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ANHC Herbarium Digitization Underway

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, December 21, 2018
by Theo Witsell

The ANHC Herbarium was a busy place this summer and fall as a team of from the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists and several interns worked with Collections Manager Brent Baker and Curator Theo Witsell to digitize the entire collection of more than 12,000 plant specimens. The digitization process involves taking high-resolution digital photographs of each specimen, entering all the data from the specimen labels into a database, and linking the data with the images by scanning a unique bar code sticker on each specimen. This work is part of a much larger project led by the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC), a consortium of 233 herbaria in 14 southeastern states, and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal is to digitize all plant specimens in the southeastern U.S. and make them available to the public in a searchable online format. This project is now well underway, with more specimens added each month.

The ANHC digitization was done with an imaging station paid for by the SERNEC NSF grant, one of two being shared among the eight herbaria in Arkansas. That station has now gone on to Arkansas Tech University, but the ANHC is in the process of purchasing our own station for future collections. The imaging goes relatively quickly, with a trained volunteer usually able to make 40 to 60 images per hour. Entering the label data into the database is the much more time consuming part of the process. The ANHC Herbarium, thanks in large part to our volunteers, is the only institution in Arkansas to have label data entered for every specimen. Our data and images are going through some formatting and quality control steps before being uploaded to the SERNEC Portal in 2019.

This larger digitization effort is revolutionizing our knowledge of the flora of the state and region. Before this project, the only way to know what was in most collections was to travel to the herbarium and go through the cabinets. Before the SERNEC effort, few institutions had databases (or even lists) of what was in their holdings, although some of the larger collections have hundreds of thousands or even millions of specimens. It would take weeks to comb through that sort of volume, and all that handling can damage the specimens. Now you can go to the SERNEC portal and do a targeted search. For example, you can request all the specimens of grasses collected from Pulaski County, Arkansas, hit enter, and BAM! You get an output of 509 specimens from 34 museums, with some specimens dating back to 1835.

Even though the Arkansas specimens are only partially uploaded to the SERNEC portal, the scientists at the ANHC are already finding new information and following up leads in the field. For example, earlier this fall Theo was on SERNEC and found specimens of two rare grass species collected in 1988 from a marsh at ANHC’s Warren Prairie Natural Area. These specimens were housed in museums in Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas, and neither species was previously known to Arkansas botanists to occur in the state. Now, knowing where to look, Theo went down to Warren Prairie and found both species within 10 minutes of getting out of the truck!

Watch upcoming issues of the ANHC Natural News for an announcement that our specimen images are available online.


Top right -- Central Arkansas Master Naturalist, Dr. Karen Seale,  provides database training to University of Central Arkansas Intern, Connor Deen. Photo by Theo Witsell.

Middle left -- Hendrix College Intern, Ben Benton, captures images of herbarium specimens as part of the digitization of the ANHC Herbarium. Photo by Theo Witsell.

Bottom left -- The specimen of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), collected in 2003 from Harris Brake Wildlife Management Area in Perry County, is housed in the herbarium of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. The image was taken as part of a recent effort to digitize the entire collection so that it can be more accessible to the public.

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