Digitization and Enrichment of U.S. Herbarium Data from Tropical Africa to Enable Urgent Quantitative Conservation Assessments

Nicole Tarnowsky

Biological diversity has been the subject of hundreds of years of work by botanists and zoologists, accumulating rich stores of specimens and associated data in museums and herbaria around the world. These rich information resources, however, too often remain in analog format only, and have not been digitized and enabled in the service of science. This project aims to digitize, enrich, and share openly the rich data resources held in United States herbaria that correspond to plants of tropical Africa. By the close of the project, it will have captured data from 1.1 million herbarium specimens, and will augment digital accessible data records for the African continent by more than 15-fold. It will also have created a broad, international, intercontinental network of scientists and students interested in and experienced with management and analysis of such data. This combination of information resources and human capacity will enrich and improve biodiversity conservation planning across Africa.

Herbarium specimens represent a rich source of data on plant diversity. This project will focus on the tropical African seed plant specimen holdings of 21 U.S. herbaria, which will be imaged, associated data captured, and data records georeferenced and quality-controlled. Imaging and data capture will be carried out at each of the herbaria, and data will be aggregated for efficient georeferencing. For most records, georeferencing will be performed automatically; however, a small portion will be georeferenced manually by plant scientists in Ghana, Rwanda, Malawi, and Gabon. Finally, project data will be subjected to detailed quality-control assessment, and served openly to the scientific community via a dedicated African Plants portal on Symbiota, as well as integration into iDigBio.org and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF.org). These rich data resources will be used to understand the conservation status of African plant species in much greater detail than has been possible to date.