Academy of Sciences digitizing more than 1 million plant specimens

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Saturday, May 20, 2023
Academy of Sciences digitizing 1 million+ plant specimens
The California Academy of Sciences is launching a program to digitize their plant collection to make sure the botanical data survives for the future.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- At the California Academy of Sciences, preserving samples of the world's plants and flowers is a painstaking business. But just like stuffing family photo albums, if you do it long enough, you're going to fill up a lot of shelf space. Just ask botany curator Sarah Jacobs, Ph.D.

"You have to come in here and literally rifle through," Jacobs says as she opens one door in a seemingly never ending walkway of sliding file cabinets.

Dr. Jacobs oversees more than two million specimens, filling hundreds of shelves and file folders and spanning centuries. Some collected by the likes of former curator Alice Eastwood, who's credited with saving them after the 1906 earthquake.

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"She started in the late 1800s, here at the academy, and worked all the way up to her 90s. So we're the sixth largest herbarium in North America and the largest herbarium west of the Rockies," Jacobs says.

And to make sure the botanical data survives for centuries to come, the academy is now launching an accelerated program to digitize the collection. First, they turned to a Dutch company, which brought in a high-speed, conveyor-belt driven camera system. With 10 times the speed of older hand-fed systems, it's imaging thousands of specimens a day.

"A year from now. We're hoping to have about a million specimens imaged. And in about two years or so we're hoping to have those fully transcribed and geo referenced," she adds.

But look closely at some of specimens and you'll see the kind of elegant handwriting that AI and digital systems can have trouble deciphering. Enter Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., co-director of Community Science. She says the Academy is turning to the public for help. Later this summer, citizen scientists will be able to log onto an open database, and help transcribe the information into a digital format.

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"We will be taking the label data along with the beautiful picture of the press plant. And we'll be asking people to help us fill in things like the locality, like what does it say? Where does it say this was found? Can you read this better than the computer? And can you type it in? And then by, you know, I hopefully millions of people helping us with that task will be able to complete the digitization of those specimens." Johnson explains.

It's a high tech army that would likely have made devoted collectors like Alice Eastwood proud. And the academy team believes that making the historical data available in a digital format, could help researchers better understand the biodiversity in California and the West. And perhaps provide vital clues in the age of climate change.

"I think we have an opportunity to begin to try to understand how things might change in the future. With a changing climate and in a changing environment. Having an idea of how plants might react, how speciation may or may not proceed in the face of those changes, can all give us some insight into sort of what to expect," Sarah Jacobs believes.

A botanical roadmap, more than a century in the making. We'll be following the progress and will update you with a link as soon the labeling project is ready to go.

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