The National Science Foundation’s third round of grants to advance the digitization of biodiversity collections includes funding for the U-M Herbarium to digitize their macroalgae collections.

According to the NSF, the funding will shed light on “dark data” that is inaccessible to most biologists, policymakers and the general public. The projects will integrate organismal, vocal, fossil, and ecological information that is often obscured in varied natural history collections, making accessing the information a difficult task. 

Herbarium researchers will create digital images of entire specimens, database collection information, and obtain geographic coordinates of collection locality for about 60,000 of their macroalgae collections. In addition, they will digitize 18,500 macroalgal collections from four other herbaria (Butler University, Michigan State University, Youngstown State University, and Miami University).

This new macrolgae project is one of four Thematic Collections Networks projects in which the Herbarium is involved. The ongoing digitization projects are focused on grasses, sedges, lichens and bryophytes, and macrofungi.

Herbarium Associate Curator and EEB professor Christopher Dick,the principal investigator, will receive $165,604 for four years starting August 1, 2013. Professor and Curator Emeritus of Algae Michael Wynne is senior personnel on the project.

According to the proposal abstract, this award will support investigators from a consortium of 50 herbaria at universities, botanical gardens, and natural history museums across the U.S. to digitize their collections of macroalgae. When they have finished, high resolution images and information about when and where each specimen was collected will be openly accessible for more than a million specimens through the consortium's web portal and the iDigBio web resource. 

“Macroalgae are the foundation of marine, estuarine and freshwater benthic ecosystems providing food, substrata and protection for a myriad of other aquatic organisms,” said Dick. “Many macroalgal species are sensitive to environmental change. The data provided through the portal will allow researchers and the public at large determine how macroalgal biodiversity and our aquatic ecosystems have changed over the past 150 years as a result of climate change, bioinvasions, and a wide range of human activity.” 

A number of macroalgal species, including kelp, nori, and others are grown extensively via aquaculture or harvested from the wild for human food and for extraction of colloids used in cosmetics, food products, and pharmaceuticals. The consortium's web portal will provide opportunities for the public to learn about the economic and ecological importance of macroalgae. Tools will be provided for citizen scientists to contribute to the project by helping transcribe some of the ancillary details from specimen labels into the database. Interactive exhibits and educational modules will be developed by the education departments of the museums in the consortium where hundreds of thousands of visitors will experience them each year. The project will also provide integrative training in collections and informatics research for undergraduate and graduate students through participation in the digitization effort and through internships at one of the museums. 

This award is made as part of the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program.

"The collections being digitized are unprecedented in their worth to research and education and hold huge potential for future development and integration with other biological data from genomes to phenomes," said John Wingfield, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences.

For more information regarding this project see the NSF press release