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30 Apr 2019

Smallest plants the first to go digital

The largest herbarium digitisation project in the southern hemisphere has started at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney with bryophytes becoming the first of over 1.4 million botanical specimens to go digital.

Preparing plant data for the digital age 

Dr Shelley James is the Collections Manager at the National Herbarium of NSW and is leading the high-tech makeover of over 1.4 million plant specimens at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. 

"Botanists have been taking samples of plants for centuries and their inquisitive nature and exceptional record keeping has created an invaluable source of data that is integral to science," Dr James said. 

"By transforming our collection of botanical treasures into high-resolution images - we are opening up that data to the whole world," said Dr James.

The valuable digital resources will help researchers around the world discover new species and it will lead to better habitat protection and other significant conservation outcomes.

First specimen to go digital: Anthoceros dichotomus Raddi, a hornwort discovered 1 April 1899 by S. Sommier.

The herbarium digistreet

To deliver this massive two-year project one of the world’s most renowned digitisation companies, Picturae, has partnered with the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and International Conservation Services. 

Digitising the specimens is performed using a high-tech conveyor belt system known as the 'herbarium digistreet' and it has come all the way from the Netherlands. Check out the timelapse video of the set-up!

Digital conservation and preservation process 

The 'herbarium digistreet' is operating under the direction of Picturae's Project Manager Dieuwertje van Willigen and her skilled and passionate team, which includes Operations Coordinator Thijs Jansen. 

"Digital conservation and preservation of history is our field of expertise and we are excited to be a part of bringing over 1.4 million plant specimens from the National Herbarium of NSW to the world," said Dieuwertje. 

"The herbarium digistreet is fully mechanically and is controlled by software that makes the image capturing process completely automated," said Dieuwertje. 

The conveyor belt is designed to minimise handling of extremely fragile materials, while keeping the options affordable for high resolution image capturing and a fast turnaround time for a project.

"The high grade lenses can capture the finest specimen details in resolutions up to 570ppi and we will digitise approximately 4000 specimens a day," said Dieuwertje.

Tune into a Facebook live show on Friday 3 May at 12pm AEST with the Garden's scientists and Picturae to see the digitisation process in action.  

Bryophytes are the first plants to go digital  

The first herbarium specimens to go digital are bryophytes, which is a group of plants made up of liverworts, mosses and hornworts.

These unassuming plants are responsible for causing a major rise in the oxygen content of our planet’s atmosphere, paving the way for complex life about 470 million years ago.

Systematic Botanist from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Dr Matt Renner, is a bryophyte expert. When the digitisation project is complete, the entire world will have better access to the specimens he's discovered. 

Out of the blue (mountains) bryophyte discovery

Dr Renner was out on a weekend walk down to Empress Canyon in the Blue Mountains near Sydney with his partner in April 2014 when something caught his eye. 

"I noticed these distinctive green and glistening patches of plants growing among boulders on the trackside," Dr Renner said.  

Turns out the tiny plant Dr Renner spotted with his sharp eyes is Dendrolembidium tenax (Grev.) Herzog, a bryophyte species first described in 1825 from the Blue Mountains.

"Dendrolembidium tenax is also found in the cool temperate rainforests of southern New Zealand and Tasmania, but only ten collections of this species have ever been made from the Blue Mountains in 194 years," said Dr Renner. 

Dr Renner's Dendrolembidium tenax specimen is kept at the National Herbarium of NSW and is a critical resource in a current investigation to understand the relationships between plants from the Blue Mountains, Tasmania and New Zealand.

A kaleidoscopic masterpiece 

Dr Renner said that like many bryophyte species, Dendrolembidium tenax is an architectural masterpiece that comes to life under the microscope in 'kaleidoscopic' fashion. 

"The pattern of glistening cells at the base of the shoot progressively change to regular patterns formed by the four-lobed leaves," Dr Renner said.

"This becomes more closely set toward the shoot tips and the depth of this patterning itself changes as the leaves decrease in size as you move up the stem," said Dr Renner. 

Dendrolembidium tenax along with 1.4 million other herbarium plant specimens will be available for the whole world to access online when the digitisation project is complete in 2021.  

Go on an audio adventure with Dr Matt Renner 

Join Dr Renner as he recounts another exciting discovery in the Branch Out podcast episode below. Hit subscribe if you like the show to get future episodes delivered straight to your podcast app. 

Be a part of our journey and support the digitisation project

Over 50% of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney's funding is self-generated. We need your support to continue this vital digitisation project.

Please give now to ensure this priceless collection is preserved and available for curious minds around the world for generations to come.

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