New Push Will Digitize Records of African Plants Held in Herbaria and Museums Across the U.S.

Members of the Collections Club at the Field Museum in Chicago, partners in the project, work with plant specimen sheets.

LAWRENCE — Over the past few decades, herbaria and museums worldwide have created digital data records documenting millions of specimens in their holdings. The benefits of digitizing the contents of natural history museums and research institutions flow to the public and researchers worldwide.

Now, through a group of related grants from the National Science Foundation, researchers are systemically digitizing more than a million specimens of plants from across tropical Africa held at 20 institutions throughout the United States. The tropical African plant specimens — documenting some of the richest elements of biodiversity in the world — will be digitally imaged, while associated data are captured and data records are georeferenced.

Some of the job of assembling and performing quality control on the related datasets is taking place at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, with $1 million of National Science Foundation funds supporting data cleaning and improvement work led by Town Peterson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute. Peterson also directs the overall projects, which includes the U.S. herbaria and four African partner institutions.

“Herbaria tend to have large-scale collections, so this is a big initiative,” Peterson said. “The herbarium community in the U.S. has made really good progress on U.S. data thanks to some big initiatives at NSF, so now you can access a lot of the herbarium data on U.S. plants online easily. Still, there's a lot of herbarium specimens from other parts of the world that nobody's gotten to yet. Tropical Africa is one of those places.”

Building on previous digitization collaborations with Alex Asase, professor at the University of Ghana, Peterson was involved in assembling the network of American herbaria to apply for the new NSF funds. Previously, Peterson and Asase partnered to organize digitization of more than 250,000 herbarium records for specimens from West Africa in work funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. This new grant aims to move much of the specimen digitization enterprise to a new model, in which the people wanting and needing to use the data are major factors in capturing, improving and sharing the data.

“Alex is in charge of one of the larger herbaria in in West Africa,” Peterson said. “So, he digitized those data and got them online for the scientific community. Alex’s work has helped other herbaria in Benin, Togo, Liberia, Nigeria and Cameroon. But the biggest collections are held in herbaria and museums in Europe… you can't really have any control over collections priorities in those institutions. So how do you speed that up? Alex asked, ‘What if we were to find a solution where the people who need the data promote and essentially make the capture of the data happen?’”

The new NSF-funded project is larger in scope, involving essentially all U.S. institutions with important holdings from the region. Among the partners are the University of California-Berkeley, California Botanic Garden (formerly Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden), Missouri Botanical Garden, Harvard University and the New York Botanical Garden.

“The idea is that NSF funds U.S. herbaria to scan and capture data from all of their plant specimens from tropical Africa,” Peterson said. “The data are then improved via data-quality checking here at the University of Kansas and georeferenced by African partner teams located in Ghana, Rwanda, Malawi and Gabon. That is, a major part of the process of making these data come alive will be done by African scientists and students who are eager to access such a rich store of information.”

Peterson, an ornithologist by training, also is a leader in working with data generated by digitization projects. The KU Biodiversity Institute was an early pioneer in the field. In this capacity, his team at KU (including KU graduate students) will work with the huge datasets that the herbaria and African georeferencing teams will generate.

“The data come back here to KU, and my group will do a lot of the quality control,” Peterson said. “We’ll pick out possible problems. Then this big data pool — about 1.3 million new data records for tropical Africa — will be at the disposition of not just the network of herbaria, but the whole world community. The data will be there for scientific analyses to be done.”

Photo: Members of the Collections Club at the Field Museum in Chicago work with plant specimen sheets. The group are valued members of a consortium digitizing specimens of tropical African plants held in U.S. herbaria. The effort is headed up at the University of Kansas. Credit: Matt von Konrat