The Key to the Cabinets: Building and Sustaining a Research Database for a Global Biodiversity Hotspot

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Digitization TCN: The Key to the Cabinets: Building and Sustaining a Research Database for a Global Biodiversity Hotspot

The Key to the Cabinets (SERNEC - TCN)
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Project Summary
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Project Summary

The southeastern USA is botanically rich, with areas of high global biodiversity in both the Appalachians and the coastal plain. Millions of plant specimens have been collected from this region over the past four centuries, and these specimens and the information they contain currently reside in museums, or herbaria, at universities across the area. Scientists study these specimens intently; however, it is difficult to retrieve information at broad geographic and taxonomic scales without pipelines to move the information electronically from the specimen to an accessible pool of data. SERNEC, or the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections, is a large regional network of botanical experts and collections that has, through an NSF-sponsored research coordination network (RCN) project, developed critical skills in biodiversity informatics. The current project will allow the SERNEC group to make data available for over 3 million specimens using the latest photography and information capture tools and to engage citizen scientists and students to assist in transcribing and georeferencing this large dataset. The research generated through this project can help regional planners, land managers and communities to manage their natural resources in our ever-changing environment.

The interaction of scientists, citizen scientists, and students will provide a synergy to build a research tool of an unparalleled scale and scope. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop an imaged and databased set of over 3 million specimens from over 100 herbaria in one of the most floristically diverse regions in North America and a global hotspot of plant diversity. This will represent a valuable data source for research on the response of vegetation to climate change, human development, and rapid migrations of introduced species. This region has been a biodiversity hotspot for 100 million years and this project should encourage research on changes over time to develop better predictive models as areas of biodiversity change. By partnering with Symbiota, Notes from Nature, GEOLocate, Adler Planetarium, iPlant/TACC, and Specify, the project will develop ways to best integrate various efforts for data accessibility. This award is made as part of the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, and all data resulting from this award will be available through the national resource (

Current Research

This project proposes to utilize plant collection data to determine the threats to the native biota of the southeastern region of North America, including:

  • climate change
  • invasive species
  • human population growth
  • species extinction.

Compare geographic distributions and habitat requirements of endemic species with non-endemics.
Determine the origins of biogeographic richness of the region and maintenance of diversity over geologic time.
Ecological niche or species distribution modeling of current and future distributions of rare and endemic species.

Project Websites & Social Media

SERNEC Website

Facebook: Key to the Cabinets: Herbaria of North Carolina Facebook Group

Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

This project will utilize Notes From Nature ( which will serve to engage citizen scientists in museum related science activities.

The project has developed Notes From Nature-based lesson plans to target state-based standards of learning (SOLs) for grades 6-12. These along with other educational resources can be found at

FSU's Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium hosted a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014, raising more than $2000 to provision six 1-day citizen science events in 2015. 100+ citizen scientists from the Tallahassee region were brought onto campus to learn about local biodiversity and the role of biodiversity specimens in research and education. The longer-term, bigger-picture goal is to develop a new model for sustaining biodiversity data creation by providing resources to the nation's 1500 museums, universities, field stations, and other institutions with similar collections so that they find it easier to do something similar. Those collections together house about a billion specimens—plants, fossils, birds, mammals, sponges, insects, etc. The plan is to establish a virtuous circle in which, as the collections engage more people in their local communities in the events, the crowdfunding support for those events grows. Visit for more information.

Project Leadership

Project Sponsor: Appalachian State University (NSF Award 1410069)

Principal Investigator (PI): Zack Murrell

Project Manager: Michael Denslow

Data Manager: Herrick Brown

Collaboratoring Award PIs:
Alan Harvey, Georgia Southern University; Alan Weakley, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill; Alexander Krings, North Carolina State University; Allen Risk, Morehead State University; Andrea Weeks, George Mason University; Ashley Morris, Middle Tennessee State University; Austin Mast, Florida State University; Ben Montgomery, University of South Carolina Upstate; Brad Ruhfel, Eastern Kentucky University; Charles Horn, Newberry College; Daniel Stanzione, iPlant, University of Texas; Dayle Saar, Murray State University; Dixie Damrel, Clemson University; Donna Ford-Werntz, West Virginia University; Douglas Jensen, Converse College; Ed Gilbert, Arizona State University; Emily Gillespie, Marshall University; Eran Kilpatrick, University of South Carolina - Salkehatchie; Erika Gonzalez, Longwood College; George Johnson, Arkansas Tech University; Gerald Long, Francis Marion University; Hank Bart, Tulane University; James Carter, Valdosta State University; Joe Pollard, Furman University; Joey Shaw, University of Tennessee - Chattanooga; John Clark, University of Alabama - Tuscaloosa; John Nelson, University of South Carolina - Columbia; Jon Evans, University of the South; Katherine Mathews, Western Carolina University; Kelly Major, University of South Alabama; Kunsiri Grubbs, Winthrop University; L. D. Estes, Botanical Research Institute of Texas; Laura Trouille, Adler Plantarium; Leslie Goertzen, Auburn University; Lisa Krueger, University of Tennessee - Martin; Lisa Wallace, Mississippi State University; Mary (Maggie) Whitson, Northern Kentucky University; Mary Priestley, University of the South; Michael Windham, Duke University; Nelson Rios, Tulane University; Nico Franz, Arizona State University; Norris Williams, University of Florida, Florida Museum of Natural History; Rachel Jabaily, Rhodes College; Robert Guralnick, University of Florida; Shawn Krosnick, Tennessee Technological University; Thomas Sasek, University of Louisiana – Monroe; Timothy McDowell, East Tennessee State University; Travis Marsico, Arkansas State University - Jonesboro; Wendy Zomlefer, University of Georgia

