Today, I’m pleased to offer another guest post from a colleague here at the University of Virginia, Michelle Prysby. Michelle supports science education and outreach at UVA, but also has a special place in her heart for herbaria, master naturalist groups, and citizen science, having spent much of her academic career in those areas. Upon my invitation, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to help out with sharing the story of Mountain Lake Biological Station as part of UVA’s science education and outreach effort. – Andrew Sallans
On a remote forested ridge, at 1,160 meters in elevation in the southern Appalachian mountains sits Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS), a busy hub for ecological and evolutionary biology research. As part of the University of Virginia Department of Biology, MLBS serves as a facility for teaching field courses, a research site for scientists from around the country, and, for parts of the year, a home for students and faculty who come there to learn and to study. Field courses include topics such as Wildlife Disease Ecology and Techniques in Conservation Biology, while research at the station has included studies of high-elevation forest ecology, genetics of various native and non-native plants, and salamander dispersal, to name just a few.
The station has some high tech research facilities, including a DNA extraction lab and chambers for growing organisms in controlled environments. The first stop, however, for a scientist interested in studying plants in the area would likely be the much less high tech herbarium. The MLBS herbarium houses more than 9000 plant specimen from the Mountain Lake area, the surrounding Giles County, and a smattering of other locations in Virginia and the Southeast. It’s a great resource that gets used by many scientists studying plants at Mountain Lake. Visiting scientists starting a new research study, for example, might comb through the herbarium to locate possible study populations of a particular plant. A new graduate student might use the herbarium to help formulate research questions and choose a study system. It’s also used for education, particularly during MLBS courses on plant conservation and diversity.
The herbarium has been assembled over time through collections by U.Va. scientists and through the acquisition of other scientists’ collections over time. It has become a fairly extensive collection for the region, with significant contributions made by many different researchers. It’s a region that is quite biologically diverse, too, with varying topography and microclimates. Walking out from the station atop Salt Pond Mountain, one can find several forest types, rock outcrops, bogs, streams, meadows, and one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia.
The herbarium grows every year, particularly through the efforts of students taking the plant diversity course in the summers. It contains some very old specimens—more than 100 years old. Some of these species may no longer even exist in the locations where they were originally collected. That’s one reason herbaria like the one at Mountain Lake are so important as both a reference collection and historical record.
The MLBS Herbarium is cared for by Eric Nagy, Associate Director of MLBS and Assistant Research Professor of Biology at U.Va., and by Zack Murrell, Associate Professor of Biology at Appalachian State University and instructor for the MLBS Plant Conservation and Diversity summer undergraduate field course.
“The herbarium is one of Mountain Lake Biological Station’s greatest assets,” says Nagy. “Other field stations drool when they see what we have for our users.” The digitization of the collections and the database of specimen information transcribed through Notes from Nature will make it even more valuable.
Mountain Lake Biological Station invites the public to its Open House event, July 13. If you happen to be nearby, stop in to learn more about the research at the station and visit the herbarium in person.
-Michelle Prysby, Director of Science Education and Public Outreach, University of Virginia
As you may have noticed, many of the herbarium images currently featured in Notes from Nature come from FSU’s Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium. To peak your interest, we are happy to share this guest post from the herbarium’s director, Austin Mast. Enjoy! – Andrew Sallans
Florida State University’s Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium is a biodiversity research collection of about 210,000 plant and microalgae specimens. These primarily document the distribution and natural variation of the roughly 2,800 species of flowering plants, ferns, conifers, and cycads found in the East Gulf Coastal Plain (EGCP) ecoregion—a North American biotic hotspot—and the microalgae of Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts. A secondary strength of the collection is tropical Central America. The herbarium grows at a rate of about 2,000 specimens each year.
Stretching across the Florida panhandle to eastern Louisiana along the coast, the EGCP is home to 125 endemic plant taxa (species and varieties found nowhere else), including the White-top Pitcher Plant (left). A large number of the regional endemics are restricted to pine-dominated wetlands and uplands, two communities that have dwindled to less than 5% of their original extent and are now considered among the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Loss of longleaf pine-dominated communities and fire suppression has left many endemics critically imperiled, and the EGCP is also considered a “species endangerment hotspot,” with many of its counties within the top 95th percentile of US counties when ranked by the number of threatened and endangered species in each. The Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium is the most extensive collection of plants from the eastern part of the EGCP.
The herbarium was established in 1940 by Herman Kurz (1886–1966), a professor of botany at what was then the Florida State College for Women. It is named for Kurz’s successor, Robert K. Godfrey (1911–2000), who collected about one-third of the specimens currently in the collection, named many plant species himself, and had 12 plant species or varieties named for him (such as Hymenocallis godfreyi, an endangered spiderlily restricted to one county in Florida; below right). The FSU botanists Loran Anderson, Gil Nelson, and Austin Mast (the herbarium director) currently use the specimens onsite for research and education, as do Florida’s natural resource managers. Through an active loan program, biologists from around the world borrow specimens from the Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium for studies of plant and microalgae systematics, ecology, evolution, biogeography, conservation biology, anatomy, and morphology.
About a third of the Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium’s specimens have been digitally imaged, databased, and georeferenced since 2003, thanks to support from the National Science Foundation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the (typically) short-term efforts of about 75 students and staff members. This third of the collection is searchable at http://herbarium.bio.fsu.edu/search-specimens.php, allowing anyone with access to the web to sort result tables, browse through images, and generate distribution maps.
The Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium would like to complete the digitization of the remaining two-thirds of the collection in the next 10 years. This parallels the broader goal of the US biodiversity research community to digitize the roughly 90% of the 1 billion biodiversity research specimens yet to be digitized in US collections in the next decade. This ambitious community goal can be reached with greater coordination and standardization within the digitization community, more efficient workflows, technological innovation, and broader participation—ESPECIALLY public participation. For more information on how the public can contribute, see the report on iDigBio’s Public Participation in Digitization of Biodiversity Specimens Workshop organized by the Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium’s director, Austin Mast.
The Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium (and all of the world’s biodiversity research collections) need your help to make our specimens broadly discoverable and potentially useful to everyone. Thank you, Notes from Nature community members!
-Austin R. Mast, Director of FSU Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium