If you are a botanist past the undergrad level, chances are that you have used herbarium data. Pretty much every botanical experiment that relies on wild populations starts with searching some database for GPS locations. Time is precious and we are all busy people. We don’t have the luxury of being a Banks or a Brown, strolling the landscape and sampling what we find interesting. These days the limited scientific funding available has made it imperative that we get out there, find our species of interest, sample it like crazy and quickly get back to the lab. This not only reduces the cost of field work but it means we can get to the fun part of generating other forms of data for analysis.
Before heading into the field I spend hours searching databases like the Atlas of Living Australia (http://www.ala.org.au/) for my target species, singling out recent records of confirmed sightings with reliable GPS locations. This list is then carefully broken up into a series of methodically planned field trips – how much driving can I do in one day, how much time will I need at each site, what is the likelihood that the population is still there, where will I stay, will I need to reactivate silica? These are all important questions that I mildly obsess over for at least a good 48 hours.
The value of having such databases available to researchers is, well, invaluable. I’m pretty sure that anyone who works on wild populations, be they plants, insect or mammals, will agree that these sources of information save us considerable time, sweat and sometimes tears. But, given the ease with which most of us can access this information, how many of you have actually contributed to these databases? I am guessing not nearly as many as have used them.
My research started in orchid systematics. Orchids are wonderful, beautiful things… in theory. In practice they can be a nightmare. They are small, hard to find, hard to identify, they hybridise, they hide underground for years on end… my gripes go on. It was during this research though that I met Dr Marco Duretto (now at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney). Marco instilled in me a great respect for herbaria and the value in lodging specimens and site information. Let’s face it, how many people really read supplementary information to find out where someone collected samples from?
I am currently immersed in the time consuming process of preparing voucher specimens for the eucalypt diversification study – and I can tell you that there are moments that I want to poke myself in the eyes. To make a truly useful herbarium record we need to record information about the site (location, altitude, geology, topography, aspect, etc.), the species of interest (abundance, identification, description of the species), and the associated vegetation (community type, species present, percent cover, etc.). Then we need collect a sample, preferably with some reproductive structures, so that it can be used as a voucher, essentially validating our identification. If you are really dedicated you will also take photos, because a picture is a thousand words, right?
The point is that as I sit for hours each day labouring over this monotonous data entry and cursing every herbarium in existence, I need to remind myself that I could not have achieved the level of sampling I have, as easily as I have, if it weren’t for people doing exactly this. Not only will other researchers be able to verify my identifications, but they will also be able to look up my records the next time they might need to sample a Pterostylis or box eucalypt. So as much as we moan about it, perhaps we should all be thinking a little more altruistically and contributing our precious information to databases and herbaria around the world. After all, you never know when you are going to need someone else’s records to finish your sample collection.