Deep South plants to go digital with help of AU College of Sciences and Mathematics

Deep South plants
Deep South plants

AUBURN – Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics is part of a project to create high-resolution digital images of 100, 000 plant specimens found in the East Gulf Coastal Plain that will be accessible to scientists and students everywhere via the World Wide Web.

AU and its project partners, Florida State University, Troy University, the University of South Alabama and the University of Southern Mississippi, kicked off the Deep South Plant Specimen Imaging Project this spring with a two-year, $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The East Gulf Coastal Plain region stretches across Alabama from the Florida Panhandle to the Mississippi River and about 175 miles inland. It is home to about 3,000 native plant species, 125 of which are endemic to the deep south and found nowhere else on earth.

According to Leslie Goertzen, assistant professor of biological sciences at AU and principal investigator for the project, the East Gulf Coastal Plain region is one of the nation’s hotspots for biodiversity and species endangerment, and yet is one of the least documented. Goertzen said that many of the counties in our eco-region are in the 95th percentile of all U.S. counties when ranked by the number of threatened and endangered species.

When complete, the Deep South Plant Specimen Imaging Project will provide the most comprehensive and user-friendly picture available to date of plant distribution and variation across the region.

The John D. Freeman Herbarium, part of AU’s Natural History Museum and Learning Center in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, houses a collection of 70,000 plant specimens that will play a leading role in the plant imaging project. Under Goertzen’s direction, the AU team has begun the move toward digital transformation by entering label information for the herbarium’s specimens into a database.

One hundred thousand annotated digital recordings of plant specimens from across the eco-region will be produced by the summer of 2008. The Deep South Plant Specimen Imaging Project will then link these images to biodiversity sites, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility portal, to ensure broad access. It will also deposit them into MorphBank, a web repository of flora and fauna images paired with searchable digital annotations by expert biologists.

In addition to a making a vast quantity of information available for researchers, DSPSIP will create a lesson package to introduce those at the middle- and high-school levels to East Gulf Coastal Plain plant life and the process and value of scientific specimen collection.

Goertzen said that AU’s involvement in this project is its first foray into “biodiversity informatics,” a term coined to describe an better method of producing, organizing, analyzing and presenting information to reveal patterns of diversity in organisms across time and space.

For information about the Freeman Herbarium, go to http://www.auburn.edu/herbarium/.

(Contributed by Carol Nelson.)