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ETSU’s Warden Herbarium joins specimen digitization project

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Nov 8, 2017 at 6:03 PM

East Tennessee State University biology professor Tim McDowell and ETSU undergraduate students have recently joined a National Science Foundation-supported project to photograph the 25,000 dried plant specimens held in the John C. Warden Herbarium for a database.

“With the digitization of the ETSU herbarium collections, we will usher the ETSU herbarium into the future, open our collections to researchers and the public and promote knowledge and awareness of our region’s rich plant diversity,” McDowell said.

The project is part of a statewide effort to digitize the specimen collections from the 14 herbaria across Tennessee. Digital images will be taken for more than 850,000 specimens, which will be made available to the public on the internet through a searchable database that includes information on each species.

McDowell said this will make the information more accessible now that the collection of specimens from Roan Mountain, Rocky Fork, Cherokee National Forest and other areas can be found with the click of a mouse.

“If you wanted to know where a plant was growing and you wanted to know where else it is collected from, you could go to the website, where you could get a list of all the plants collected in the southeast,” McDowell said of the digitization project.

On Saturday, a student-faculty team from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga installed a photographic imaging station and trained ETSU students and faculty on how to use the equipment. 

Over the next several months, McDowell said the collections at ETSU will be photographed, databased and added to the collaborative effort involving 13 states engaged in digitizing more than 15 million specimens from the Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections.

McDowell said the plants they’ve found in Northeast Tennessee and surrounding areas — such as certain species of wildflowers and orchids — are unique in comparison to other regions and other parts of Tennessee. The addition of the specimens at ETSU will help showcase the biodiversity of the state.

“We do have a lot of plants you wouldn’t find in the rest of the state,” McDowell said. “We have a lot of Appalachian plants that grow in the Blue Ridge region that they wouldn’t have in Middle or West Tennessee.”

In addition to teaching about current species, McDowell said these specimens can also teach people more about the evolution of these plants. By comparing current specimens to fossils at the Gray Fossil Site, for instance, biologists can gain a deeper understanding of micro and macroevolution.

“At the very least, it helps them determine the difference between the ancient plants they’re digging up there and the current, living material found here,” he said.

Members of the public are invited to participate in the project by viewing the specimens and transcribing information from the specimen label into the database at www.notesfromnature.org.

To view the Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections database, visit www.sernec.org.

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