‘You can’t recover samples’: Ukrainian scientists rush to save irreplaceable collections | to know

On the morning of February 24, conservation biologist Anton Vlashenko woke up to the sound of shelling outside his apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The first thing to do is eat a big breakfast. Then head straight to the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center. The bat search and rescue facility is the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe. “I didn’t know if we were going home, or what would happen next,” he says. “But I realized that the war had begun, and we had to do something.”

Fearing a power outage in the city, Vlashenko spent the next 24 hours moving hundreds of rescued bats hibernating in the center’s refrigerators to special cages for release. When winged mammals were flying in the cold night in search of new places to spend the remaining winter, Vlashenko heard gunfire in the streets: the first Russian troops that entered the outskirts of the city were clashing with the Ukrainian army.

After that, Vlashenko moved the center group to more than 2000 Nyctalus noctula The bat skulls—each carefully lined with shredded newspaper, graded, and stored in a numbered packet of sticks—to his apartment, an hour’s walk away. Over a week later, the skulls are still there, wrapped in plastic shopping bags at the door in case they need to be moved again in a hurry. He also brought home rescued bats too sick to be released.

“There was a huge explosion near my house two days ago,” Vlashenko said on a phone call this week from his apartment, with bats chirping in the background. “You never know at what moment it could strike.”

As war rages, Vlashenko and researchers across Ukraine scramble to protect, hide or evacuate irreplaceable specimens, collections, and data. One group uploads 3D scans of the fossils to colleagues abroad, and a loosely organized international effort has emerged to preserve 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 cannot move buildings or infrastructure,” said Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center Lazar Elondo Assumu. “You try to protect the groups by taking them to shelters or shelters, where you have to hide and store them until the war is over.”

In a blog days after the Russian invasion began, the director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, Feder Andrushchuk, said his museum in central Kyiv and others across the country had done just that, dismantling exhibits containing artifacts such as Scythian weapons or a massive tusk bracelet. . from the last ice age and moved them to safe places for safekeeping. Androshchuk fears “possible damage from missile attacks, shelling and shelling,” he wrote in an email to to know 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 was not clear how long the museum staff had. “They were working against time,” says Mads Holst, director of the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, who has been in contact with Androshoek since the war began. “They had a very specific mission and they took it with great courage.”

In what Holst calls the “happy accident,” more than 1,000 objects from the National Museum of the History of Ukraine and regional museums have already been shipped to his museum for the exhibition of Rus-Vikings in the East. “There are collections of burials, treasure finds — these are very important things,” Holst says. “There is still a lot to explore and research about its provenance and history.”

Many Ukrainians view the period between 800 and 1050 AD, when Kyiv was established as a trading center for the Vikings, as the beginning of their national identity – an interpretation rejected by many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin. Now safe and on display in Denmark, “these things are part of this conflict, which is partly about whether Ukraine is allowed to have an independent historical identity,” says Holst.

Other researchers are turning to fragile internet connections to digitally preserve their collections. Pavel Goldin, 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 the evolution of cetaceans, and his work is based in part on massive fossils of 10 meters or more, from Ukraine and elsewhere, that would be nearly impossible to move, evacuate or store in a safe place.

Over the past two years, he has led a project to survey marine mammal fossils from groups across Ukraine, most of which are between 40 and 7 million years old. “We created a 3D archive of extinct and surviving specimens, some of which are unique,” he says. “Our archive consists of four terabytes of data—that’s a very large group.”

When the war broke out, scans were mostly stored on hard drives in Kyiv and Kharkiv. To make sure the scans at least survive, one of Goldin’s students in Kharkiv relays the data to his colleagues in France in the midst of Russian bombing. “When he has an internet connection, he uploads files,” Goldin says. But Kharkiv is under constant bombardment and is in great danger.

Goldin hopes to help avoid a repeat of the disasters that befell paleontology during World War II, when fires and bombs destroyed countless fossils in museums from Munich to Milan and Kiev. “I think we will win,” he says. “We will be able to start over.”

Outside Ukraine, volunteers in Europe and the United States have launched the Save Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online Campaign, or Suzhou. What began a few days after the invasion as a project to preserve digital music collections quickly turned into an effort to preserve the online repositories of more than 1,000 Ukrainian cultural and scientific institutions, including small local antiquities museums, major archives and rare book collections.

Within days, archivists, librarians and programmers from all over the world began copying entire websites of Ukrainian cultural institutions. Using automated computer programs and volunteers copying files by hand, they began scanning everything online from PDFs of magazine articles and rare book scans to 3D tours of museum collections.

The urgency of the task soon became apparent. A few days after starting their work, SUCHO volunteers seized the website of the State Archives in Kharkiv – 105 gigabytes of data, including scans of rare books and scientific records. After four hours, the site was completely down,” says Sebastian Magstorowicz, a historian and IT consultant at the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage in Vienna. ‘Because of the way the Internet [architecture] It works, anything connected to Ukraine in any way is in danger. ”

As Ukraine’s internet infrastructure comes under increasing pressure, “we’re focused on capturing as much as possible,” says Majstorovic. “The real threat is that servers in Ukraine may just be destroyed or disconnected.” To date, more than 5 terabytes of data have been stored on servers outside the country, and even more files have been saved in the Internet Archive. Other institutions, including the German Archaeological Institute and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, which focus on the country’s culture and history, provide secure storage for individual researchers in Ukraine to upload data and research materials.

For example, Artem Borisov, a researcher at the Institute of Archeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, worked with Socho and colleagues at the German Archaeological Institute to upload more than 100 gigabytes of excavation drawings, images, and spatial data from the hard drives of the Cherkasy Regional Museum to secure servers outside Ukraine. The transmission included documentation from decades of fieldwork on settlements and tombs between 3000 and 2300 BC, the heyday of the Yamnaya culture. These nomadic shepherds originated in the steppes of Ukraine and Russia, and then spread, leaving a permanent genetic mark on most people in Europe.

His next task is to try to get 4 terabytes of documents from his institute to the servers of the German Archaeological Institute, including records from recent excavations in a 10th century CE cemetery on the banks of the Ross River. The site’s burials, called ostreif, appear to belong to people living in the eastern Baltic, far to the north and west – another clue in the story of the origins of Ukraine in the Viking age. “Most of the data are photocopies of documents from the archive,” Borisov wrote in an email earlier this week, including field reports from the last 15 years. “This process is still going on, because the data transfer rate is very low.”

Back in Kharkiv, Vlashenko’s bat center has lost a few windows so far, and its powerhouse is still running. Vlashenko makes regular “raids” on foot through the besieged city to check out the seven lab freezers filled with bat carcasses, another irreplaceable specimen collection in immunology, parasitology, and climate research. The vet stayed at the center and a few volunteers in town to feed and care for bats that were too sick to be released.

The collections represent decades of work – and the hope that the Ukrainian flag will recover after the war. Vlashenko says the bat skulls in his apartment could hold clues to the recent evolution of the… nictolaHe says bats around Kharkiv have changed their migration patterns since the late 1990s, becoming sedentary rather than migrating long distances, and skulls can hold clues to how city life is changing them. “One day, perhaps 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 samples that survive are critical for future research,” says Flashenko. “You can buy new equipment or build new buildings, but you can’t recover individual samples.”