Nitrogen Fixers Part 3 — Missouri Botanic Garden Goodness

 Our next expedition featuring plants from the Nitrogen Fixing clade is here!  As you know, we have been busily collecting samples from herbarium specimens that will be used to look at the genomes of these plants.  We are looking in particular for the genes that are responsible for creating the root nodules that house nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  This symbiosis has allowed plants with these nitrogen fixing bacteria to survive in places where they usually cannot.

We plan to look at a portion of the genome for more than ten thousand species of the 35,000 or so in the nitrogen fixing group (which forms a natural grouping).  The photo below shows two of our champion samplers during our best day collecting ever – 322 species were sampled.  When we sample, we have to look through folders of herbarium sheets to find specimens that are relatively recent and that are in good shape for taking a small piece of tissue.  The specimen photos you are helping to digitize all have QR code coin envelopes in them, as you have noticed, and those are the same envelopes (with a little bit of tissue tucked inside) as in the photo.
This new expedition (the third Nitrogen Fixing expedition) features specimens from the Missouri Botanic Gardens (MOBOT), which houses a fabulous collection of plants from around the world.  MOBOT has databased a lot of their material, and for us to be able to access databased specimens, we need to be able to reference the last name of the collector of the specimen and the collector number.   This makes for a fast expedition since those are the only two pieces of information we need right now.  We also hope you like learning about this remarkable group of plants, and we appreciate the help unraveling one of the most successful symbioses on the planet.

Swipe for Science!



Can you spare a few moments to help identify flowers on images of museum specimens? We need help with a simple task, which will assist researchers who are studying phenology (cycles of events in the natural world).  All you need to do is download the Zooniverse mobile app, load up our first ever fully mobile expeditions, and swipe right if you see flowers and left if you do not.   It may be simple, but it will be a huge help for science.

The species we’ll be focusing on is called evening primrose.  The flowers of the evening primrose open quickly every evening, earning this plant its name.  Its flowering phenology is broadly late Spring through Fall but we don’t yet know much how that varies across geography and during different years with different weather patterns.

Here are more details to help you get started:

  • Download the Zooniverse app from Google Play or the App Store. Picture1
  • Select Nature and scroll to Notes from Nature. You don’t need to create an account if you don’t want to.
  • Select “Phenology II: Evening-primroses”
  • Read through the short tutorial. Be sure to check out the directions by clicking the “?” next to the question.
  • After that you will see an image of a plant specimen. Can you see flowers?  If yes, swipe right, and if no, swipe left.
  • You may need to zoom in to check for flowers. You can tap the image to engage the zoom feature and then use normal gestures to zoom in or out.

We know some folks have helped with this project using our web application, and that is still up and running as well.

Thanks for your time! If you enjoyed this project, then please check out

We <3 New York Botanic Gardens (NYBG) and the first NitFix expedition finished

Back in October, we started an adventure that I am not sure has ever been tried before. We aimed to sample 15,000 species (!) of nitrogen fixing plants, with the goal of assembling one of the largest set of resources to better understand the underlying genomic innovations that led to nitrogen-fixing plants. The main resource we are using are small tissue samples (e.g. leaf and floral material) taken from already-collected samples stored in herbaria. Our first port of call was the New York Botanic Gardens, and the truly awesome staff there, especially Barbara Theirs and Charlie Zimmerman, but we owe thanks to the whole herbarium for making us feel so welcome.  We ❤ NYBG!

Here we are happily sampling:

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We collected about 1400 samples during our first visit, and we since have also begun to extract DNA from those samples. The great news is that we are having a lot of success with extractions, thanks to the hard work of Heather Rose Kates at the Florida Museum. We will talk more about the next steps in further blog posts, but we are excited about that success. We have also visited a lot more herbaria, including ones at Harvard University, the California Academy of Sciences, the Missouri Botanic Gardens, and the Ohio State University. We also just headed back to the New York Botanic Gardens and will be sampling there for many more weeks. We anticipate hitting our half way mark this week – 7500 samples!   That represents a huge amount of work!

The data we are getting from labels is really important for this work. Photo vouchers and labels link the genes to the specimen, both virtually and in a physical sense too. Label data will be used in a lot of the downstream analyses that come from this work and we are so thrilled that you helping this science happen. Nitrogen fixing is a key novel symbioses that really changed the world, we are hoping to learn how that novelty arose, and herbaria and their specimens may be an essential part of the key to telling that story. Your help is so important so a HUGE thanks for your work on the first NitFix expedition. There is already a second one up and a third one soon to follow.

A Huge Thank You with More to Come!

