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What is an herbarium?

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Researchers working in the herbarium at Appalachian State University

An herbarium is a place that houses plant specimens. Many people expect that an herbarium will be filled with living plants. However, these plant specimens are pressed, dried and glued to sheets of paper. They are dead. The sheets of paper are typically stored inside of cabinets for safekeeping and organizational purposes. An herbarium is similar to a library in that both house artifacts (specimens or books) in a safe and organized way that allows them to be found and used by researchers. If plant specimens are stored properly they will last hundreds of years with little sign of degradation.

If you think about it, it makes sense to store plant specimens in this way (as dead samples). Logistically you can fit and care for many more pressed specimens than living plants in the collection. In addition, an herbarium often contains plants from all over the world including plants from diverse habitats such as deserts and alpine tundra. It would be tough to grow all of these different plants in one place.

Herbaria are sometimes part of natural history museums, associated with botanic gardens or academic institutions. The largest herbarium collections in the world are housed in Paris and New York. These large collections contain millions of specimens. However most herbarium collections are much smaller. There are more than 3500 herbaria scattered across the world. In fact, you likely have a local herbarium that contains specimens of the plants that occur in your area. To learn more about the herbaria in your area you can search Index Herbariorum, a global directory of herbaria.

-Michael Denslow

Introduction to Notes From Nature


Michael Denslow collecting plants in central Tennessee, USA.

Humans have been collecting specimens from the natural world for centuries. These specimens include samples of rocks, minerals, plants, fungi and animals. In fact, a lot of the knowledge that we have about the earth’s plants and animals is based on specimens that were collected in nature. These specimens are now housed in natural history museums. The world’s great exploration expeditions often included teams of scientists that documented the things that they saw along the way. For example, Lewis and Clark’s expedition of the western United States resulted in the discovery of hundreds of plants and animals that were new to science.

Today, there are an estimated 2 billion specimens housed in natural history collections around the world. This incredible resource provides us with baseline information about the biodiversity of the earth. In addition, the data resulting from these specimens has been used to address a wide range of society’s pressing issues such as public health and environmental change.

However, for this resource to be used to it full potential there must be better digital access to the collections. Most natural history collections are housed in museum cabinets, where they are not easily available to citizens and researchers. It is estimated that only about 1/3 of all natural history specimens are available digitally over the Internet! In effect, the other 2/3 of this biodiversity information is locked away from view. This is despite the fact that the natural history museum community is committed to providing access to this data.

The Notes from Nature project is about digitally unlocking this treasure trove of biodiversity data. Contributions from the public or informally trained people have always played an important role in the field of natural history. These citizen scientists, as they are now called, have made many important contributions, including collecting specimens and even describe new species. Today’s technology provides us with new ways for people to engage with natural history collections, and to help promote access to this biodiversity resource.

The Notes from Nature project has built a tool that enables citizen scientists to make a scientifically relevant contribution though the transcription of specimen label information. Please consider helping us unlock this important information by taking some notes from nature. Every transcription that is completed brings us closer to the goal of providing access to this critical resource.

Take Notes From Nature!

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