The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s collection of plant specimens is housed in rows of tall, dusty, metal filing cabinets on the building’s upper floors. When researchers want to study one of the collection’s specimens, they have to request it through the mail, sight unseen, and wait to see if it’s what they need.

“Currently, we have to mail the specimens to people, and they can be damaged in the mail,” says collection manager Bonnie Isaac. “If we image our specimens, then they’re more available to researchers around the world.”

LISTEN: “The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History’s Plant Collection Is Heading Online”

Now, portions of the herbarium’s over 500,000 specimens will be scanned, digitized and posted online thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The museum is adding images of its specimens to a massive search engine, which already contains data and images of plants from the collections of hundreds of organizations across North America.

About one-third of the museum’s plants will be digitized with high-resolution photographs. Post-doctoral research fellow Mason Heberling said they’re focusing on species collected in Pennsylvania and neighboring mid-Atlantic states.

“There are handfuls of plants that we know were found in a particular region or particular habitat in Allegheny County or the Pittsburgh region that are no longer here,” Heberling says. “And then also, the flip that there’s new plants showing up that were introduced from Europe or East Asia, that were not here 100 years ago, and are now pretty much embedded in the landscape.”

Bonnie Isaac, collections manager, says green folders contain plants collected from Pennsylvania. Manila folders hold plants from other places in North America. Photo: Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA

In addition to accessibility, Heberling says digitization brings new research opportunities. Computers can analyze the vast library of images and spot patterns not immediately obvious to the human eye, such as how leaf size has changed through time.

“[That] would be very difficult to do with this number of specimens with an old school ruler and calipers,” Heberling says.

The plant collections that herbariums hold are valuable resources for both researchers and the public, Isaac says.

“Any field guide that people might use, that data were all basically gathered from herbarium specimens,” she says.

Digitization of the museum’s specimens will take about three years in total; the first of the museum’s images will be available online in August.

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