A network of over 100 herbaria spread out across the southeastern United States recently completed the herculean task of fully digitizing more than three million specimens collected by botanists and naturalists over a span of 200 years. The project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of a larger, ongoing effort by natural history institutions worldwide to make their biological collections easily accessible to researchers studying broad patterns of evolution, extinction, range shifts, and climate change.
In a new study published in the journal Applications in Plant Sciences, researchers involved in the project analyzed the rate at which specimens could be reliably photographed, digitized, and databased to assess how much similar efforts might cost in the future.
“Everybody who was interested in this recognized very early on just how much labor and money we were talking about,” said senior author Joey Shaw, associate professor of biology and herbarium curator at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
With hundreds of thousands of specimens now freely accessible online, Shaw hopes that their data will help inform workers at other herbaria hoping to replicate their results. All of the partnering institutions in this study are members of the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC), which supports more than 200 herbaria in the region that house a combined 15 million specimens, the majority of which have yet to be digitized.
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