November 14, 2012

VSU Promotes Digitization of Plant Collections

VALDOSTA – In a quest to create a worldwide virtual herbarium the National Science Foundation has made plant digitization one of its highest priorities. Valdosta State University biology professor Dr. Richard Carter contributes to this quest as curator of the university’s herbarium, which holds more than 65,000 specimens.

The VSU herbarium is the second largest in Georgia and holds an extensive collection of Georgia coastal plain plants. Assisted by biology student workers, Carter files preserved plants and populates a growing digital database with important information about the plants. The digitization process includes making high-resolution images of specimens with information such as species, flower color, when and where the plant was collected, who collected it and other species was found near the specimen nearby.

“The beauty of digitization is that it makes vast amounts of information readily available to researchers,” said Carter. “Historically, we have had to borrow specimens to research, record the information and ship them back to the lending institutions. Borrowing specimens from all over the world requires a great deal of time and effort.”

Carter is currently part of a three-year project to develop an online state atlas of plant specimens and data. The project, which is a collaboration with the University of Georgia, is part of a larger project that will establish a statewide herbarium network to provide global access to partners’ plant collections.

“In addition to digitization, grant funds have allowed us to expand storage space and process a substantial backlog of specimens,” said Carter. “We have received so much support from VSU’s administration as well as the National Science Foundation.”

There are four student workers assisting Carter with the project. For Amber Blocker, who has worked in the herbarium for three months, the job has been an “eye-opening experience.”

“With my major being a focus in health, I do not see much diversity in many of the classes that I take,” said Blocker. “Being able to work in the herbarium has been an has enabled me to further my knowledge and interest in plants. Dr. Carter and my co-workers have truly been a pleasure to work with and I am thankful for this opportunity.”

“Other student workers include Jessica Bartek, Christopher Louis and Amy Vardaman,” said Carter. “Zack Buning, Jordan Jones and Dennis May also worked during the first year of the project.”

VSU recently hosted a herbarium digitization training workshop presented by iDigBio, a National Science Foundation funded organization charged with promoting digitization of data from biological collections throughout the United States. The event included sessions on imaging, image processing and the uses of image management software.

Herbaria across the world provide scholars and researchers with access to preserved specimens and information that are used to plot the current and historical distributions of plants and to prepare descriptions of plant species necessary for accurate identification. Herbarium specimens can also provide important information about the responses of plants to climate change and human impact.

Valdosta State’s herbarium was founded as a research facility in 1967 by Wayne R. Faircloth. This resource emphasizes plants of the Georgia coastal plain, and its specimens are used for teaching and research. The herbarium is located on the first floor of the Bailey Science Center and is open to the public by appointment.