” says UNESCO World Heritage Centre Director Lazare Eloundou Assomo. “You try to protect collections by relocating them to shelters or refuges, where you have to hide and store them until the war is finished.”

In a blog post days after the Russian invasion began, National Museum of the History of Ukraine Director Fedir Androshchuk said his museum in central Kyiv and others across the country had done just that, dismantling exhibitions with artifacts such as Scythian weapons or a mammoth tusk bracelet from the last ice age and moving them to secure spots for safekeeping. Androshchuk fears “eventual damages caused by rocket strikes, shelling and bombing,” he wrote in an email to Science this week. “There is no guarantee that Ukrainian heritage will be safe.”

In the early days of the war, when some predicted Kyiv would fall quickly, it wasn’t clear how much time museum staff had. “They were working against the clock,” says Mads Holst, director of the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, who has been in touch with Androshchuk since the war began. “They had a very specific task and they took it up very courageously.”

In what Holst calls a “happy accident,” over 1000 objects from the National Museum of the History of Ukraine and regional museums had already been shipped to his museum for an exhibit, Rus – Vikings in the East. “There are burial assemblages, hoard finds—they’re quite significant objects,” Holst says. “There’s still quite a lot to be explored and researched about their provenance and history.”

Many Ukrainians view the period between 800 and 1050 C.E., when Kyiv was founded as a Viking trading outpost, as the beginning of their national identity—an interpretation many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, deny. Now secure and on display in Denmark, “these objects are part of this conflict, which is partly about whether Ukraine is allowed to have an independent historical identity,” Holst says.

Other researchers are turning to fragile internet connections to save their collections digitally. Pavel Gol’din, an evolutionary zoologist at the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology in Kyiv, is far from the front lines—for now—in the southwestern Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. But he studies cetacean evolution, and his work relies in part on massive fossils 10 meters long or more, from Ukraine and elsewhere, which would be nearly impossible to move, evacuate, or stuff in a safe.

Over the last 2 years, he led a project to scan marine mammal fossils from collections across Ukraine, most between 40 and 7 million years old. “We created a 3D archive of extinct and extant specimens, some unique,” he says. “Our archive is four terabytes of data—it’s quite a big collection.”

When war broke out, the scans were mostly stored on hard drives in Kyiv and Kharkiv. To make sure at least the scans survive, one of Gol’din’s students in Kharkiv is transferring data to colleagues in France in the midst of Russian bombardments. “When he has an internet connection, he’s uploading files,” Gol’din says. “But Kharkiv is under continuous shelling, and he is under a lot of risk.”

Gol’din hopes to help avert a repeat of the catastrophes that befell paleontology during World War II, when bombs and fire destroyed countless fossils in museums from Munich to Milan and Kyiv. “I think we will win,” he says. “We will be able to start again.”

Outside of Ukraine, volunteers in Europe and the U.S. have launched Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO. What started a few days after the invasion as a project to save digitized music collections quickly turned into an effort to preserve the online repositories of more than 1000 Ukrainian cultural and scientific institutions, including small local archaeology museums, major archives, and rare book collections.

Within days, archivists, librarians, and programmers from around the world began to copy the complete websites of Ukrainian cultural institutions. Using automated computer programs and volunteers manually copying files, they began sweeping up everything online from PDFs of journal articles and scans of rare books to 3D tours of museum collections.

The urgency of the task quickly became clear. A few days after they started their work, SUCHO volunteers captured the website of the State Archives of Kharkiv—105 gigabytes of data, including scans of rare books and scientific records. “Four hours later, the whole website went down,” says Sebastian Majstorovic, a historian and IT consultant at the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage in Vienna. “Because of the way the internet [architecture] works, anything attached to Ukraine in any way is in danger.”

As Ukraine’s internet infrastructure comes under increasing pressure, “we’re focusing on grabbing as much as we can,” says Majstorovic. “The real threat is servers in Ukraine might get destroyed or just disconnected.” So far, over 5 terabytes of data have been stored on servers outside the country, and more files have been saved to the Internet Archive. Other institutions, including the German Archaeological Institute and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, which focuses on the country’s culture and history, are providing secure storage for individual researchers in Ukraine to upload data and research materials.

Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine researcher Artem Borysov, for example, has worked with SUCHO and colleagues at the German Archaeological Institute to upload over 100 gigabytes of excavation drawings, photographs, and spatial data from Cherkasy Regional Museum hard drives to secure servers outside Ukraine. The transfer included documentation from decades of fieldwork on settlements and grave mounds from between 3000 and 2300 B.C.E., the heyday of the Yamnaya culture. These nomadic herders arose on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia, then spread, leaving a lasting genetic mark on most people in Europe.

His next task is to try to get 4 terabytes of documentation from his institute to German Archaeological Institute servers, including records from a recent excavation of a 10th century C.E. cemetery on the banks of the Ros’ river. Called Ostriv, the site’s burials look like they belong to people living in the eastern Baltic, far to the north and west—another strand in the story of Ukraine’s origins in the Viking era. “Most of the data is photocopies of documents from the archive,” including field reports from the last 15 years,” Borysov wrote in an email earlier this week. “This process is still ongoing, because the data transfer rate is very low.”

Back in Kharkiv, Vlaschenko’s bat center has lost just a few windows so far, and its power is still on. Vlaschenko makes regular “raids” on foot through the embattled city to check on the lab’s seven freezers full of bat carcasses, which represent another irreplaceable specimen collection for immunology, parasitology, and climate research. The center’s veterinarian and a few volunteers have stayed in the city to feed and care for bats too sick to release.

The collections represent decades of work—and the hope that Ukrainian science can recover after the war. Vlaschenko says the bat skulls in his apartment could hold clues to recent evolution in N. noctula: The bats around Kharkiv have shifted their migratory patterns since the late 1990s, he says, becoming sedentary rather than migrating long distances, and the skulls could hold clues to how city life changed them. “One day, maybe we can see how bats adapt to urbanization from changes in their skulls over time,”—but only if the skulls survive the war.

“When something like this happens the specimens that survive are crazy important for future research,” Vlaschenko says. “You can buy new equipment or build new buildings, but you can’t get back individual specimens.”