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California Academy of Sciences digitizes over a million plant specimens

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — At the California Academy of Sciences, preserving samples of the world’s plants and flowers is a laborious undertaking. But just like filling family photo albums, if you do it long enough, you’ll fill up a lot of shelf space. Just ask curator of botany Sarah Jacobs, Ph.D.

“You have to come in here and literally poke around,” Jacobs says as he opens a door into a seemingly endless walkway of sliding filing cabinets.

Dr. Jacobs oversees over two million specimens, filling hundreds of shelves and files and spanning centuries. Some were collected by people like former curator Alice Eastwood, who is credited with saving them after the 1906 earthquake.

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“It started in the late 1800s here at the academy and worked until she was 90. So we’re the sixth largest herbarium in North America and the largest herbarium west of the Rockies. “, says Jacobs.

And to ensure the botanical data survives for centuries, the academy is now launching an accelerated program to digitize the collection. First, they turned to a Dutch company, which brought a high-speed camera system driven by a treadmill. With 10 times the speed of older hand-fed systems, it analyzes thousands of samples per day.

“In a year. We hope to have about a million specimens imaged. And in about two years we hope to have them fully transcribed and georeferenced,” she adds.

But look closely at some specimens and you’ll see the kind of elegant writing that AI and digital systems can struggle to decipher. Enter Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., co-director of Community Science. She says the Academy is looking to the public for help. Later this summer, citizen scientists will be able to connect to an open database and help transcribe the information into a digital format.

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“We’ll take the data from the label with the nice photo of the press factory. And we’ll ask people to help us fill in things like locality, like what does it say? Where is- what it says it’s been found? you read better than the computer? and can you type it? And then, you know, I hope the millions of people helping us with this will be able to complete digitizing these specimens. Johnson explains.

It’s a high-tech army that would probably have made dedicated collectors like Alice Eastwood proud. And the academy team thinks making the historical data available in a digital format could help researchers better understand biodiversity in California and the West. And perhaps provide vital clues in the age of climate change.

“I think we have an opportunity to start trying to figure out how things might change in the future. With a changing climate and in a changing environment. To get an idea of ​​how plants might react, how speciation might unfold in the face of these changes, can all give us an idea of ​​what to expect,” says Sarah Jacobs.

A botanical roadmap, more than a century in the making. We will follow the progress and update you with a link as soon as the labeling project is ready.

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