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Virtual herbarium
Students create online guide to violet specimens

May 3, 2006
By Christina Dierkes


To identify and describe new plant species, scientists traditionally spend hours in museums studying dried, pressed plant collections and days or weeks in the field locating living populations, which requires considerable time and money. But a pilot project completed by two Ohio University students at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, a suburb of London, might change that approach for scientists all over the world.

Greg Snowden, Bethan Enyon and Associate Professor Harvey Ballard review a violet specimen.Greg Snowden and Bethan Eynon of the Honors Tutorial College spent last summer scanning images of more than 800 pressed specimens of violets and databasing the label information from each. The internship was part of a new effort to create an online database that will provide "remote control" access to violet specialists from around the world, and later to the general public. 

This new "virtual herbarium" approach also will greatly accelerate the very slow process of describing and evaluating new plant life, says project adviser Harvey Ballard, associate professor of plant systematics and evolution.

The students worked most often with type collections, which are pressed plants that were the original specimens used in the naming of new species after the plant was discovered. They had to treat these specimen sheets with care, as some of these types had been collected up to 200 years ago, says Snowden, an environmental and plant biology major.

The fragile nature of the material, as well as the difficulty of reading the ancient handwritten labels on each sheet, made the processing per specimen take much longer than the students had expected. "We thought it was going to take like 10 minutes per type, and we were going to fly through this thing. But it took a lot longer, maybe half an hour or an hour per type, and it took a lot of revisions," says Eynon, a journalism major with a minor in sociology.

While scanning the old type sheets from the Kew herbarium's vast collections - now approaching eight million specimens - took up a lot of time, both students were happy with the results. "The quality (of the scans) ended up being better than just looking at the sheet of paper itself," says Eynon. Overall, they also felt that it was "such a prestigious thing to be able to work at such a world-renowned research institution," says Snowden of the trip, which was funded by the Honors Tutorial College.

Ballard asked the students to first scan the violet species archived at Kew because he specializes in these plants. The "virtual herbarium" project was timely for the world's first conference for violet specialists, which Ballard organized in Vienna, Austria, last summer. The international violet specialists attending the conference were impressed with Eynon and Snowden's work. They noted that, in almost all cases, the scanned images and database label information, once made available on the Web, would prove just as useful as firsthand examinations of specimens, Ballard says.

Based on this work, Ballard plans to write a grant proposal to expand the "virtual herbarium" approach with violets to other institutions around the world, including the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) in Paris, France. He also hopes to gain funding to continue the Ohio University Summer Herbarium Internship Program at the Royal Botanical Garden, which has been administered by the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology and the Honors Tutorial College. 


Christina Dierkes is thegraduate assistant for the Office of Research Communications.  This article will appear in the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Perspectives magazine.

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Published: May 3, 2006 12:15:00 AM
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