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The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History's Plant Collection Is Heading Online

Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Two of the museum’s specimens, which are preserved by pressing and heating the plants to remove moisture before gluing to archival paper. The one on the left dates from 1888.";

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.

Credit Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Isaac says green folders contain plants collected from Pennsylvania. Manila folders hold plants from other places in North America.

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

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.

Credit Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Quick Weed is abundant in urban environments and was once called Pittsburgh weed. Collected in 1869, this is one of the earliest specimens of the species in North America.

“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 said. “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.”

In addition to accessibility, Heberling said 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 said.

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

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

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.

Jakob Lazzaro is an intern at WESA, covering all sorts of things as a general assignment reporter. He studies journalism and history at Northwestern University and previously worked at his hometown alt-weekly – the Charleston City Paper in Charleston, South Carolina.