The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis

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Digitization TCN: The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis: Achieving a greater scientific understanding of our urban world

The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis TCN (MAM)
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Project Summary

In light of the increasingly urban future of our planet, a thorough understanding of the biological processes at work in urban areas is necessary for the continued survival of Earth's inhabitants, including humans. The first step in that understanding is to know what thrives, survives, or perishes in cities, now and in the past. The Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis (MAM) Project begins this study by looking at vascular plants, with the digitization of roughly 700,000 herbarium specimens from eleven institutions, including public and private universities, state agencies, arboreta, museums, and botanic gardens, in the urban corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C. As the largest, oldest, and most populated urban corridor in the U.S., this area and its flora present a unique opportunity for the study of urbanization, particularly given its rich herbarium collections, containing specimens collected over the last 400 years. The data mobilized in this effort will help us achieve a better scientific understanding of living urban systems, a critical need for urban planners, restoration ecologists, environmental engineers, (landscape) architects, and conservationists engaged in creating more sustainable and better designed cities, including the constructed and restored natural environments of our urban areas.

Digitization of each specimen in the MAM Project will result in a high resolution image, a databased record of collection metadata, and a georeferenced point, all of which will be made publicly available online. Building on already successful regional programs, the MAM Project will partner with schools, universities, botanical clubs, and the general public to crowd source databasing efforts and to recruit citizen scientists to help build urban floras online, enabling not only increased digitization efficiency, but educational and research opportunities as well. The MAM Project also includes new developments for data cleaning and standardization in Symbiota, which will expedite the use of digitized specimen data for research, and new reporting features which will advance digitization workflow and project management. 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

The data mobilized in this digitization effort will enable an advancement in the scientific understanding of urbanization, which species have occurred and when in urban floras, how those species assemble in microhabitats within urban and industrialized areas, and how this heterogeneity in urban habitat and biodiversity relates to land use and land cover patterns. The project will enable the study of the adaptation of floras to cities, and how characteristic traits are correlated with adaptation, extirpation or invasion.

Project Websites & Social Media

MAM Project Website
MAM Symbiota Portal

Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

Transcription Workshop
30 May 2018
The Academy of Natural sciences of Drexel University
Philadelphia, PA
A workshop on transcribing specimen records in the MAM portal.

MAM Outreach & Volunteer Recruitment
11 April 2018
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
Philadelphia, PA
The MAM Project will be in attendance, to spread the word about the project and recruit transcrption volunteers, at The Academy's "How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution" event with author and evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen and Maiken Scott of WHYY's The Pulse radio program.

Transcription Workshop
10 March 2018
Delaware State University
Dover, DE
Introducing the MAM Project to the public and transcription training.

Darwin Day Transcription Blitzes
MAM Collaborators hosted three volunteer transcription events in honor of Darwin's birthday. This was an opportunity to engage with our volunteer base, thank them for their service, and advance the goals of the project.

11 February 2018
University of Maryland
College Park, MD

12 February 2018
Howard University
Washington, DC

12 February 2018
Morris Arboretum
Philadelphia, PA

Morris Arboretum Volunteers Transcription Workshop
11 October 2017
Morris Arboretum
Philadelphia, PA
A workshop on transcribing records in the MAM portal.

Project Leadership

Project sponsor: Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania (NSF Award 1601697)

Principal Investigator (PI): Cynthia Skema, Tim Block

Project Coordinator: Anne Barber

Project Collaborators

Map of Collaborating Institutions

Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia – Tatyana Livshultz, Richard McCourt (NSF Award 1601503)
Arizona State University – Nico Franz, Ed Gilbert
Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Mason Heberling, Bonnie Isaac (NSF Award 1801022)
Delaware State University – Cynthia Hong-Wa (NSF Award 1601393)
Howard University – Janelle Burke (NSF Award 1600976)
Maryland Department of Natural Resources – Christopher Frye
Muhlenberg College – Richard Niesenbaum
New York Botanical Garden – Barbara Thiers, Kim Watson (NSF Award 1600981)
Pennsylvania State University – Claude dePamphilis, Sarah Chamberlain (NSF Award 1702441)
Rutgers University, New Brunswick – Lena Struwe, Myla Aronson (NSF Award 1601101)
Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences / Staten Island Museum Herbarium – Audrey Malachowsky
Towson University – David Hearn, Christa Partain (subaward to NSF Award 1601429)
University of Maryland, College Park – John Hall, Maile Neel (NSF Award 1601429)

Protocols & Workflows

Download the most recent version of our manual: MAM Digitization Standards and Training Manual


Professional Presentations & Workshops

Data Cleaning Webinar
April 23rd, 2018
Adobe Connect
Demonstrating the new data cleaning tools available in Symbiota. The recorded webinar can be accessed here.

iDigBio Summit 2017
2-3 November 2017
Gainesville, FL
Our Project Coordinator and the PI from Howard University will be attending. See iDigBio Summit website for further information.

Philadelphia Botanical Club Floristics Workshop
22 June 2017
Academy of Natural Sciences
Philadelphia, PA
A workshop on using web tools to build and maintain dynamic, virtual floras in the MAM portal.

New York Botanical Garden Floristics Workshop
25-26 February 2017
New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY
A workshop on using web tools to build and maintain dynamic, virtual floras in the MAM portal.

