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Indiana University Herbarium completes massive plant digitization project

The digitization of more than 160,000 plant specimens will provide access to data to researchers across the globe

For Immediate Release Apr 11, 2019

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University has completed work to make publicly available its collection of more than 160,000 preserved plant specimens, including over 72,000 specimens representing Indiana flora.

Eric Knox and a student work at a desk at the IU Herbarium
IU Herbarium director Eric Knox, left, and a student work with a preserved plant specimen.Photo by Emily Sterneman, Indiana University

The project, launched in 2014, provides online access to the complete collection of the IU Herbarium. This information is valuable to the global plant research community, as well as backyard gardeners and nature enthusiasts who wish to learn more about the plants in their environment.

“This 21st-century digital herbarium is a gift to the people of Indiana,” said Eric Knox, director of the IU Herbarium and a senior scientist in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. “The botanical information system fundamentally transforms how people identify plants and how researchers conduct science. Hoosiers no longer need an elaborate vocabulary of Greek and Latin technical terms to identify their state’s native and naturalized flora.”

The IU Herbarium was founded in 1885, and its largest single collection is the preserved plant samples of Charles and Stella Deam, the first state forester of Indiana and his wife, who published “Flora of Indiana” in 1940. Many of the other specimens, whose origins span 85 countries, joined the collection over decades through the efforts of IU researchers.

“The digitization of the IU Herbarium is the culmination of five years of continuous effort to transform the university’s priceless collection of flora – entrusted to IU by generations of scientists – into a resource accessible to experts across the world,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said. “The project’s completion also represents a major success within the larger framework of IU’s digitization and preservation activities under the IU Bicentennial and exports a small part of our state’s spectacular natural beauty to the global community.”

Each record in the IU Digital Herbarium includes a high-resolution photo of the preserved plant specimen, its scientific name and taxonomic placement, its collection location, and the name of the person who collected it. Many entries also contain links to the plant’s genomic data. The collection is divided into five major plant categories: algae, bryophytes (mosses), fungi, lichens and vascular plants.

The IU Digital Herbarium also includes common plant names, which opens the collection to the general public. Users can search plants in certain regions based upon physical characteristics to help identify plants on a nature walk or distinguish native plants from invasive species.

A preserved plant specimen
A preserved plant specimen is prepared for digitization.Photo by Emily Sterneman, Indiana University

For example, Bloomington residents can search plants within the Monroe County Checklist. Public checklists were also created for other state counties and ecoregions, as well as parks such as Indiana Dunes National Park, Fort Harrison State Park and Mounds State Park. IU is working with the Indiana Department of Nature Resources and NICHES Land Trust to create lists for other conservation areas in Indiana, and any user can also create a checklist.

The database also contains high-resolution images of live plants for most Indiana species, some of which were collected by members of the IU Herbarium. The data is cross-referenced against the text of “Flora of Indiana” and Gleason and Cronquist’s “Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada” – a major text in the world of botany – to provide greater historical detail about the plants and improve searchability.

“The inclusion of common names and familiar images in the database, which helps make this information broadly accessible, is possible in part by the university’s sustained, multiyear commitment to digitizing this collection,” Knox said.

Because the IU Herbarium’s data is housed within a larger network of 37 million specimen records from 766 natural history collections across the U.S., IU’s improvements to the collection also benefit many other institutions in the system, including the over 130 other herbaria across the Midwest.

Moreover, the IU Herbarium collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to improve the accuracy of the geocoordinates that indicate the collection point of each plant in the system. The resulting system, which overlays historical data with current Google maps, is available to the public at GEOLocate.

The IU Herbarium also partnered with the IU Libraries and University Information and Technology Services to ensure access to the many terabytes required to store images in the collection. The Imago system is also available to other Indiana herbaria. It is supported by Jetstream cloud technology operated by IU Research Technologies, part of the Pervasive Technology Institute at IU.

“A significant amount of data on Indiana’s flora is now available to the larger research community, and the task of identifying plants in any of Indiana’s 92 counties has been vastly simplified,” Knox said. “These new online tools will enable everyone, from scientists to nonexperts, to gain a greater knowledge and appreciation of our natural world.”

Additional support for the IU Digital Herbarium was provided by the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, the IU Bloomington Department of Biology, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Office of the Vice President for Research, UITS and private donations to the IU Herbarium Fund.

What they are saying

Heather Calloway, IU executive director of university collections: “The herbarium at Indiana University is one of our most valuable and useful resources. The plant specimens in the collection are literally priceless, as some don’t exist anymore and can be used for DNA testing, and they can also teach us about climate change, conservation and habitat loss. Eric Knox and his team have spent five years working tirelessly to bring this gift to the people of Indiana for research and education, and I expect some of our other collections to pursue similar projects in the coming years.”

Craig Stewart, executive director of the Pervasive Technology Institute: “Making available these irreplaceable images and data about the vast array of plants in the IU Herbarium – including the plants collected by Charles Deam – is of great value to the people of Indiana and one of the reasons we supported hosting data from the Herbarium on the Jetstream cloud system.”

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