WDC012: Integrating Access to Information from Herbaria
Statement of Issues and JustificationHerbaria (systematically organized collections of preserved plant, algal, and fungal specimens) were originally established to facilitate the description and documentation of and education about the floristic diversity of a geographic region. These goals are still part of their primary mission. What has changed is the diversity of individuals seeking information from herbaria, the kinds of information requested, the tools available for use, and the expectations of both those who use and those who develop herbaria. For instance, in addition to their traditional uses, data from herbarium specimens are being used, in combination with other spatial data, to track the spread of an introduced species, predict new locations of native species, and to monitor distribution changes resulting from climate change. Another area of increasing interest is locating seed sources for revegetating with native plants. Herbarium records are used to locate populations for seed collection, develop seed zones, and identify the historic range of species.
In the past, those seeking such specimen information would visit or borrow specimens from appropriate herbaria and copy the information they needed into their notes. Nowadays, most users prefer to download information directly from a Web site. Others would like direct access to the data, possibly for designing a portal that targets a particular audience or need, or for datamining. Providing such access demands investment in database development and portal design, but in the long run it provides much more efficient access to herbarium information and reduces the amount of time required for responding to inquiries.
Most of the herbaria at land grant institutions in the western United States are already involved in some of the above activities, but none are involved in all of them because of the differing areas of expertise and constraints on their human and financial resources. Coordination of effort at the regional level will allow each herbarium to advance its mission, while contributing to more efficient and powerful applications of herbarium information at the regional and national level.
As an example, several herbaria have produced distribution atles of the plants in their state. Combination of these data into a single atlas for the western United States would be extremely valuable. As a distributed, internet-based resource, distribution maps could be automatically revised when new specimens are incorporated into the databases of participating herbaria or when existing specimens are annotated. Such maps could be used to identify areas and taxa in greatest need of botanical exploration and to identify specimens that, because they are disjunct from the main distribution of their species, should have high priority for reexamination. If all herbaria focused on entering data from introduced species into their databases, a Web site that provides an animated demonstration of their spread (or failure to spread) over time could be developed. Similarly, the portal could provide a checklist of species in a county, or of species not in one county but in one of its adjacent counties.
Another arena that would benefit greatly from coordination is in the development of online floristic resources for identifying plants. Printed floras are the traditional medium for disseminating floristic knowledge, but they are costly to publish and, because all parts of a book must be completed before any part of it can be published, they are time consuming to develop. One consequence is that there are several different floras covering the western United States and, because they have been published at different times, they reflect different taxonomic treatments. Volumes in the Flora of North America North of Mexico (Flora of North American Editorial Committee 1993-2007+) provide a treatment for the whole of the United States, but it will be published in 30 volumes and will not be completed until 2012 even under the most sanguine of projections. Moreover, because of the area covered, many of its identification keys are intimidating even for professional taxonomists. The need is to provide for more rapid delivery of floristic resources of equal scholarship but greater accessibility and appeal. The Web makes this entirely feasible. It does not speed up development of a taxonomic treatment; it does make it easier to move from taxonomic research to online publication. Creating online resources here means creation of resources designed for dissemination via the Web or compact disk, not just conversion of a printed treatment to digital format. The taxonomic knowledge needed is the same but materials designed for digital dissemination can incorporate a multitude of image resources, including photographs, line drawings, maps, diagrams, and audio commentaries. These additional resources can be greatly expand the accessibility of taxonomic information and increase its value to teachers in schools and colleges. Digital identification keys allow the user more freedom than traditional dichotomous keys in selecting the characters used to identify a plant. Moreover, each choice usually involves only one character. This, in itself, makes them easier to use for large groups of taxa than printed keys making them, like the descriptive information, accessible to a wider segment of the population.
Developing high quality digital resources is a non-trivial task if the goal is to treat all the plants in a region. Consequently, it would be advantageous to minimize duplication of effort among herbaria. It would also be advantageous to involve a wider range of individuals in obtaining images of the different species and their habitats. To ensure that the Web site is authoritative, these images should be documented by a herbarium specimen, just as is required of sequence data. This will ensure that, should later research reveal a need to distinguish two or more taxa within what had been considered one species, the name associated with the images is modified at the time the associated specimen is annotated.
DNA technology opens up another potential approach to plant identification, but before it can be used routinely it is necessary to develop a database of sequence data that is directly linked to herbarium records so that changes in classification of the voucher specimen are reflected in the DNA database. Genbank records sequence data, but it is not directly linked to specimen data. Moreover it includes too few species, and too few samples of most species, to be of routine use in plant identification. Such an approach has, however, proven valuable in identifying a newly discovered weed in Oregon (Liston and Halse 2007).
Herbarium directors recognize the need to coordinate their activities in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, but such coordination is difficult in the absence of an organization within which it can take place. Regional collaborations of herbaria are being formed, based on floristic regions, e.g., Pacific Northwest, California, Southern Rocky Mountains, Intermountain Region, and Southwest. The goals of these collaborations vary, some placing greater emphasis on providing access to data, others on outreach. We are looking for support in developing a more integrated approach to the provision of access to herbarium resources and creation of floristic resources. This will benefit not only those responsible for the direction and management of the herbaria but also the wide range of scientists and educators who could benefit from access to such resources.
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