Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Advancing science through digitization of museum specimens

Posted by Libby Ellwood, Florida State University

"To be admitted to Nature's hearth costs nothing. 
None is excluded, but excludes himself. You have only to push aside the curtain."
H. D. Thoreau

Several research projects from the Primack lab have utilized data from herbarium specimens. One example (Primack et al. 2004) used herbarium specimens to track changes in flowering over time (see Climate Change for article links). Herbarium specimens are plants that have been pressed, preserved and attached to paper, then saved in collections. During Thoreau's time, and up through the 1920's, it was a popular pastime to collect plants and save them as specimens. Even Thoreau saved plants that he collected during his walks. Over the years this fad has fallen out of favor, but collections from the past 200 years remain to provide valuable insight for researchers interested in plant taxonomy, systematics, genetics, range changes and of course, climate change.

Specimen of  Panicum virgatum, switchgrass, that Thoreau collected in
Concord, MA. It is now housed at the UCONN herbarium.

Around the world, most specimens exist as only the physical object and there is limited digital information available. If a researcher needs information about the specimen they must visit the herbarium, find the specimen, and examine it in person. In the US, a newly formed organization, iDigBio, has been working to make information about these and other biodiversity specimens available online. iDigBio works with museums to image specimens and digitize information about species, locality, date and collector. Projects like these rely heavily on help from citizen scientists to transcribe information from the labels into a digital format. Once these data are transcribed, researchers can more easily access this information that spans the globe and two centuries worth of collections.

An example of some of the beautiful specimens
being imaged and digitized.

Are you interested in transcribing herbarium labels, expedition notes and other collections information? Notes from Nature is one site where you can take a peek into the past and help liberate specimens from museum cabinets!

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