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3 May 2018

Preparing plant data for the digital age

Humans are hardwired to explore, feed our curiosity and seek answers. At our core, we’re also sentimental, so when explorers ventured into new lands, they often collected objects and natural specimens along the way. 

Botany is one of the oldest branches of science and botanists have been taking samples of plants from all over the world for centuries. Their inquisitive nature and exceptional record keeping has created an invaluable source of data we rely on every day.

Plant samples collected from the field are dried, labelled and stored in herbaria all around the world. Our National Herbarium of NSW was created in 1853 and is home to 1.425 million plant specimens. These specimens are at the heart of all our science at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney and are managed by Dr Shelley James. 

Many plant specimens collected by Australia’s early explorers on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific are kept at our Herbarium.
Dr Shelley James, National Herbarium of NSW Collections Manager
“This includes 824 of the specimens Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected, such as Banksia integrifolia,” said Dr Shelley James.

“Each of the 1.4 million specimens offers us a window into the past and paints a picture of the vegetation and climate from when it was collected.

"However, converting a handwritten label from the 1700’s into a standardized format that you can access online is challenging,” Dr Shelley James said.  

Digitizing herbarium specimen data 

Solutions to digitizing herbarium specimen data and its use in scientific research were discussed at the Botanical Society of America's 2017 annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas and at the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China.

Dr Shelley James recently co-edited a special issue of Applications in Plant Sciences, which explores these solutions and more to prepare plant data for the digital age.

“Using Globally Unique Identifiers (GUIDs) for herbarium specimens, identifying species from images, and enhancing specimen data by documenting the timing of phenological events (such as flowering or fruiting) in a standard way, is advancing botanical science,” Dr Shelley James said.

Unlocking and sharing vital herbarium data around the world is helping to address a range of environmental management and conservation issues.
Dr Shelley James
You can read more about how the valuable information within herbarium specimens are being brought to life in the digital age here. Stay up to date with the scientific work being done at the National Herbarium of NSW and follow us on Twitter here.
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