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Calling all citizen-scientists: IU Herbarium seeking photos to document Indiana’s flora

For Immediate Release Mar 4, 2021
Eric Knox works with a plant specimen.
IU Herbarium director Eric Knox, left, is looking for people to join the Indiana Plant Photographic Scavenger Hunt to document more than 2,700 plant species with detailed photos.Photo by Emily Sterneman, Indiana University

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University is seeking citizen-scientists throughout Indiana to help photograph all plant species that comprise the state’s flora.

The 2021 Indiana Plant Photographic Scavenger Hunt is looking for help in documenting the more than 2,700 plant species in Indiana with colorful, detailed images. The IU Herbarium, which completed a massive, five-year digitization project in 2019, is upgrading its collection with photos of live plants from all over Indiana.

“The digitization project photographed our 161,000 herbarium specimens – dead, dried plants mounted on paper. With the public’s help, we want to gather beautiful photos of all Indiana’s flora,” said Eric Knox, director of the IU Herbarium and a senior scientist in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. “Life under COVID-19 has left many people feeling isolated, and this project encourages them to put on their boots, grab their camera and be part of a socially distanced statewide effort.”

We’re going on a plant hunt

While some plant species grow throughout Indiana, most grow in certain regions of the state known as ecoregions. The plants that grow in each of Indiana’s nine ecoregions have their own unique set of characteristics due to being in the northern or southern part of the state, having a specialized habitat or simply being a rare plant.

“The success of this Photographic Scavenger Hunt depends on the willingness of people throughout Indiana to locate and photograph species that grow in their respective areas,” Knox said. “Together, they will create a resource that will enable anyone to identify almost every plant species in Indiana. Knowing our flora is the first step toward conserving it for future generations.”

Hunting lists are available for each of Indiana’s ecoregions. In addition, species information can help participants determine where specific plants have been found in the past and when they typically flower.

Once a plant has been identified, participants can upload their photos on the Photographic Scavenger Hunt website. The IU Herbarium scientists also hope to collect the tentative species, when the photo was taken and specifics about the location of the photo such as habitat, latitude and longitude.

“Although we are happy to receive good photographs by themselves, we hope that participants will include the relevant collection information to make them scientifically valid observations,” said Paul Rothrock, associate curator emeritus, project leader and experienced nature photographer. “Botanists spend a lot of time studying specimens with a microscope, but most people don’t like looking at flat, dead plants. This is where the Photographic Scavenger Hunt comes in and will help us get quality diagnostic photos of all of Indiana’s plants.”

A picture is worth a thousand words

In addition to being used for scientific research, the photos collected during the scavenger hunt will also be used to turn the current word-based glossary into a pictorial glossary linked to the Golden Key, an online identification tool created by the IU Herbarium’s digitization process that uses simple language to help people quickly identify plants.

“Many descriptive terms in botany are simple English words with a specific meaning,” Knox said. “Pictures along with descriptive arrows and a few words are much easier for people to understand than written definitions.”

The 2021 Indiana Plant Photographic Scavenger Hunt is open now, and photos may be submitted anytime.

The project is financially supported by the IU Institute for Advanced Study, the Floyd/Cleland/Ogg Plant Biology Endowment Funds, the Indiana Academy of Science and the Indiana Native Plant Society. Additional collaborators include Central Indiana Land Trust; IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, part of the Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge; Monroe County – Identify and Reduce Invasive Species; NICHES Land Trust; Oak Heritage Conservancy; Purdue Extension Master Gardener Program; Red-tail Land Conservancy; Sycamore Land Trust; and The Nature Conservancy in Indiana.

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