First off thank you so much for taking the time to help transcribe the “Banded Yellow Butterfly” expedition. This expedition was challenging, but you persisted and that shows the amount of care you have for helping natural history collections. Thank you also for providing comments and suggestions. They have been noted and where possible incorporated in to this next expedition for a smoother transcription experience. That being said, let me introduce you to our new expedition “Mixed Bag of Specimens” from the McGuire Center.

The McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural of History is home to one of the largest Lepidoptera collections in the world. Since the opening of the center in 2004, it is has grown rapidly and now has nearly 10 million specimens. The McGuire Center was founded by combining collections from the Allyn Museum (then located in Sarasota, Florida) and the Lepidoptera holdings of the Florida State Collection of Arthropods. While students and staff are constantly contributing to the collection, its growth is primarily due to donations from private collections.

With such big and vast collection, digitizing has taken place on all three floors of collections and with all different species. In this expedition, you will find a mixed bag of specimens to transcribe. All specimens are moths, but there are different species and various layouts. Don’t be discouraged, the information you seek is there.

As you know transcribing this data is extremely important part of the digitization effort. Thank you for taking the time to help! The information that you transcribe is essential to our ongoing research. It enhances data sets and helps answer questions about the history and behavior of these moths and butterflies. We value your contributions to the scientific community, and we thank you for devoting your time and effort to help us complete these butterfly projects.

— Stacey L. Huber, McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History

Tennessee Invaders

There are almost 500 non-native plants that now call Tennessee home. These plants threaten native Tennessee ecosystems. Detection and monitoring, of these species present tremendous challenges to conservation groups. As a first line of defense, organizations such as the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council (TN-IPC) work to list and rank non-native species. Up until recently, organizations such as these have relied heavily on expert opinion and experience to rank non-native species. However, with the onset of metadata technology, the ability to access large amounts of information has transformed the ways in which we might enhance our understanding of the threat non-native species pose across the landscape.


Elaeagnus umbellata (Autumn Olive) Photo by M.W. Denslow

This expedition will assist University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate student Courtney Alley (@Calley2012) in collecting data for her thesis research that will utilize this advancement in technology to further our understanding of non-native plant species.  Ultimately, this information will be used to map the locations of these invasive plant species and eventually determine a pattern of spread throughout the state.  With your help, we can use these data to develop more effective detection and monitoring techniques for non-native plants!

— The NfN Team


Phenology of evening primrose

Oenothera are the evening primroses, or sundrops, and are so named for their tendency to open cheery, long-lasting yellow flowers during the evening. There are about 145 species of evening primrose spread across the New World, where they have long be a cultivated species. One species, Oenothera biennis, is common across eastern and central North America, and has a long history of medicinal use. Much of the plant is edible and the oil for primrose has long been used a traditional medicine.


Evening primose plants (white flowers) are often dominant in sandy areas. Photo by mwdenslow

Evening primrose is pollinated by a special set of bee and moth pollinators with specialized ability to handle its more viscous pollen strands, and its seeds are eaten by birds such as finches. Evening primroses are not related to other primroses in the genus Primula, which are in a different family.  

While diurnal patterns of flower opening and closing is a form of phenology, we are interested here in the seasonal patterns of evening primrose blooming, and especially if climatic changes are impacting evening primrose cycles. We are especially interested in both spring and fall timing since many in this species can have two generation of plants per year.  

We are really excited to launch the Evening Primrose Phenology project as out first truly mobile-friendly Notes from Nature project. We are just looking for help with documenting flower presence, so a simple “yes it has flowers” or “no it doesn’t” suffices.

Its so easy to try one – we hope you do!

Pollinator Plants of Virginia II

Welcome to another edition of the Plants of Virginia expeditions – Pollinator Plants of Virginia II.  In this project, we have assembled a range of species from predominantly animal-pollinated plant families including the Sunflower, Mint, Tomato, Blueberry, Carrot, Coffee and Apple families, all of which provide food for humans, too. Pollinator populations and their overall health have declined in recent decades. While much current research is necessarily focused on the health of non-native, domesticated honey-bees and agricultural productivity, thousands of other invertebrate pollinators such as bumble-bees, small solitary bees, butterflies and moths are in need of help, too. In order for researchers to find these small creatures in the wild to monitor their population sizes or to test them for diseases, they must first locate the food plants that are preferred by each pollinator and wait for their research subjects to appear. Many native pollinator species will consume the pollen or nectar of very few plant species; this very choosy feeding behavior is called oligolecty. It also means that these species can die out if their food plants disappear.  By transcribing these herbarium records, you help us develop very fine scale maps of the plants’ locations and flowering times, which can be used by pollinator researchers to find their quarry.


Andrea Weeks, Director, Ted R. Bradley Herbarium, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

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