Using Herbarium Data To Document Plant Niches In The High Peaks And High Plains Of The Southern Rockies – Past, Present, And Future

Kim Watson

The rugged and expansive terrain of the Southern Rocky Mountains (SoRo) yields the most crucial resource for human existence in western North America: Water. From upper reaches of the high peaks of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and surrounding states, the headwaters of numerous major rivers of the West originate and give rise to the highest outflow and freshwater runoff west of the Mississippi River: The Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Colorado, and Green Rivers and portions of the Snake and Missouri Rivers. The cleanliness and reliability of these water resources are in large part attributable to the plant life that forms the basis for all SoRo ecosystems. Plant species from the high peaks and adjacent high plains of the SoRo derive from different geographic origins, evolutionary histories, and ecological affinities. They grow in varied habitats and represent one of the most narrowly adapted floras in the world. This unique and fragile flora is widely documented in natural history collections (i.e., herbaria), but specimens themselves and the scientific data that accompany them remain poorly ‘visible’ owing to a lack of data in digitized format. The SoRo Herbarium Consortium brings together 38 collaborating institutions (universities, botanical gardens, national parks, Native American Nations) to digitize more than 1.7 million botanical specimens from the study area. The overarching goal of this project is to make these data available to a broad community of users (scientists, educators, government officials, land managers, the general public) via openly accessible, free data portals.

The Southern Rocky Mountains (SoRo) support a diverse and highly adapted flora of species with varied ecologies, ranging from alpine to sagebrush plains to shortgrass prairies. The plant biota of the SoRo shares important evolutionary and geological histories with the adjacent plains and prairies, and together these ecosystems are among the most endangered landscapes in North America. Human demands on these systems are escalating, and risk factors such as fire, development, and environmental change are predicted to grow. Thus, building digital resources to document plant niches in the SoRo is met with a sense of urgency. The proposed work will address a major gap in accessible information among North American natural history collections by digitizing more than 1.7 million botanical collections from the SoRo. Specifically, 38 collaborative institutions (universities, botanical gardens, national parks, Native American Nations) will collaborate to generate these new resources and make them available via data portals, including iDigBio ( Additionally, new tools will be developed within the open source Symbiota platform that will allow users to quickly search and compile vetted, herbarium data records that can then be used for analysis in external software applications such as niche modeling packages, or to update source data repositories for subsequent in-house curation.