Students Digitize HSU Herbarium in 5,000 Hour Marathon

A dozen Humboldt State undergraduates have completed a three-year, $125,000 National Science Foundation project creating a vast database of nearly 73,000 specimens in HSU's Vascular Plant Herbarium.

Collectively, the 12 students put in 5,039 hours of what Collections Manager Robin Bencie calls the tedious labor of entering data from thousands of herbarium specimen labels into a comprehensive digital format.

No one of the 12 worked the entire life of the project, but one student, Daniel Sherfey, posted nearly 1,200 hours in his two years of effort.

“The range for other students in the total number of hours ran from 114 to 657,” said Bencie, who nicknamed the group of botany, biology, wildlife and Spanish majors the Database Team.

The digitization links Humboldt State’s Herbarium, founded in 1960 and now the largest in the California State University system, with counterparts statewide.

Records of the vascular herbarium’s California specimens are uploaded to the Consortium of California Herbaria website, administered by Berkeley.

“Because southwest Oregon is considered part of our bioregion, these specimens were included in the NSF grant as well,” Bencie said. “We will be sending these Oregon records to the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria. The HSU Herbarium has another 27,000 additional specimens from other western states and the U.S. that have not yet been added to the database.”

Concurrent with the completion of the database project, the herbarium recently marked the accession of its 100,000th specimen.

Bencie describes what the made the digitization so labor intensive.

“Our herbarium specimens are dried, pressed plants mounted on acid-free herbarium paper. Each specimen has a permanent label that notes the plant’s name, lots of information on where the plant was collected (e.g., county, geographical, topographical, habitat, elevation, soil type), who collected it and the date the specimen was collected. Students were assigned different plant families, and I would generate a list for them of all the species within a particular family that needed to be entered in the database. A student would find these species folders, and then enter the label information for all of our California and southwest Oregon specimens for a given species. A different student would proof the original data entries and then re-file the specimens.”

Bencie and Herbarium Director Dr. Michael Mesler submitted their grant request to the NSF in June 2008, and the agency’s Biological Resources and Collections Division authorized $125,000 on a three-year timetable.

Concurrently, funding for the Herbarium’s Floristics Project of the Trinity Summit area came from Lisa Hoover, forest botanist at Six Rivers National Forest.

“To date she has given us $6,100 for inventory and specimen collecting for the 2010 and 2011 seasons,” Bencie said. “She will be giving us additional monies for a third season for summer 2012. This is the project in which we ‘followed in the footsteps of J.P. Tracy,’ a well-known collector in northern California from the early 1900’s to the 1940’s.”

Bencie said students and other users will find the new database a versatile resource for many different types of projects and all kinds of science majors. Researchers will be able to pinpoint which species grow in specific locations and which plants they should expect to find in differing habitats and elevation zones. They will be able to establish which species commonly grow together (plant associates) and determine which species remain or disappear in areas of disturbance, such as fire locales.

In addition, scientists and students will be able to:

  • ascertain the best places for a field study site and which areas have not been thoroughly investigated floristically
  • find locations for uncommon plant species or habitat types
  • track changes in plant distribution , both natives and weeds
  • learn the best time in the season to collect flowers, fruits, seeds, or propagation material from different parts of the state or different elevations;
  • determine if there is a site near their restoration area where they can obtain seeds or transplants.