Using Herbarium Data to Document Plant Niches in the High Peaks and High Plains of the Southern Rockies - Past, Present, and Future

Digitization TCN: Using Herbarium Data to Document Plant Niches in the High Peaks and High Plains of the Southern Rockies - Past, Present, and Future (SoRo)

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Project Summary

The rugged and expansive terrain of the Southern Rocky Mountains (SoRo) yields the most crucial resource for human existence in western North America: Water. From upper reaches of the high peaks of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and surrounding states, the headwaters of numerous major rivers of the West originate and give rise to the highest outflow and freshwater runoff west of the Mississippi River: The Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Colorado, and Green Rivers and portions of the Snake and Missouri Rivers. The cleanliness and reliability of these water resources are in large part attributable to the plant life that forms the basis for all SoRo ecosystems. Plant species from the high peaks and adjacent high plains of the SoRo derive from different geographic origins, evolutionary histories, and ecological affinities. They grow in varied habitats and represent one of the most narrowly adapted floras in the world. This unique and fragile flora is widely documented in natural history collections (i.e., herbaria), but specimens themselves and the scientific data that accompany them remain poorly 'visible' owing to a lack of data in digitized format. The SoRo Herbarium Consortium brings together 38 collaborating institutions (universities, botanical gardens, national parks, Native American Nations) to digitize more than 1.7 million botanical specimens from the study area. The overarching goal of this project is to make these data available to a broad community of users (scientists, educators, government officials, land managers, the general public) via openly accessible, free data portals.

The Southern Rocky Mountains (SoRo) support a diverse and highly adapted flora of species with varied ecologies, ranging from alpine to sagebrush plains to shortgrass prairies. The plant biota of the SoRo shares important evolutionary and geological histories with the adjacent plains and prairies, and together these ecosystems are among the most endangered landscapes in North America. Human demands on these systems are escalating, and risk factors such as fire, development, and environmental change are predicted to grow. Thus, building digital resources to document plant niches in the SoRo is met with a sense of urgency. The proposed work will address a major gap in accessible information among North American natural history collections by digitizing more than 1.7 million botanical collections from the SoRo. Specifically, 38 collaborative institutions (universities, botanical gardens, national parks, Native American Nations) will collaborate to generate these new resources and make them available via data portals, including iDigBio ( Additionally, new tools will be developed within the open source Symbiota platform that will allow users to quickly search and compile vetted, herbarium data records that can then be used for analysis in external software applications such as niche modeling packages, or to update source data repositories for subsequent in-house curation.

Current Research

Proposed research uses of data generated through the SoRo project include:

Documenting species occurrence using museum specimens. Using museum data to locate potentially under collected areas of the Southern Rockies. Species distribution modeling in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

Project Websites & Social Media

Adams State students involved in ongoing research[1]

Brown’s Herbarium is a collection of ecology, geography and history[2]

Researchers to create digital archive of Rocky Mountain plants CU Boulder Today Article [3]

UNM is opening virtual doors to its plant collections UNM Newsroom [4]

Plant specimen collection donated by former student [5]

High Plains Herbarium receives National Science Foundation grant [6]

SoRo Mountain TCN Field to Digital Object Workshop introduces undergraduate students to museum careers [7]

Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

Project Leadership

Project sponsor: University of Colorado, Boulder (NSF Award #1702516)

Principal Investigator (PI): Erin Tripp
Erin Tripp (Curator) University of Colorado, Boulder
Dina Clark (Collections Manager), University of Colorado, Boulder
Ryan Allen (Project Manager), University of Colorado, Boulder

