EKU Plays Key Role in NSF-Funded Initiative to Digitize Biodiversity Hotspot

Ruhfel in Herbarium photo

Eastern Kentucky University is playing a key role in a National Science Foundation-funded effort to digitize collections that chronicle a “global hotspot of plant diversity in the southeastern United States.”

The EKU herbarium, which houses Kentucky’s largest collection of dried plant specimens, received $90,648 from the NSF to direct the Commonwealth’s part of a four-year, 13-state initiative. The effort will develop an imaged and databased set of more than 3 million southeastern U.S. specimens from 107 herbaria in the region.

In all, the NSF awarded six grants totaling approximately $7.5 million to digitize biodiversity collections, a nationwide effort coordinated by the iDigBio program based at the University of Florida. EKU has joined dozens of other southeastern universities in a Thematic Collections Network project entitled “The Key to the Cabinets: Building and Sustaining a Research Database for a Global Biodiversity Hotspot.”

The digitization will make the collections at EKU and its partner institutions instantly accessible to anyone with Internet access.

“It will create a gigantic, publicly available dataset,” said Dr. Brad Ruhfel, curator of the EKU Herbarium. “If someone from another state or country is interested in a plant species that grows in Kentucky, now they can simply go online and see not only what specimens we have in our collection, but in all collections across the Southeast.”

The southeastern U.S. is “one of the most floristically diverse regions in North America,” Ruhfel said, adding that the southern Appalachian Mountains region, well represented in EKU’s collection, is especially rich in biodiversity.

Once completed, the southeastern U.S. dataset will facilitate large-scale research in a region that has been a biodiversity hotspot for 100 million years, Ruhfel said, as well as advance exploration of the effects of climate change, speed the discovery of vulnerable species and enhance the ability of land managers to conserve regional biodiversity.

Another key aspect of the project, Ruhfel said, is the application of innovative methods to engage citizen scientists to assist with data collection. “This portion of the project will give the public opportunities to be a part of the scientific process and contribute to our understanding of global biodiversity.”

The digitized data generated from these NSF grants will be publicly available through iDigBio’s specimen portal (idigbio.org/portal). “There are specimens that have been around for 100-200 years, but they are in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, and it’s hard to know where everything is and how to get the data you need,” iDigBio Director Larry Page said. “If it’s online, you can touch a button and find in seconds what might have taken you a lifetime to know was there.”

EKU graduate and undergraduate students will acquire “next-generation museum skills” as they assist Ruhfel with the imaging and database work in the University’s herbarium. 

Eastern will also be responsible for digitizing Berea College’s collection; Morehead State University, Murray State University and Northern Kentucky University will also participate in the project. Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is the lead principal investigator for the southeastern U.S. project.

The EKU Herbarium, located in Room 170 of the Memorial Science Building, was founded in 1974. Under the leadership of Foundation Professor and Curator Dr. Ron Jones since 1981, the Herbarium has grown to encompass approximately 77,000 specimens, the second largest collection in the Kentucky-Tennessee region, surpassed only by the University of Tennessee. Jones, who’s retiring this year, is the author of two groundbreaking volumes, “Plant Life of Kentucky” and “Woody Plants of Kentucky and Tennessee.”

The EKU herbarium houses important sets of specimens from a number of natural areas in the state, including EKU-owned Lilley Cornett Woods and Maywoods Environmental and Educational Laboratory, as well as Blanton Forest, Breaks Interstate Park, Cumberland Plateau wetlands, Floracliff, the Green River headwater regions, Pine Mountain, and Rock Creek Research Natural Area.

A modern, multi-room complex has been planned for the EKU Herbarium in the New Science Building, Phase 2, which is to be completed by late 2017. Ruhfel said the new facility will include exhibits and outreach projects for the University and community.

Published on August 26, 2014