A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ efforts at digitizing its epiphytic plant collection for future scientific research.
In its 40-year history, Selby botanists have conducted research expeditions in over 200 localities, exchanged herbarium specimens with 192 institutions and swapped live plants with 114 institutions around the world. The grant will enable Selbys scientific staff to digitize a large portion of its preserved epiphytes, enhancing accessibilty to the global scientific community.
“Among botanists, it is known that Selby Gardens has the best scientifically-documented collection of wild orchids and bromeliads. Through this grant, we will be able to share this vast knowledge with many more individuals and institutions worldwide,” said Jennifer O. Rominiecki, president and CEO of Selby Gardens.
The NSF grant is part of a massive effort to digitize herbarium collections of universities, museums and botanical gardens throughout the U.S. A global network called IDigBio is the clearinghouse to receive the millions of digitized specimens. Once digitized, they are easily accessed for research and educational use.
“Anyone will be able to go in and see where the specimens are found on earth, both in herabia where they are preserved and also where they occur in nature, so we will be able to paint a much more complete picture of plant diversity and distribution,” said Bruce Holst, vice president of Botany at Selby Gardens. “The future of nature is digital.”
The project is called the Endless Forms Thematic Collection Network, a group of U.S. herbaria that have significant collections of certain types of plants including epiphytes, succulents and carnivorous plants. Selby Gardens will digitize 50,000 specimens for the network, which has a goal of digitizing two million specimens in three years. The project encompasses full data-basing, capturing all label information and geo-references specimens that lack coordinates.
Some 16 other institutions are involved, including top-tier research universities and natural history museums, including The New York Botanical Garden, Harvard University, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History.
Selby Gardens is one of four botanical gardens chosen to participate. The grant will fund a one-year temporary position plus imaging equipment and travel money to attend two conferences.
“This project demonstrates the collaborative nature of the work. No one institution can do it all,” Holst said. “For live collections it depends on growing conditions. For herbarium specimens we have a particular focus on plant families. Ultimately, all paths lead to plant conservation, both in situ and ex situ (in their native habitat and in cultivation).”
The ultimate objective is to preserve the diversity of the plant kingdom.
“The overarching effort by us and by other institutions that study plant diversity and distribution is to document the natural distribution of a species,” Holst said. “We do that by making herbarium voucher specimens (pressed plants) or spirit voucher specimens (plants preserved in spirit liquids to allow better observation of a flower).
“The combined effort by many institutions is what botanists worldwide is to definitively say this species has this range of distribution at this point of time.’ Years from now when such a plant is measured again, scientists will be able to see any significant changes in the plants growth or distribution. This is critical as climate change affects where particular plants will grow.
“Knowing a plant’s natural distribution will help us to keep it from going extinct,” Holst said, “We can’t keep every plant in a botanical garden.”
In fact, less than 10 percent of all the flora in the world are represented in the world’s botanical gardens.