A Library of Plants
The herbarium has gone from being an enclave of natural history specialists to one of the most diverse interdisciplinary research spaces on campus.
Biology majors use the specimens to investigate microbiomes, anthropology students study ancient foodways, art students use the specimens as models, and even the Disease and Culture: History of Western Medicine class came to the herbarium for an assignment last semester.
Traditionally, herbarium collection data was not easily accessible to those who were not familiar with the cataloging system, but Director David Tank wanted to change this.
“In 2009, I started working on a grant with the University of Washington and two other universities to greatly expand the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria,” said Tank. “The result of this is that people can access samples from 40 different herbaria in the Pacific Northwest that have also been imaging collections as part of our project. You can now download high-resolution images and associated data of the specific species you are looking for instead of having the entire collection of that species shipped to you and then having to wade through it all to find what you want.”
The Herbarium, previously split between two different locations, recently relocated to the Mines Building. With the extra space, Tank and his team have not only consolidated the specimens under one roof, they also brought 20,000 specimens out of storage and plan to add them to the collection. “After this, our next push is to bring the Paleo collection here and get them digitized and curated as well,” said Tank.
Students and professors are not the only ones who benefit from the digitization of the collections. Land management agencies from the United States Forest Service to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game can now access the Herbarium’s thousands of specimens for research, verification, and location. Public and private entities can draw up maps, find plant lists, and learn which habitats support specific plants.
“I’ve worked in herbaria my entire academic career,” said Tank, “and watching the way that digitizing the collections has opened them up to other academic disciplines and agencies is immensely rewarding.”
Herbarium Inspires Student Research
The meadow-rues (Thalictrum), flowering plants that are common in the Pacific Northwest, are pollinated by either wind or insects, depending on if it is distinctly male/female or if it is hermaphrodite.
“We were mainly looking at the reproductive parts of the plant to see if we could find morphological and genetic patterns that indicated if the plant was wind-pollinated or insect-pollinated,” said biology major Alice Cassel.
This finding was then-junior Cassel’s first research project at the University of Idaho.
“The Herbarium had a large number of samples for us to look at,” said Cassel. These samples were crucial to the research because according to Cassel, “The genus is very diverse and found all over the world. So, it wasn’t feasible to grow fresh specimens for study.”
This work with the U of I Herbarium inspired Cassel to study ecosystems. There are many researchers who look into how species and ecosystems have diverged from another, says Cassel. But she noticed that while there is a lot of focus on the plants, no one was looking at the microbes present in the soil.
Cassel is now working within a larger group that is examining divergence in Pacific Northwest forest ecosystems.
“I am looking at the soil,” she says. “I want to see what is there and if we can predict, say, a certain type of plant or snail being there because there are specific microbes present. But I wouldn’t have even thought of this option if I hadn’t already worked on species divergence in the Herbarium.”
Plants Through Time
A record of actual specimens is invaluable. But it isn’t the only way plant history can be stored. Plant fossils are an important piece that can’t be overlooked. Bill Rember, University of Idaho alumnus (Ph.D. Geology 1991) and Affiliate Professor of Geological Sciences, has been unearthing fossils in the Columbia River Basin for decades. He has donated over 10,000 specimens of plant fossils to the University of Idaho Stillinger Herbarium.
There are so many unique plant fossils housed as part of the Herbarium that academics, students, and fossil enthusiasts travel from all over the world to visit the collection, which is known for the unusually high quality of its specimens.
“There has been a new thrust of research concerning the mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum,” says Rember, “and the Clarkia fossil bed where I get quite a few of my specimens sits right on the apex.”
According to Rember, until recently, scientists believed that the Clarkia bed was formed 15-15.5 million years ago. However, they have recently updated its age to 16 million years. “This is really important,” says Rember, “because the fossils being found there, warm-climate plants like magnolia and bald cypress, indicate that the world was warmer during that time than previously thought.”
Tank plans to digitize the fossils along with the other collections. This will make these rare specimens readily available to anyone who wants to study them.
It also gives Rember peace of mind when he thinks of the collection he has spent decades building. “It is under the protection of the Herbarium now,” he says, “so when I’m gone, I know it will be protected and be there for anyone who wants to study it.”
By Christi Stone College of Science