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Appalachian awarded more than $2.5 million from NSF for 12-state biodiversity database project

BOONE—Professor Zack E. Murrell is leading a multi-state, $2.545 million project to create a digitized database of more than 3 million plant specimens from across the Southeast.

View larger imageBiology professor Zack Murrell shows examples of plant specimens stored in the herbarium in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology. The herbarium, a type of plant library, contains more than 27,000 plant specimens representing the flora of the Southern Appalachians. Murrell is leading a multi-state, $2.545 million project to create a digitized database of more than 3 million plant specimens housed in 106 herberia across the Southeast. (Photo by Marie Freeman)

Murrell, professor and assistant chairman in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology, will be the director of a four-year project designed to combine biodiversity informatics, computer science and data from regional herbaria.

The work is part of a $7.5 million nationwide effort coordinated by the iDigBio program based at the University of Florida and funded by the National Science Foundation Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections Program. This year’s three awards focus on the impacts of the rapid temporal and regional changes taking place in species diversity of North America’s arthropods and mollusks, the biodiversity changes in the southeastern U.S., and the impacts of invasive species in the Great Lakes.

The project developed by Murrell in coordination with biologists from across the Southeast is titled “Collaborative Research: The Key to the Cabinets: Building and Sustaining a Research Database for a Global Biodiversity Hotspot.”

Cabinets refer to metal cabinets that contain collections of dried plant material, affixed to paper and labeled with species and habitat information. Appalachian’s herbarium, also housed in metal cabinets, contains more than 27,000 plant specimens representing the flora of the Southern Appalachians, but unless you are on the university’s campus, it’s almost impossible to access the information contained on rare and common plants found in the region.

A total $1.5 million from the NSF grant will be distributed to 106 herbaria in 12 states that are members of the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC) and are part of the project. The funds will be used to purchase digital camera systems that researchers and students will use to capture images of specimens located in the herbaria.

Murrell said the southeastern U.S. is botanically rich, with areas of high global biodiversity in both the Appalachians and the coastal plain. Millions of plant specimens have been collected from the region during the past four centuries, and they reside in museums or herbaria at universities across the area.

The remainder of the grant, just over $1 million, will be used to hire a project manager who will be based at Appalachian and subcontract with five institutions to provide the technology expertise to build an information pipeline and create centralized data storage for the project.

Citizen scientists and others will be able to access the digital images and transcribe the specimens’ label information as well as add to the database.

Eventually, the images, geographic data and other information will become part of a master database accessible electronically to biologists, as well as conservationists, regional planners, land managers and communities to manage their natural resources in an ever-changing environment, Murrell said.

“Being able to take the information out of the cabinets into an electronic framework and then provide that to the public and ultimately back to the scientists offers us a chance to model the life sciences at a regional scale,” Murrell said.

“We will be able to look at an unprecedented scale and scope of plant specimens at a regional level, understand what the flora was like regionally over the past few hundred years and then use that information going forward for regional planning and understanding ecosystem services, conservation planning, including buffers and migration corridors, and developing a specimen-based understanding of our natural history,” Murrell said.

To generate a database of a potential 3 million specimens, the work can’t be done without the help of interested citizens, Murrell said.

“The cutting-edge part of the project, from my perspective, is interfacing the scientific community with the citizen scientists in a way that can drive productivity most effectively, while finding ways to keep citizen scientists fully engaged in the project,” he said.

“Scientists generally understand that specimens are valuable. We have places where development has destroyed forests and wild places, but we still have specimens from those places,” Murrell said. “These are actually unique, irreplaceable things. We want the public to gain an understanding of specimen value, by giving them an opportunity to work directly with the specimen images and the scientists to help build a robust regional database.”

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