Project Collaborators

Map of Collaborating Institutions

Kristy Duran (Curator), Adam State University
Nico Franz (Assoc. Prof.), Arizona State Univ.
Ed Gilbert (Symbiota Software Developer), Arizona State Univ.
Mark Gabel (Curator), Black Hills State University
Timothy Whitfield (Collections Manager), Brown University
Steven Rolfsmeier (Curator), Chadron State College
Shane Heschel (Assoc. Prof. & Acting Curator), Colorado College
Stephen Stern (Curator), Colorado Mesa University
Jennifer Ackerfield (Curator), Colorado State University
Melissa Islam (Curator), Denver Botanic Garden
Ross McCauley (Curator), Fort Lewis College
Michaela Schmull, PI (Director of Collections), Harvard University (NSF Award #1702322)
Nora Talkington (Navajo Botanist), Navaho Herbarium
Melissa Tulig, PI (Information Manager), New York Botanical Gardens (NSF Award #1701575)
Tina Ayers (Curator), Northern Arizona University
C. F. Rick Williams (Acting Curator), Rocky Mountain Biological Station
Steve Perkins (Curator), San Juan College
Tim Lowrey, PI (Curator), University of New Mexico (NSF Award #1701464)
Phil Tonne (Collections Manager), University of New Mexico
Mitchell McGlaughlin (Curator), University Northern Colorado
Greg Brown, PI (Professor), University of Wyoming (NSF Award #1702345)
Ernie Nelson (Curator), University of Wyoming
Larry Schmidt (Librarian), University of Wyoming
Robin Bingham (Curator), Western State Colorado University
TBD United States National Museum
Patrick Sweeney (Curator), Yale University, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Protocols & Workflows


Lance J. Gloss and Timothy J. S. Whitfeld "Augustus Fendler Herbarium Specimens: A Locality Improvement Project"[8]

Professional Presentations

Other project documentation

SoRo Georeferencing Workshop


Enhancing the SoRo TCN with collections of taxonomic, geographic, and historic significance from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Herbarium

The Southern Rocky Mountain Region (SoRo) supports a rich and fragile flora of diverse habitats and narrow ecological niches derived from unique geographic origins and evolutionary histories. The Herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) has a unique, data-rich, and curated but currently inaccessible collection of 60,700 vascular plant specimens from the SoRo region, the digitization of which will tailor seamlessly with the ongoing Digitization Thematic Collections Network (TCN) "Using Herbarium Data to Document Plant Niches in the High Peaks and High Plains of the Southern Rockies - Past, Present, and Future." Timely digitization of RSABG's significant collections will be instrumental to enhancing the TCN and enable researchers to examine contemporary patterns of distribution, identify signatures of diversification, predict future environmental change, and help to mitigate negative impacts of climate change and habitat alteration. Digitization includes 30,960 specimens especially noteworthy for their relevance to science, collector, and taxonomy. Integral to the project are the activities that involve graduate students and undergraduate interns. Students will be trained in all aspects of collections management and digitization. Undergraduate interns will participate in four workshops that will serve to connect students to collections, biodiversity, and conservation of the SoRo region. Additionally, through coordinated efforts with California Polytechnic University, Pomona (CPP; a Hispanic Serving Institution), undergraduate students in CPP's Form & Function in Plants class will barcode 50% of the project specimens as partial fulfillment of their course objectives. An exhibit at RSABG will highlight the activities and student participation in the project.

The flora of the Southern Rocky Mountain region (SoRo) is composed of plants with unique evolutionary histories driven by orogenic factors and long- and short-term climatic shifts associated with continental glaciations. Such abiotic factors have greatly influenced elevational changes in community structure, large-scale geographic range shifts, patterns of rapid diversification, and ecological niche evolution. These histories and dynamic abiotic phenomena have yielded varied ecosystems and geological substrates that support numerous endemics and/or narrowly adapted species. The uniqueness of the SoRo region provides an excellent model area in which to examine patterns of diversification, niche evolution, and endemism. As part of the SoRo Thematic Collections Network (TCN), the Herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) aims to digitize and mobilize data from 60,700 herbarium specimens relevant to the SoRo region and contribute to the larger goals of the project and strengthen the TCN. Specimens targeted for this project include 30,960 especially noteworthy specimens based on their relevance to science, collector, and taxonomy, and are emblematic of the unique strengths of the RSABG Herbarium. A large cadre of students at different levels in their academic career will participate in all aspects of the project, including databasing, imaging, and georeferencing. All data resulting from this project will be shared with iDigBio ( and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility through SoRo's Symbiota portal as well as RSABG's Herbarium web portal. Additional information about RSABG, its outreach activities, and the results of this project is available online (

Project Sponsor: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (NSF Award 1901889)

Principal Investigators: Mare Nazaire (PI)