U.S. Virtual Herbarium promises to revolutionize access to biological data
Uniting people across the nation behind any single task has never been easily accomplished. But for Mary Barkworth, a Utah State University associate professor of biology and director of the Intermountain Herbarium, Zack Murrell, an Appalachian State associate professor of biology, and a host of others in different regions throughout the United States, that’s precisely the task they have taken up in terms of plant collections, known as ‘herbaria’ in the botanical world.
Under the direction of Barkworth and Murrell, the United States Virtual Herbarium (USVH) has been developed, providing a vast database of plant specimens from throughout the world that are available to anyone with internet access. From exploring plants that grew under the feet of the nation’s Founding Fathers to using the collection to better understand today’s oft-debated changes in climate, the USVH will benefit many studies.
The USVH provides easy access for research on specimens that are hundreds of years old—giving biologists the resources to obtain information on ecological data, insect damage, plant feeding times and an array of other botanical intelligence. With adequate funding, the USVH should be fully completed by 2020, Murrell predicted. As of mid-September, the USVH contained images from the collections of approximately 600 herbaria, each of which contains between 250 and 7 million specimens.
“If you can take information and compile it on a large scale, taking specimens back at least a couple of hundred years, across the North American continent, then you can take some things beyond what people understand about herbaria,” Murrell said. “Combining all this information will allow us to ask different questions about specimens than what we’ve tended to ask in the past.”
The committee responsible for developing the USVH was organized under the Western Agricultural Experiment Station Directors in 2007, initiated by H. Paul Rasmussen, former director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station. The committee includes Elizabeth Sellers, from the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.; Mark Mayfield, Kansas State University plant identification expert; and Ellen Dean of the Center for Plant Diversity at the University of California-Davis and administrative advisor Stella Coakley, Director of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station.
Curtis Dyreson, an assistant professor in the USU Department of Computer Science, continues to refine the regional website using SYMBIOTA, a library of web tools developed by Ed Gilbert at Arizona State University. The regional collection currently includes digital specimens from USU, Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Snow College. Others are expected to contribute images in the coming months.
“I must say it’s been a delight to do,” Barkworth said of her collaboration with Dyreson in digitizing images of the Intermountain Herbarium’s collection. “It was just the sensible thing to do given the way computers are now used, but it requires collaboration among programmers, computer scientists and botanists.”
Murrell said the questions that will certain arise from the comprehensive online study of the specimens will spur plenty of research on climate issues, which can help biologists make predictions about restructuring habitats in accordance with such ecological developments.
“We’re really faced in the next century with having to rebuild communities, because some areas will be wetter with the climate change we are experiencing,” Murrell said.
Leslie Landrum, Arizona State University herbarium director, who is involved with the project on behalf of the Southwest Biodiversity Consortium (SBC) and the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINet), compared the convenience of accessing plant specimens online to being able to locate all of the books one will ever need in the same library.
“If we can have all plant species all on the same website, I can look at each specimen,” Landrum said. “That’s going to be more convenient than having to travel around the country.”
It’s a commodity that Barkworth is certain will be valuable to researchers, sparing them from travel fatigue and cutting the costs required to go globe-trotting in order to do something as simple as comparing the images of two specimens. Gilbert said that without online data-basing, plant comparisons are not always easily made in the vast plant taxonomy in the United States since there are potentially 60 to 100 million specimens in this nation alone.
Barkworth hopes most of the $15,000 per year required to run the USVH project will come from private donors, but actually capturing digital images of available specimens will require more funding from a variety of sources.
Landrum remembers Barkworth publically speaking about the idea as long as 15 years ago. The difference now is that the growth of the internet and other technology makes it possible. But time is of the essence, Landrum said because many biologists are losing the ability to differentiate plant types and Murrell agreed is a distressing dilemma.
“Life sciences have moved toward a more molecular field—a mechanistic focus,” he said. “A lot of herbaria don’t have the expertise that they have had in the past. As biological studies have moved forward, there is a lack in expertise of a field taxonomist. With the U.S. Virtual Herbarium, we really have the opportunity to drive communications and educate with it, rather than being so isolated in a workplace.”
Regionally, botanists are working hard to make the USVH a reality. The southwestern part of the country is no exception. At Arizona State, seven students and two staff positions have been added to help develop their piece of the database. Data from the Intermountain Herbarium at USU - home to 256,000 specimens - went online in July and can be found at the Intermountain Region Herbarium branch within the USVH .
The herbarium’s accessibility to a wide demographic is perhaps its greatest strength, Gilbert said. He said the USVH will be able to help anyone from grade-school students to professional botanists to choose and identify specimens on the web with little difficulty.
“(USVH) is easy enough to use that even a novice can make use of this data,” said Gilbert, adding that students can use identification tools and a tracking device similar to Google Earth on the website to locate specific plants within their school’s area. “It will serve scientists, but also the general population. It is a merging of the general public with the scientific community.”
“I view myself as a botanist and a computer nerd,” he said. “It’s an exciting little niche that allows us to create tools to take these herbaria from cabinets and get them out to the public, and educate younger generations.”
Writers: Rhett Wilkinson and Lynnette Harris