Here at Kew, we’re dedicated to understanding and protecting plant diversity. There are lots of different ways to do this and one way unique to Kew is through our collections. Kew’s world-class herbarium houses an estimated seven million preserved plant specimens, pressed and mounted on paper. These collections represent over 170 years of plant collecting history (the oldest specimens go back even further to 1696) and include examples of approximately 95 per cent of all known plant genera from across the globe. Herbarium specimens provide a baseline for understanding the diversity of plant species, the relationship between species, their geographical distributions and individual ecological niches. Having access to this information on plant biodiversity allows people across the world to target their collection efforts, to carry out conservation assessments, to produce collecting guides and maps for fieldwork and to describe new species.
Scientists at Kew continually add to and conduct research on these plant collections, but our scientists can only do so much. It is much more effective to share the information held in our collections with every scientist across the globe, who can use it for their own research. Kew also contributes to meeting and promoting many national and international obligations to share the information held in our collections such as the terms of the National Heritage Act (1983), the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as well as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). These obligations can only realistically be met through finding a way to share our collections, with free and unfettered access to any scientist wishing to use it.
While many staff at Kew are responsible for adding new plant material into the collections as it arrives from all corners of the globe, there is another team, found in the basement of the herbarium, who are doing very different work. Here, the digitisation team are busy making digital copies of every specimen in Kew’s collection. So far, 13 per cent has been digitised, and can be viewed by any scientist or member of the public from Kew’s herbarium catalogue. This website offers the chance for scientists across the world to study and compare plant specimens collected from their home country and to help them understand the plants’ conservation and distribution status. We still have 87 per cent of our collection to digitise and that’s where your help comes in.
With the purchase of some state-of-the-art technology, we have been able to speed up our throughput of digitisation. Taking a digital image of a specimen is now considered the easy part. What is more time consuming is the transcription of the information held alongside each specimen. Every specimen has unique information about it: where it was found, on what date, and exactly what species it is, often hastily written in the scrawly handwriting of the collector as he or she collects the specimen from a mountain side, forest or marshland. This information is just as important as the plant material itself. However, to transcribe each label by our scientists is slow and we have quite a backlog.
As our plant collectors have conducted expeditions across the world, we’re now inviting people from all over the world to take part in their own digital expedition. As part of the DigiVol website, we are slowly retracing plant hunting expeditions, this time digitally. You’ll be let loose on digitised specimens, where you need to do your best at reading either the handwritten, or sometimes typed, label and simply rewrite the information into pre-prepared boxes. By breaking our work down into digital expeditions of certain geographic areas or certain groups of plants we can react to specific research needs both from our own scientists as well as our global collaborators. All you need is a computer, tablet or even a smartphone and before you know it you’ll be retracing the collection of a plant first collected 50, 100 or even 170 years ago! Perhaps there is an even older specimen waiting to be found in our collection.
We have recently launched a new digital expedition to Singapore, retracing a period of plant collecting across Singapore from 1819. These days, plants collected by Kew scientists from another country are always collected in duplicate or triplicate sets, so that there is always at least one set left in the country where the material was collected. But this was not always the case. The herbarium at Kew holds many old specimens collected from Singapore which are not held at the Singapore Botanic Gardens Herbarium. Last year, Kew began collaborating on the Flora of Singapore project, aiming to create an accurate understanding of the current status of every one of the 3000 species that grow there. Digitising and sharing what has been previously collected is critical to this project.
Once the Flora of Singapore is complete, we’ll be moving on to re-explore Papua New Guinea, India, Bhutan, Brazil, and even back to the UK. You are welcome to join us on any one of these expeditions.
Follow this link to DigiVol and sign up. You can then click on the Singapore Expedition, or a fascinating Expedition to New Guinea. Once you’ve read the tutorial you’ll be ready to go. Whether you transcribe just one label, or several hundred, your support is much appreciated, and your work will go towards a global effort to understand and conserve plant species and their habitats.
- Marie-Hélène -
Project: Enhancing access to Kew’s Herbarium collection to enable and accelerate scientific research.
Kew Science blog: Kew's Herbarium has around 7 million preserved plants from around the globe - you can help us reveal them to the world.
Our scientific vision is to document and understand global plant and fungal diversity and its uses, bringing authoritative expertise to bear on the critical challenges facing humanity today.