Other project documentation


Digitization PEN: Connecting Rust Belt dynamics to the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Project utilizing the Carnegie Museum herbarium

Urbanization represents an extreme form of ecosystem transformation, leading to changes that redefine our conception of nature. However, scientific understanding of our increasingly urban world is limited by the availability of historical data documenting these ecological changes. This project partners the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM) with the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis (MAM) Project, a Thematic Collections Network (TCN) involving 11 institutions in the urban corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C., to digitize herbarium specimens from the Mid-Atlantic states. Western Pennsylvania is widely recognized as an urbanized area that was transformed from an industrial powerhouse (and one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the 19th and 20th centuries) to an emerging center for sustainability and technological innovation. This partnership will fill a "Rust Belt" data gap by including urban areas in Pennsylvania that have undergone remarkable environmental and ecological change over the past two centuries. CM specimens will enhance the MAM Project by adding nearly 190,000 herbarium specimens, increasing the total number of MAM specimens by more than 25%. In addition to making these valuable specimens more accessible through public databases, targeted activities will directly connect digitized data to scientists and the public, contributing to ongoing programs in invasive species management, education of nature in the city, and museum exhibition. Taken together, these activities will improve scientific and public understanding of urban environments, highlighting sustainability and the future of this increasingly common biome in the current era of global change.

This project connects an unrepresented, but important, Mid-Atlantic urban region to the MAM Project. Digitization of each CM specimen will result in a high-resolution image and georeferenced point, enabling biogeographic, floristic, and phenotypic analyses through space and time. Data capture, efficient workflow development, and data dissemination will follow best practices, utilizing the existing project infrastructure of the MAM project and iDigBio. Data on non-native species will be made available to PA iMapInvasives program to track the introduction and spread of harmful invasive plants in the region. Further, this project will integrate specimen images into museum exhibits, with the construction of a new exhibit highlighting specimen-based research, the importance of digitization, and the ecological and economic value of plants in cities. In collaboration with museum educators, specimen images will be used in the development of an online toolkit of free science activities for local school teachers that explore nature in urban settings. Weekly blogs will feature specimens of local interest, focusing on the urban plants of Pittsburgh. Collaborating with MAM partners, workshops will be held for local botanical clubs and citizen scientists in the Pittsburgh region to the assist in digitization, specifically joining the efforts of established projects focused on shifts in flowering times across the Eastern US and the development of a virtual flora of the Mid-Atlantic. Collectively, the project will provide research-ready data to enable a better understanding of human-mediated changes at multiple biological, geographic, and temporal scales, as well as predictions for the future ecology of urban areas. All data resulting from this award will be available through the national resource (

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Sponsor: Carnegie Museum of Natural History (NSF Award 1801022)

Principal Investigators (PIs): Mason Heberling (co-PI), Bonnie Isaac (co-PI)

Digitization PEN: Partnering the Penn State Herbarium (PAC) to Contextualize the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis

This project will generate and make publicly available digital images of 64,000 of plant specimens that are present in the Pennsylvania State University Herbarium (PAC). The project partners with the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis (MAM) TCN, which is focused on generating and making available digital images of herbarium specimens from the urban corridor of the Mid-Atlantic states. The PAC collection spans over 100 years, from the early 1800s to the present, largely representing the flora of forested and agricultural landscapes west of the Susquehanna River and thus, can serve as a contextual counterpoint to plant assemblages in the MAM urban corridor. Its richness, both in time and space, will present a more complete picture of plant communities within the Mid-Atlantic Region and will contribute to the regional knowledge base. These records will, in turn, contribute to active research initiatives in biology, horticulture and environmental management at Penn State and within the larger regional botanical community. This project will fill critical gaps in knowledge of plant communities in urban environments of the Mid-Atlantic Region by providing key information on plant diversity in non-urban landscapes. It also serves to train the next generation of botanists through experiential learning in state-of-the-art digitization and databasing techniques, make important components of the collection accessible to a broad array of researchers within the region and beyond, and engage both students and faculty as well as the local community in herbarium programs and activities.

The goal of this project is to generate and distribute, through partnering with the ongoing Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis TCN, high-resolution digital images of the collection of vascular plant specimens at the PAC Herbarium. The project will perform high resolution photographic imaging, transcription, georeferencing, and web publishing of approximately 64,000 vascular plant herbarium specimens of Pennsylvania, filling an important gap in digital data that is currently lacking from online databases. Detailed information on plant communities across different landscapes, which will be enriched by the contributions from the PAC collection, will inform research on the factors that determine plant establishment, sustainability and invasibility in urban environments characterized by the MAM urban corridor. This project will also contribute to the wealth of vascular plant data currently available to botanists across the country and abroad through the iDigBio and UrBioNet portals. We will recruit and train undergraduate students and local volunteers in digitization protocols, transcription of herbarium labels, and georeferencing through a series of Digithons. PAC staff and interns will also participate in the mini urban research symposium hosted by the MAM TCN and held at Rutgers University. Interns will be encouraged to attend the mini symposium to interact with scientists in the field of urban research and gain valuable experience in research protocols. All of these efforts will also contribute to shared discovery of regional floras and the forging of alliances among herbaria within the Mid-Atlantic Region.

Project Sponsor: Pennsylvania State University (NSF Award 1702441)

Principal Investigators (PIs): Claude dePamphilis (PI), Robert Brooks (co-PI)