Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Masterpiece

Row after row of huge metal cabinets stand like soldiers at attention on the sixth floor of the Academy. The cool dark room smells of dried herbs, the cabinets stocked top to bottom with special paper archival folders.

Each folder is neatly labeled with a location, name and other information vital to researchers — now and 100 years from now. Welcome to the Academy’s Botany Collection of 1.5 million dried plants.

The cardinal flower is one of 1.5 million dried plants in the Academy’s herbarium that was scanned and uploaded with its research data to the Internet so it is available to anyone interested.

Until recently, these specimens remained mostly undisturbed for years unless a scientist (at the Academy or anywhere in the world) came along to study them or to add to the collection.

But starting two years ago, Botany Curators Tatyana Livshultz, PhD, and Richard McCourt, PhD, with the help of Curatorial Assistant Elana Benamy and Collection Manager Jordan Teisher, launched a multi-year project to photograph some 800,000 of those specimens, which had been collected up and down the northern half of the East Coast over the last two centuries.

“We decided to call it the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Project because it is a cute name, and it’s accurate,” said McCourt, one of the leaders of the multi-institution project. McCourt is director of the Academy’s Center for Systematic Biology and Evolution, curator of botany and professor at Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and enables institutions across the country to create an online archive for plant specimens that scientists have discovered and collected from New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington D.C.

Large-flowered tickseed is among thousands plant specimens being scanned into an online database for future reference.

“We have about 300,000 plant specimens from this region. With the help of volunteers and Drexel University co-op (work-study) students, we’re pulling certain specimens out from the cabinets and digitizing them,” McCourt said. The painstaking work requires nimble fingers so as not to damage the dried plants, training in use of the photographic equipment, and patience.

It all starts with a few hundred plant specimens at a time being gingerly removed from their cool, dark cabinets. Staff and students carefully arrange them on long tables and prepare them for their photo-op. They make sure the plants are attached securely to the old cream-colored paper on which they were originally mounted with tape, glue or staples.

After the specimens are deemed secure, a barcode like the ones you see in stores is placed on the herbarium page, giving each specimen a unique number. The specimen is placed in a large white box to have its picture taken with an overhead Canon camera. The photo is linked to the barcode number so researchers can find a specific specimen with ease.

When the images are in the computer, the information label is typed in manually, such as GPS coordinates of where it was found, the species name, and the scientific classification. Anyone can find the scanned specimens online where the images and data of animals and plants from dozens of other museums are also posted.

Now, scientists who want to study these botanical specimens don’t have to travel around the world to different museums or universities to see them in person. Having the specimen and its database digitized also cuts down on the need to mail the plant sample to the researcher.

The swamp rose mallow.

“We want to mobilize the information and make it easily accessible to everyone,” said McCourt. “Even if someone visits all the institutions with botany collections, they might not find all the specimens that they are looking for.”

The specimens and their data are important resources for people in different disciplines working on diverse projects. They help scientists determine what could be an invasive species, where certain plants came from, and what plant populations might have been damaged by people or nature and are no longer growing in certain areas.

Scientists can use this information to answer questions about which species can withstand soil in urbanized areas or polluted areas and which are being affected by climate change. Researchers also may discover that the specimens they or others collected are actually new species, which are then written up and given a Latin name.

The forking larkspur/rocket-larkspur/field larkspur is part of the buttercup family.  This plant is native to Europe and is found in sandy or chalky soils. This is one of the digitized plants that thrives in harsh conditions.

“The land managers, taxonomists, ecologists, conservation biologists, ecological consultants, they can go and find this information online to find out what plants are in an area that just got flooded or hit by a hurricane. Maybe it’s a toxic plant and you want to know if it grew someplace or if it’s an invasive species, and you can look over time to see how it spreads over areas,” said McCourt.

So far, the Academy has digitized more than 350,000 plant specimens, including fungi and algae. Next up are some 200,000 ferns and what Livshultz calls “extreme plants,” plants with outrageous and beautiful forms and which often grow in extreme habitats, such as deserts or acid bogs

The Megalopolis Project involves 11 institutions including the University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, West Chester University and New York Botanical Garden.


By Mackenzie Fitchett

Images by Botany Department, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

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