Digitizing "Endless Forms": Facilitating Research on Imperiled Plants with Extreme Morphologies

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Digitization TCN: Digitizing "Endless Forms:" Facilitating Research on Imperiled Plants with Extreme Morphologies (Endless Forms)

Endless Forms TCN
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Project Summary

The "Endless Forms" Thematic Collections Network (TCN), composed of 17 collaborating U.S. herbaria from 11 states, will digitize approximately two million specimens belonging to some of the most interesting plant species on Earth. Iconic species such as the Giant Saguaro Cactus, the Venus Fly Trap, and the leafless Ghost Orchid of southern Florida are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of plants that have evolved astounding adaptations allowing them to grow in extreme terrestrial environments, including deserts, tropical rain forests, and nutrient poor bogs. Many of these plants can also be challenging to study in nature and face elevated conservation concerns in the face of rapid environmental change. By digitizing herbarium specimens of these groups, researchers will gain a better understanding of these adaptations and their evolution, and can design conservation and management strategies. The public's interest in these unusual plants affords an opportunity to engage k-12 students and teachers in discussions about biodiversity and preservation, plant adaptations, and mutualistic relationships. This project will also train undergraduate and graduate students in the areas of museum studies. Finally, the availability of two million digitized records for these charismatic plant groups will help protect them and enhance their enjoyment by hobbyists, citizen scientists, and other non-academic enthusiasts

This "Endless Forms" project is the first TCN initiative to digitize the very significant holdings of non-North American specimens housed within North American herbaria. This project will provide access to digitized records of 15 plant families associated with adaptations to extreme terrestrial environments that can be used to test evolutionary and ecological hypotheses. This network will, for example, provide data that can be used to explore trait development and evolution, species delimitation, and geographic distribution modelling and that can inform national and regional floristic projects. This project will help provide critically needed information to overcome obstacles related to studying plant families which are very large, have cryptic diagnostic features, or occur in geographically challenging areas. This TCN will also help overcome an acute problem of access to specimens of CITES-listed taxa (species threatened with extinction) by easing data access and by holding a Plant Collecting Ethics Workshop that will bring together an array of stakeholders to make recommendations on best practices for handling sensitive data for rare species. The project will fill taxonomic and geographic gaps in U.S. institutional specimen digitization, will bring new institutions into the national digitization effort and will invest in the development of tools to stream-line the digitization process.

Current Research

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Project Leadership

Project sponsor: New York Botanical Garden (NSF Award #1802034)

Principal Investigator (PI): Matthew Pace

Project Collaborators

New York Botanical Garden

Matthew Pace, (Lead PI), New York Botanical Garden(NSF Award #1802034)
Barbara Thiers, (co-PI), New York Botanical Garden

Missouri Botanical Garden

James C. Solomon, (PI), Missouri Botanical Garden (NSF Award #1802019)

California Academy of Sciences

Debra Trock, (PI), California Academy of Sciences (NSF Award #1802051)

University of California - Berkeley

Bruce G. Baldwin, (PI), University of California - Berkeley (NSF Award #1802102)

Harvard University

Charles C. Davis, (PI), Harvard University (NSF Award #1802209)

Field Museum of Natural History

Christine Niezgoda, (PI), Field Museum of Natural History(NSF Award #1802351)
Kenneth Cameron, (co-PI), University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Augmenting the Endless Forms TCN: digitization of imperiled plants with unique morphological adaptations

Only 36 areas on earth contain almost half of the world?s plant diversity. Biodiversity hotspots occupy only 2.3% of the earth?s land surface but harbor a high proportion of endemic species and house most undescribed plant diversity. An important biotic component of biodiversity hotspots include plants with unusual morphologies, such as succulence, carnivory, and epiphytism. These plants are highly adapted to live in extreme environments but face serious threats of extinction due to changing climate and land use regimes. This project partners the Herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSA) with the Endless Forms Project, a Thematic Collections Network (TCN) involving 17 institutions aimed at digitizing nearly 2 million herbarium specimens from 15 plant families with unusual adaptations. Collections targeted for this project are emblematic of the unique strengths of RSA and will add immeasurably to the Endless Forms TCN. This partnership fills an important gap by adding 70,100 herbarium specimens representing all families, some of which are especially diverse (cacti, agave, spurge) in California, a world biodiversity hotspot. Digitization will promote scientific investigation and public understanding of these potentially imperiled plants, and through public databases, will provide access to a rich source of specimen data. Graduate and undergraduate students will make up 90% of the workforce and participate in all aspects of the project. This project will enhance RSA?s existing internship program through increased participation of students from Hispanic Serving Institutions in the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Through coordinated efforts with California Polytechnic University, Pomona (a Hispanic Serving Institution), undergraduate students will barcode specimens as partial fulfillment of course objectives. An exhibit will highlight plants of the Endless Forms project, including digitization activities and student participation.

Funding of the Endless Forms TCN was based on the unique value of digitizing plants that exhibit extreme morphologies, such as succulence, carnivory, and epiphytism, that can be used increase our understanding of how these plants have adapted to extreme environments and how changing climate regimes may impact future distributions. This project will add immeasurably to the Endless Forms TCN?s endeavor with the digitization of 70,100 unique specimens held at the RSA Herbarium. Important and TCN-relevant collections for the 15 families with unusual morphologies included for digitization are well represented in the RSA Herbarium, both in geographic breadth and taxonomic diversity, and owe significantly to the contributions of several noteworthy researchers affiliated with RSA who specialize on these plants. Digitization of these specimens will result in high-resolution images and georeferenced collection locations that will enable the potential discovery of species new to science, new distribution and phenology data, and increased access to a rich source of specimen data currently unavailable to the research community, students, and the public. Data capture, efficient workflow development, and dissemination of data will adhere to established guidelines as specified by the Endless Forms TCN. A large cadre of students at different levels in their academic career will participate in all aspects of the project, including data entry, imaging, and georeferencing. All data resulting from this project will be made available through the national resource (iDigBio.org). Additional information about RSA, its outreach activities, and the results of this project is available at calbg.org.

Project Sponsors: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden NSF Award Number #2001358

Principal Investigators: Mare Nazaire (PI)