The New York Botanical Garden

PLANT RESEARCH & CONSERVATION

The C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium Picks Up Momentum:

Digitization at The New York Botanical Garden


The 7.3 million specimens in the Garden's William and Lynda Steere Herbarium make it one of the treasures of The New York Botanical Garden, a resource not only for Garden scientists but also for researchers from around the world. To take advantage of the collection, however, those researchers have generally had to travel from around the world to study specimens in person, or they could request that specimens be shipped to them on loan.

Garden scientist Dr. Barbara M. Thiers is leading efforts to digitize all of the specimens from the Americas in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and make them available electronically through the C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.

This to-and-fro has been changing gradually as the C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium adds digitized images of plant, fungal, and algal specimens to its online collection. Now a new funding initiative by the National Science Foundation (NSF) promises to dramatically speed up that process, according to Steere Herbarium Director Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D.

Called Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC), the initiative's goal is to digitize most, if not all, U.S. biological collections by the year 2020. By most estimates, there are more than 1 billion specimens of existing and extinct plant, animal, and other life-forms in the nation's herbaria and natural history museums.

The information stored in these specimens is an irreplaceable source of data for such current research issues as climate change, loss of biodiversity, evolution, agricultural development, natural disasters, and the tracking of diseases. Yet only 10 percent of biological collections in U.S. institutions are currently available online.

Dr. Thiers has been serving as part of a planning team put together by the NSF to address this ambitious digitization challenge. With the help of ADBC funding, the Garden aims to digitize all of its specimens from the Americas—the most extensive subset of holdings in the Herbarium, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Already, the Herbarium's highly trained technical staff and visiting colleagues from Brazil have nearly completed digitizing all of the plant specimens from Brazil, which constitute one of the world's great collections of specimens from this area. They have also nearly finished digitizing plant specimens from the Intermountain Region of the Western U.S., which has been the subject of study at the Garden for the past 40 years. In addition, they are actively digitizing the approximately 300,000 specimens of plants from the Caribbean region.

Digitized specimen of Jatropha multiflora (Euphorbiaceae) collected in the Bahamas in 1859. Because it was meticulously prepared and has been carefully conserved, this herbarium specimen is valuable for modern scientific analysis.

And within two years, the staff will complete the digitization of all type specimens in the collection, which are the critically important specimens that scientists use when they describe a new species. These are just four of the seven digitization projects currently underway. About 1.5 million Herbarium specimens—slightly more than 20 percent—are already available online.

As the digital revolution continues to transform how people exchange information, the Garden's Steere Herbarium and Starr Virtual Herbarium are keeping pace with advances in digitizing techniques. The staff has developed novel approaches to capture data and images for up to 100 specimens an hour, a significant increase from the approximately 30 specimens an hour a decade ago. Another innovative approach that the Virtual Herbarium will premiere in the coming year involves enlisting the help of citizen scientists to transcribe and interpret data from specimens and to enable them to use Virtual Herbarium data in their own projects, such as native-plant gardening, local flora, and historical projects.

For information on how you can help with digitization projects in the Herbarium as a citizen scientist, call 718.817.8765 or e-mail citizenscientist@nybg.org.