Bringing Early Land Plant Collections Into the Third Millennium: A Conversion & Digitization Project Supported By The National Science Foundation

Collections are critical to scientific research: Collections are indispensable to areas of scientific research such as biodiversity studies, systematics, ecology, and conservation. The Botany Department at The Field Museum is re-housing, databasing and digitizing almost 200,000 bryophyte specimens (early land plants) from storage on sheets to enclosed packets, which due to their delicate nature, addresses the urgent concern over their long-term preservation. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation.  The first phase began in 2008 (See abstract). The second phase is due to start in April 2011 (See abstract).  The bryophyte collection at The Field Museum is globally important and is one of only a few remaining American institutions with an actively growing collection and research program.  Specifically, the project 1) ensures the long-term protection of bryophyte specimens; 2) enables the databasing, bar coding, and digitization of label data for the entire collection, and storage on the Museum's web accessible database; 3) consolidate all cryptogam collections into a single herbarium space making them more accessible for staff, students, and visitors; and 4) significantly improve efficiency for collections management.

What are bryophytes? Traditionally, “bryophytes” were thought to be a single lineage, or natural group, containing the mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. Contemporary studies have now well established that this group of plants comprises three independent lineages, i.e., mosses (Bryophyta), liverworts (Marchantiophyta), and hornworts (Anthercerophyta). Together, bryophytes are pivotal in our understanding of the origin and phylogeny of plants on land and form the se­cond lar­gest group of land plants with an estimated 20, 000 species. Bryophytes are considered an important component of the vegetation in many regions through­out the world and their ecological and environmental significance is well docu­men­ted, including application to climate change and monitoring of pollution. The importance of bryophytes in the regulation of ecosystems and the conservation of biodiversity is thus becoming increasingly acknowledged. The cryptogam collection, including algae, ferns, fungi (including lichens) and bryophytes at The Field Museum numbers 625,000 accessioned specimens (Collec­tions and Research Annual Report 2009) and is recognized internationally as a signifi­cant re­source for systematic and biodiversity studies. The bryophyte collection alone is estimated to consist of over 285,000 accessioned and unacces­sioned specimens.

Urgently addressing storage and preservation problems:

Historically at The Field Museum all cryptogams, including bryophytes, were mounted on paper sheets (see figure, left-hand side) in a manner similar to seed plants. This approach has serious disadvantages when applied to bryophytes, including damage to specimens when storing larger piles of collections, space limitations, and high mailing costs of loans. Encouraged by NSF, many of the actively growing cryptogamic herbaria have abandoned herbarium sheets and instead house new accessions exclusively in packets (see figure right-hand side). Space capacity is thereby vastly increased, and since the specimens are stored in drawers, delicate collections are better protected against damage.

In addition to re-housing the specimens in better containers, the project is capturing data from specimen labels, and databasing core fields for inclusion in an online, searchable database. This can be accessed at the following url: The project also successfully enabled the entire remodeling of the cryptogam herbarium, which was previously housed in five separate areas on two levels in the Botany department. The reorganization enabled all the cryptogam collec­tions to be in a single storage unit. Thus the project rearranged and remodeled 22 cabinet rows in the compactorized herbarium, which was previously vacated by the Paleobotany collection move to a new collection facility. This phase included the purchase of 2,000 light-weight steel drawers that were fitted into the existing cabinets. These currently hold the converted liverwort and lichen collections, and moss collections (currently on sheets). The remaining Cryptogam collections were rearranged to reflect a new sequence including the pterido­phyte and algae collections. The Macro- and microfungi collections were moved from the isolated fungal herbarium on a separate level, into the previous bryophyte/lichen cabi­nets. This value-added component provided a large new valuable class room space for the department and the Museum.

Historically  specimens were mounted on paper sheets stacked on each other causing serious concern for their long term preservation. Trays opened with re-packeted, bar coded and databased specimens in packets.          

Economic implications: Notwithstanding the urgency of the physical improvement of the collections, coupled with taking immediate advantage of the current framework and infrastructure in place, our project offers serious far reaching economic implications in an era of dramatically high unemployment and economic uncertainty. Our project has employed over 20 full-time or part-time staff throughout the tenure of the grant providing much needed support to students and professionals. We are adopting a similar strategy in the currently NSF funded project. Moreover, in a quote we received for the project, we noted the vendor - a small US private business, University Products, stated “As always we greatly appreciate the business you've provided us over the years. It is especially gratifying for a small business such as ours in this difficult economic climate“. As part of the project we have purchased over 150,000 custom made paper packets.

2000 steel trays were custom made by a US-owned steel manufacturer.

Education Outreach & Training: A critical value-added component is the strong outreach program in coordination with the Education Department and local universities, including a center for engagement of underrepresented students in science. This includes a new partnership with the Student Center for Science Engagement (SCSE) at North Eastern Illinois University (NEIU) which ensured the recruitment of diverse and well qualified candidates underrepresented in science. In addition to receiving training and exposure to world-class plant collection and learning skills in specimen curation, digitization and databasing, the students participated in selective activities in an existing Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site program as well as developing web content for the Encyclopedia of Life in weekly assignments. The project is serving as a model with the employment of over 20 personnel, including interns, throughout the tenure of the project providing exposure to a world class collection and specimen-based research, as well as personnel participating in numerous programs reaching biology and chemistry teachers and students from Chicago Public schools. Von Konrat also mentored four senior high students from Chicago public schools under a program sponsored by Motorola, gaining exposure to collections and being mentored by senior undergraduate students, adding to project personnel. The project is also contributing to to the Museum's Education Department Plants of the World Educator Guide by integrating content related to the digitized collection and participating in the Educator Open House, reaching over 300 Chicago-area educators.

Photo of the recently reconfigured cryptogam herbarium of the Botany Department, The Field Museum, with personnel (including high school and undergraduate interns, and collection assistants) working at stations remodeling bryophyte collections.

International Databasing Initiatives:  In addition to the physical improvement and databasing of the entire bryophyte collection, the digitization component of the project adds to the significance of the collections, making them available online to the scientific and broader community worldwide and contributing to international databasing projects. The project is an active contributor to international databasing initiatives such as the Catalogue of Life (Col), the International Plant Name Index (IPNI), TROPICOS, the Global Plants Initiative (GPI), the Global Biological Facility (GBIF), and the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL). The project has also provided nomenclatural data and specimen data to various herbaria working towards repatriation of data and the reduction of duplication of data entry elsewhere, as well as high profile NSF funded programs such as the ATOL: Liverwort Tree of Life project, the Moss Flora of Central America and the Bryophyte Flora of North America.