The National Science Foundation has awarded six grants totaling some $7.5 million to digitize biodiversity collections, a nationwide effort coordinated by the iDigBio program based at the University of Florida. Two of the grants involve collaborators in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, working at the Museum of Zoology and the Herbarium.

Richard Rabeler, associate research scientist at the U-M Herbarium, and Thomas Duda, associate professor of EEB, were awarded a three-year grant of close to $430,000 for “(TCN) collaborative: documenting the occurrence through space and time of aquatic non-indigenous fish, mollusks, algae, and plants threatening North America's Great Lakes.” TCN stands for Thematic Collections Network. 

"The increased public awareness of invasive species (e.g, zebra mussel, water milfoil) creates an excellent opportunity to educate the public about the role that museum collections play in documenting the appearance and spread of these organisms over time," said Rabeler. “In addition, receiving funding for the Great Lakes Invasives TCN is personally rewarding since I have been involved in several attempts to fund a network of herbaria in the Great Lakes region since data sharing among collections was proposed at a 2004 workshop.”

According to their abstract, one of the greatest threats to the health of North America's Great Lakes is invasion by exotic species, several of which already have had catastrophic impacts on property values, the fisheries, shipping, and tourism industries, and continue to threaten the survival of native species and wetland ecosystems. Additional species have been placed on watch lists because of their potential to become aquatic invasives. This project will create a network of herbaria and zoology museums from among the Great Lakes states to better document the occurrence of these species in space and time by imaging and providing online access to the information on the specimens of the critical organisms.

More than 25 institutions from seven states and Canada will digitize 1.73 million historical specimens representing 2,550 species of exotic fish, clams, snails, mussels, algae, plants, and their look-alikes documented to occur in the Great Lakes Basin. It is one of the first efforts to digitize liquid preserved specimens and to integrate cross-kingdom taxa and these methods could become national standards for cross taxon digitization.

Rabeler and Duda are working with Dr. Kenneth Cameron, University of Wisconsin-Madison, principal investigator, and collaborators at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Field Museum of Natural History; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Ohio State University; Morton Arboretum; and the New York Botanical Garden.

Read more about the award on NSF’s website.

Cory Ball (EEB junior) is taking images of freshwater mussels (Lasmigona spp.).Professor and EEB Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil and Taehwan Lee, Mollusk Division collection coordinator and assistant research scientist at the U-M Museum of Zoology, were awarded just over $250,000 for “(TCN) InvertEBase: reaching back to see the future: species-rich invertebrate faunas document causes and consequences of biodiversity shifts.”

The rapid biodiversity change in North America has significant effects on essential ecosystem services, from impact on soil health and nutrient cycling, to agriculture, forestry and water quality, states their abstract. Exploding populations of invasive species threaten fresh water and terrestrial habitats and potentially impact the natural resources of the nation. Easy access to robust, expertly vetted baseline data for species occurrences, abundances, and distribution ranges, and monitoring how these parameters have changed through time, will facilitate the protection of the nation's natural resources, and vastly improve the capacity for effective restoration, land management planning and conservation management.

The goal of this four-year collaborative project is the rapid digitization of more than two million specimens and their locality data from ten arthropod and mollusk collections housed at seven major U.S. museums. The digitized data generated from the awards will be publicly available through iDigBio’s specimen portal, which currently contains more than 20 million specimen records and over three million media records.

Lee and Ó Foighil are working with Dr. Petra Sierwald, Field Museum of Natural History, principal investigator, and collaborators at the Field Museum of Natural History; Auburn University; Pennsylvania State University - University Park; Delaware Museum of Natural History; Harvard University; and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Read more on NSF’s website.

“The invertebrate collections are huge, with many millions of specimens and a much greater number of species than the vertebrate collections,” said Ó Foighil. “This is why they have lagged behind the fully networked vertebrate collections (birds, fishes, etc.). This grant will expedite the process of getting the millions of mollusks and invertebrates digitized.”

The Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) Program has now made 126 grants during the four years the program has been in existence. In a tie with New York, the state of Michigan has now received eight grants; only the states of Illinois and Massachusetts received more awards (nine each). U-M is tied with Harvard University for the most grants awarded to a single institution at six each.

Image above: Cory Ball (EEB junior) is taking images of freshwater mussels (Lasmigona spp.). Image credit: Taehwan Lee. 

University of Florida press release

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