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Biodiversity Blog


New Grant Funding for the UT Herbaria

 Sarracenia alata web

Herbarium specimen of Sarracenia alata, a species of pitcher plant also known as yellow trumpets.  This unusual species grows in nutrient poor, acidic wetlands from eastern Texas through the Gulf Coastal Plain to westernmost Florida.

Natural history museums and other biodiversity collections hold millions of historically and scientifically important, and often also beautiful, specimens. These exist not just as artifacts illustrating a variety of different organisms, but as permanent documentation of life on earth through time, ranging from fossils of species that lived many millions of years ago to examples of rapidly declining modern diversity. But, how can museums share their interesting holdings with the world and bring these to the attention of researchers, students, and the public? To address this issue, the National Science Foundation (NSF) developed the Advances in Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program seven years ago.  It has the lofty goal of promoting the digitization of specimens in all types of natural history collections and creating a centralized website to serve the images and data. To date, this online resource (www.iDigBio.org) includes more than 115 million specimen records and it continues to grow daily.

Digitization comprises three distinct elements:  1) Creating a high-resolution digital image or images of each artifact in a collection; 2) transcribing the data that accompanies each specimen, which records where, when, and by whom it was gathered; and 3) attempting, as precisely as possible, to geo-reference the localities at which artifacts were collected to allow distributions to be mapped.

The Biological Resource Collections in the UT Biodiversity Center have been involved in digitization efforts for a number of years, and data from specimens in UT’s collections have informed numerous biodiversity-based projects. We are continuing to explore new opportunities to digitize other portions of our collections to share them with the world. The Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center began databasing its Mexican herbarium holdings in the late 1990s under a grant from the Mexican National Commission for the Understanding and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) to our Associate Director, Dr. Jose Panero. Other projects followed involving mainly Texas-collected specimens. However, to-date less than half of our approximately one million specimens have been databased and even fewer have been imaged or geo-referenced.

Recently, the Plant Resources Center has been fortunate to receive two new grants in support of our digitization efforts. The two grants are: "The Pteridological Collections Consortium: An integrative approach to pteridophyte diversity over the last 420 million years" and "'Digitizing endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful': Facilitating Research on Imperiled Plants with Extreme Morphologies." These both involve projects that are collaborate efforts with numerous other herbaria in the U.S. to pool resources through Thematic Collections Networks. One of these grants will allow us to digitize our holdings of ferns and other seed-free plants from around the world. The other focuses on species in sixteen flowering plant families that exemplify adaptations to extreme environments (such as carnivorous plants that live in nutrient-poor habitats). Collectively, these two grants will allow us to digitize about 60,000 total plant specimens over a two-year period. Much of the labor involved in capturing the images and information will be accomplished by part-time undergraduate students, and these grants have allowed us to add four enthusiastic new Herbarium Assistants to our small staff!

Anyone interested in the process of capturing images and information from plant specimens is welcome to visit the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center in the UT Tower, room MAI 127. We recommend that you send us an e-mail to schedule a visit or call us at 512-417-5904. We also welcome volunteers from both within the university and the local community interested in gaining hands-on experience in any aspect of our digitization projects. No specialized botanical knowledge is required, just an interest in museum collections and their documentation. For more information, please contact George.Yatskievych[at]austin.utexas.edu.

Notholaena brevistipes web

Herbarium specimen of Notholaena brevistipes collected in 1991.  This rare fern species is still known from but a single locality in eastern Tamaulipas, Mexico.

The Robb Butterfly Collection

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