Project Collaborators

Map of Collaborating Institutions

Data Collaborators:
Appalachian State University (NSF Award 1410069)
Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
Arkansas State University (NSF Award 1410098)
Arkansas Tech University
Armstrong State University
Auburn University (NSF Award 1410200)
Austin Peay State University
Berea College
Bridgewater College
Campbell University
City of Alexandria Herbarium
Clemson University (NSF Award 1410094)
Columbus State University
Converse College
Delta State University
Duke University
East Carolina University
East Tennessee State University
Eastern Kentucky University (NSF Award 1410077)
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Florida Museum of Natural History
Florida State University (NSF Award 1410288)
Francis Marion University
Furman University
George Mason University (NSF Award 1410086)
Georgia Southern University
Georgia Southwestern State University
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory
Henderson State University
Hendrix College
Institute for Botanical Exploration
James Madison University
Longwood University
Lord Fairfax Community College
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
Louisiana State University, Shreveport
Louisiana Tech University
Lynchburg College
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Marshall University (NSF Award 1410143)
McNeese State University
Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Herbarium
Middle Tennessee State University
Mississippi Museum of Natural Science
Mississippi State University (NSF Award 1410092)
Morehead State University
Murray State University
Newberry College
Nicholls State University
North Carolina State University
North Carolina Zoo
Northern Kentucky University
Northwestern State University
Rhodes College
Salem College
Southeastern Louisiana University
Southern Research Station
Tennessee Technological University
Tulane University
University of Alabama
University of Arkansas
University of Arkansas at Monticello
University of Central Arkansas
University of Central Florida
University of Georgia (NSF Award 1410081)
University of Louisiana at Monroe (NSF Award 1410445)
University of Louisiana, Lafayette
University of Mississippi
University of New Orleans
University of North Carolina (NSF Award 1410439)
University of North Carolina, Pembroke
University of Richmond
University of South Alabama
University of South Carolina Upstate
University of South Carolina, Columbia
University of South Carolina, Salkehatchie
University of Southern Mississippi
University of Tennessee
University of Tennessee, Chattanooga (NSF Award 1410087)
University of Tennessee, Martin
University of the South
University of West Florida
University of West Georgia
Valdosta State University
Vanderbilt University
Virginia Commonwealth University/Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
West Virginia University
Western Carolina University
Weymouth Woods
Winthrop University

Non-data Collaborators:
Adler Planetarium (Notes from Nature)
Arizona State University (Symbiota)
iPlant (now CyVerse), University of Texas
Tulane University (GEOLocate)
University of Florida (Notes From Nature)
University of Kansas (Specify)

Volunteer Collaborators:
St. Andrews University
Wake Forest University

Protocols & Workflows

The SERNEC website has a section with various resources including documentation, tutorials and webinars.

Digitization Methods: Rapid imaging coupled with citizen science based label transcription and collaborative georeferencing.


Nelson, G., Sweeney, P., Wallace, L.E., Rabeler, R.K., Allard, D., Brown, H., Carter, J.R., Denslow, M.W., Ellwood, E.R., Germain-Aubrey, C.C., Gilbert, E., Gillespie, E., Goertzen, L.R., Legler, B., Marchant, D.B., Marsico, T.D., Morris, A.B., Murrell, Z., Nazaire, M., Neefus, C., Oberreiter, S., Paul, D., Ruhfel, B.R., Sasek, T., Shaw, J., Soltis, P.S., Watson, K., Weeks, A., Mast, A.R., 2015. Digitization Workflows for Flat Sheets and Packets of Plants, Algae, and Fungi. Applications in Plant Sciences 3(9): 1500065 doi:10.3732/apps.1500065.

Professional Presentations

iDigBio Summit V, 2015

Other project documentation