Getting the Most Out of Herbaria: The Environment

A major argument used for preserving and digitizing natural history collections is that they contain critical information useful for researchers attempting to understand climate change.  This idea is now so much a part of the herbarium communities’ thinking that I hesitate to mention it, but there are some interesting examples worth noting on how botanists are mining collections.  Phenological research on specimens have been going on for years and its success in documenting changes in flowering, fruiting, and other points in plant life cycles have bred more such work.  This has gotten to the point where digitization efforts have become more focused on carefully documenting the phenological status of plants in a rigorous and systematic way, so this information can be mined from databases.  The NSF is sponsoring a project of the California Herbarium Consortium to do just this, including training citizen scientists to identify phenological status and record it in the online specimen records (Yost et al., 2020).

However, there isn’t a clear cause and effect relationship between increasing temperature and phenology.  Some species seem more affected than others, and some show little effect, with many factors involved in these differences.  Also, phenological changes can lead to more than just a habitat too warm for a particular species.  For certain orchid species, flowering times have not changed, but the emergence their pollinators have been pushed earlier.  This means that the pollinators will not find the resources they need from these orchids, and when the flowers do bloom, the insects they rely on may no longer be around or may have moved on to other species.  It’s a complicated dynamic, which is why a variety of species in many different habitats need to be investigated.

One cause of climate change—carbon dioxide (CO2) increases in the atmosphere—can have effects on plant physiology and morphology.  Not surprisingly these include an impact on the apparatus for the process that uses the gas, namely photosynthesis.  Researchers in New Zealand measured stomatal density on leaves in specimens from their national herbarium.  Since stomata are the leaf structures that allow in CO2, their number indicates how much of the gas a leaf can absorb at one time.  Some material in the study dated back to Captain James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769-1790.  Since the specimens were so old and fragile, the botanists employed an indirect technique to examine the leaves.  After painting the leaves with gel that was allowed to harden, they gently removed the film, which had an impression of the stomata from the leaf surface.  Karaka tree leaves (Corynocarpus laevigatus) gave particularly good prints.  Fortunately, specimens of this species had been collected at several sites.  The researchers also counted stomata on Karaka leaves collected in the late 19th century, as well as modern specimens and fresh material.  There was little difference in stomata density between the 18th and 19th century, but the modern-day leaves had about 50% fewer pores, suggesting that increased CO2 concentrations in the air meant that the plant could absorb the same amount of gas while expending less energy creating these structures.  I went into this example in some detail to show the thinking and work involved in any one study to provide a single piece of information about the climate change puzzle.

While fungi are not technically plants, historically they have been treated as such, remain in many herbarium collections, and are studied by those who call themselves botanists.  Researchers at the University of Arizona have created a collection of 7,000 specimens of endophytic and endolichenic fungi, that is, those that live inside the cells of healthy plants and lichens respectively.  This team emphasizes that they are dealing with healthy organisms, since the fungi are beneficial rather than harmful to their hosts.  These fungi are receiving a great deal of attention because of their importance in moving nutrients between plants and the environment.  What makes this particular collection significant is that it is not historical.  It was created in the digital age, with all the information entered directly into a database with extensive metadata on location and host, as well as genetic sequencing data, namely DNA barcodes.  The latter provide a way to identify many fungi that are otherwise difficult to distinguish from one another.  The organisms were collected from a variety of plant and lichen hosts at 50 locations throughout Arizona, representing a range of habitats.   Because the resulting database is so sophisticated, researchers were able to analyze the data and “highlight the relevance of biogeography, climate, hosts, and geographic separation in endophyte community composition” (Huang et al., 2018, p. 47).

Another Arizona study was done by a student at Arizona State University who collected weedy plants from alleyways in Tempe, Arizona.  He used the SEINet database of southwestern plant specimens to attempt tracking the first occurrence of these weeds in the area.  He collected specimens from 83 species, but was only able to trace a portion of these back to early introduction.  However, the study serves as a baseline for future work on urban weeds, a topic gaining more attention.  A small but useful study done in Mexico showed that the measure of weediness among a group of related species was about the same when based on field observations versus herbarium specimens.  They employed a recognized scale of synanthropy, that is, the “degree to which a species associates with human-caused disturbance” (Hanan-A et al., 2016, p. 1).  They found that the index generated comparable weediness ratios from field observations and herbarium specimens, indicating that specimens could be used to measure weediness.


Hanan-A., A. M., Vibrans, H., Cacho, N. I., Villaseñor, J. L., Ortiz, E., & Gómez-G., V. A. (2016). Use of herbarium data to evaluate weediness in five congeners. Annals of Botany Plants, 8.

Huang, Y.-L., Bowman, E. A., Massimo, N. C., Garber, N. P., U’Ren, J. M., Sandberg, D. C., & Arnold, A. E. (2018). Using collections data to infer biogeographic, environmental, and host structure in communities of endophytic fungi. Mycologia, 110(1), 47–62.

Yost, J. al. (2020). The California Phenological Collections Network: Using digital images to investigate phenological change in a biodiversity hotspot. Madroño, 66(4), 130–141.

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