Illinois Natural History Survey mycologist Andrew Miller and colleagues from 25 institutions across the U.S. received a $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to image and digitize associated metadata for close to 1.2 million lichen and bryophyte specimens housed in their collections. Among the extensive holdings of the INHS Herbarium are more than 35,000 bryophyte specimens and more than 23,000 lichens from around the world.
The project, Building a Global Consortium of Bryophytes and Lichens: Keystones of Cryptobiotic Communities (GLOBAL), will enable researchers from around the world to access specimen metadata and photos of the plants.
“Natural history collections are a physical record of our planet's biodiversity across space and time,” said Jessica Budke, lead principal investigator of the project and director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Herbarium. “These specimens not only serve as records of the past, but they are a critical resource for our future. They help us to answer important questions surrounding invasive species, conservation biology, and help us to describe species that are new to science.”
Lichens and bryophytes are hosts to cryptobiotic communities that play a critical role in stabilizing soil, preventing erosion, absorbing rainfall, and providing nutrients for the growing plants around them. This hidden life creates a critical miniature forest that serves as an important habitat for tiny animals and forms a “living skin” found throughout the world, from canyon deserts to polar icecaps.
“These collections provide invaluable evidence about our past and about how things change over time. By imaging and digitizing these specimens, we’re unlocking an incredible biodiversity resource and making it broadly accessible to scientists, and to the public,” said Miller.
Researchers with the project will partner with Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal, to develop an online platform for citizen scientists to make observations on character traits that can improve the information and fill in some of the gaps not covered by the scientific labeling process.
These integrated data will form a critical resource for evolutionary and ecological studies that researchers hope lead to a deeper understanding of the role bryophytes and lichens play in carbon and nitrogen cycling, the evolution of biodiversity, and more.
In addition to collecting information about the specimen, undergraduate students at the partner institutions will have an opportunity to receive funding for professional training in image capture and processing, digitization, and collections management. Researchers will leverage local resources to promote underrepresented students in STEM fields and integrate a public outreach component to K-12 science classes and other science youth groups.
“This project represents a collaborative effort of 25 major research institutions,” Budke said. “It will push the field of organismal biology forward by leaps and bounds, enabling us to tackle large-scale biology questions that none of us could answer alone.”
For more information about the INHS Herbarium and its role in this project, contact Andy Miller, firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 244-0439