Herbaria awarded $4.7 million to mobilize digital collections of Asian plant biodiversity

September 15, 2021
Charles Davis

Charles Davis, OEB Professor and Curator of Vascular Plants at Harvard University Herbaria, has been awarded $4.7 million from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections Grant for his team’s collaborative project "Bringing Asia to digital life: mobilizing underrepresented Asian herbarium collections in the US to propel biodiversity discovery.”

Asia is the largest continent on Earth, and includes the world’s tallest mountains, lowest landscapes, and habitats ranging from arctic tundra to tropical rainforests and mangroves to deserts. The plants of this region are incredibly diverse in their identities and functions. More than one-third of the world’s 350,000 plant species grow in Asia and include tiny alpine cushion plants, medicinal herbs, ancient crops, and some of the planet’s tallest rainforest trees. Despite its vast area and astonishing species and habitat diversity, Asia remains woefully underrepresented in U.S. and international herbarium digitized collections, which greatly impedes essential biodiversity research.

Gentiana hexaphylla in Himalaya-Hengduan Region. Credit: David BouffordThe All Asia Thematic Collections Network (TCN) includes 25 large and small consortium institutions in the U.S. that will work to newly digitize three million plant specimens in U.S. herbaria and combine these with data in Asia and Europe to mobilize 15 million specimens of Asian plants. The project will focus especially on specimens from the unique and critically endangered biodiversity hotspots of Southeast Asia and the Himalaya-Hengduan regions, which host spectacular diversity in rainforest and alpine biomes respectively. These mobilized digital data will accelerate research to conserve endangered plant species and understand the interacting effects of evolution and global environmental change on plant biodiversity.

The Harvard University Herbaria – the world’s largest university herbarium – will be the lead institution, represented by PI Professor Davis and co-PI Jonathan Kennedy, Director of Biodiversity Informatics, Harvard University Herbaria. The project will apply state-of-the-art informatics tools and high throughput digitization methods to efficiently and affordably digitize an unprecedented number of herbarium collections. This effort will connect and build long-lasting relationships among 25 consortium institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Professor Davis’s research is inherently collections oriented. His work takes a distinctly phylogenetic approach to address a variety of questions ranging from plant classification to biogeography to molecular evolution. Increasingly, he is exploring ecologically-themed topics related to plants and global change and is especially interested in the use of digital herbarium records and applications in computer sciences to leverage these resources.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled that this project is funded and underway. The digitization of natural history collections is one of the greatest advancements in biodiversity science in the past one hundred years. Our goal of digitizing the three million specimens of Asian plants in U.S. herbaria will bring this part of the world to digital life, aid our efforts in discovery, and forecast future change,” said Davis.

Digitized specimen data mobilized through this project will be shared and made available through iDigBio.org.


Image: Gentiana hexaphylla Maximowicz ex Kusnezow. Sichuan: Kangding Xian. N side of pass at Zheduo Shan. 30°4'45"N, 101°48'27"E; 4370-4485 m. 
See also: Faculty News, 2021