In September 2012, Professor Lucinda McDade, Judith B. Friend Director of Research at RSABG (and as of July 2013, Executive Director), received a supplement of approximately $50,000 to the current RSABG grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to digitize and georeference data from about a quarter of a million herbarium specimens of California plants.
The supplement will support the full participation of the herbaria of UCLA and California State University, Sacramento, in the NSF-supported project and in the California Consortium of Herbaria (CCH). The consortium is a collaboration of 22 California herbaria as well as the New York Botanical Garden and Harvard University Herbaria. It acts as a gateway to information for scientifically verified, vouchered information about California plants. The grant supplement will support databasing of about 30,000 specimens held at these two herbaria. The records will be available online to plant scientists from around the world, as well as to the public, via the CCH’s website.
Herbaria Go High Tech
The herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) leads the Consortium of California Herbaria in a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help understand, monitor and predict changes that may impact California’s rich natural heritage of plant diversity.
The California Floristic Province is a region in peril—a biodiversity hotspot—adding considerable urgency to the project. Biodiversity hotspots are defined as areas containing more than 1,500 endemic plant species that have lost at least 70 percent of original habitat.
Lucinda McDade, Judith B. Friend Director of Research at RSABG and professor and chair of the Claremont Graduate University Botany Department, is the principal investigator and leads the efforts at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s herbarium.
“Specimen records that are identified by expert botanists and geo-referenced offer tremendous power to understand the natural geographic ranges of plants and [ability] to relate those ranges to climate and habitat variables like elevation and soil type,” says McDade.
The group of 20 institutions involved in the grant will expand the Consortium’s database of California plants and also provide explicit geographic location information for more than half a million specimens of plants. Nineteen of the participating institutions are in California; the herbarium at Harvard University was strategically selected as the 20th participant because it houses many historically valuable specimens of California plants that were collected in the 19th Century.
The NSF grant, funded on September 1, 2010, provides more than half a million dollars to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden over five years. The first two years will be dedicated to data entry. In the later years of the grant, specimen records will be geo-referenced to permit mapping (including automated generation of maps). Together with records for more than a million specimens from about 15 California herbaria that are already digitized, these new data will be available online through the common portal of the Consortium of California Herbaria website managed by University of California, Berkeley.
This information is priceless according to McDade. “These data will be used to make predictions about how our California native plants are likely to respond to climate change. Mitigating the impact of climate change will require prioritizing and this project will directly support an informed and rational decision-making process,” she says.
The grant also offers an opportunity for many students to be involved and to acquire highly useful skills in digitizing. Beginning in October, two to three individuals will be working part time on the project, with training, supervision and quality control by permanent staff at RSABG.
The project is an exciting opportunity to involve smaller institutions in collaboration with larger research institutions, such as RSABG. For example, staff at RSABG will train students from California State University, San Bernardino, to database the small, primarily teaching collection held on that campus. Likewise, through the University of California, Riverside, the important holdings (including many specimens from the San Jacinto Mountains) of the Museum of the City of Riverside will be databased and available online for the first time.