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Specimens at Herbarium get digital makeover

The flora held at the U-M Herbarium is keeping up with the 21st century. Staff members at the Herbarium are in the process of digitizing their collection of approximately 1.7 million specimens of plants, fungi, algae and lichens, among others. The Herbarium is also generating a comprehensive database at the same time.
Sandra Arruda, assistant in research, photographs leaves as part of the Herbarium’s effort to digitize its collection. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Both of these features will serve the Herbarium in a variety of ways. The database can provide information regarding the impact global change or climate change have on the flora of a particular area over a long period of time.

"We have specimens that were collected in areas 100 years ago, and by comparing those records to modern records we can see if global warming may have caused local extinctions. We also have specimens that were collected in areas that have been overrun by urban sprawl, so we can document what was present," says Bob Fogel, curator of fungi at the Herbarium.

The database also will assist in research on spatial relationships. "We can determine whether a particular fungus species is found only in old-growth sugar maple forests. We can analyze the relationships once we have a visual form. It is very difficult to do this by hand," Fogel says.

The database also will be available on the Web, providing a valuable resource for the general public, he says. "If they want to know where morels are found in Michigan, they can get copies of the labels and get an idea, or if someone wants to know what a morel looks like they can look at a picture," Fogel says.

At a very basic level, Fogel says the new database will make the day-to-day operations of the Herbarium easier. The process of entering the raw data into the computer to create a useful database is time-consuming. Every specimen at the Herbarium has a label, and it is the information from this label that is entered to create a new record, Fogel says.

However, interpreting the information on the labels is not always an easy task.

"One thing you have to take into account is all we have are the labels, and
they are extremely heterogeneous," says Inigo Granzow de la Cerda, an assistant curator at the Herbarium. He says the labels may be more than 100 years old, or may even be written in a different language. With collectors creating their own labels, the information provided varies.

After hurdling the data entry obstacle, each specimen is assigned a bar code for easy tracking. This is important because many of the Herbarium's specimens are in high demand, he says.

"One of the services for science and the scientific community is to provide specimens for anybody to study. We have content loans, which works similar to a library loan. People keep the specimens for a while, sometimes stretches of several years," Granzow de la Cerda says.

This is an area in which digitized specimens will be especially useful, Herbarium staff members say. For people seeking to borrow plants from the Herbarium, they can look first at the digitized information to determine exactly what specimens they need.

"With a virtual loan you can actually send people a digital image of the label and/or the specimen, and they can be able to make their decision based on that rather than having to ship it," Fogel says. This cuts down on handling fragile specimens, such as slime molds, as well as the time and costs of shipping.

The virtual loan service also makes the specimens available to more researchers. Because so many institutions take out loans for long periods of time, others are prevented from studying that specimen, Granzow de la Cerda says. With the digitized versions researchers can still get information on distributive or ecological aspects of the specimens, while they are on loan.

After bar coding, the information in the database must be verified. "We still have specimens from countries that no longer exist, and some people couldn't spell," Fogel says.

The biggest project of the data entry and verification process is entering geographical coordinates of longitude and latitude for mapping purposes.

Currently, specimens are organized primarily by an evolutionary scheme, Fogel says. "It is relatively easy under the current filing system to go in there and say, 'Is this genus found in Michigan?' But you can't ask questions like how many genera are there in Michigan or you would end up searching through all the 1.7 million specimens," he says.

Geographical coordinates provide valuable information for resource managers, such as the National Park Service, who need to know the flora present in their parks. "We have just hired a consultant to design a Web-based system for entering data and allowing maps to be generated of geographic distribution of any plant species in Michigan," says Deborah Goldberg, interim director of the Herbarium. The public, natural resource managers, and scientific researchers will be able to access this system and request maps once the system is complete next spring.

Granzow de la Cerda currently is working on a smaller scale version of the digitizing process, to get the Herbarium's entire collection of Mexican plants digitized. U-M holds one of the largest and oldest collections of Mexican plants outside of Mexico, he says.

One of the key benefits of having digital data is the ability to transfer it to new technology. "The first database at Michigan for fungi was created in 1970 on mainframes. We were actually able to migrate those databases and bring them into the personal computer environment to be added to our current databases," Fogel says.

The project is bound to be a long one. Goldberg has made it her goal to get the process underway for the whole facility by the end of her term, but predicts it could take as long as 10 years to complete the project.

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