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South Coast Scientists Involved In Creation Of Online Plant Encyclopedia To Study Climate Change

Flowers not only make the world a more beautiful place, but they are also a bellwether on the health of the planet. That’s why South Coast researchers have embarked on a project that involves taking digital images of nearly a million flowering plants to create an online plant encyclopedia and then studying the effects of climate change.

UC Santa Barbara’s herbarium, which is a library of dried plants, is located at the north end of campus inside the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration.

“And we have 140,000 specimens in these cabinets,” says Greg Wahlert, the Collections Manager and Research Botanist here at the Cheadle Center.

A botanist would have to come to this herbarium to study any one of these plants. But what if the collection were online? That’s the idea behind the project “Capturing California’s Flowers.”

The UCSB Herbarium is one of 22 across California that is digitizing its plant specimens. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is also participating. The collaboration – made possible by nearly two million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation -- will create a database of more than 900,000 high resolution images with ecological information that will be used to study climate change.

“For the first time, we’re going to be able to greatly accelerate the rate at which that kind of research informs our predictions because we’ll have a huge resource of data,” says Susan Mazer, a UCSB professor of plant evolutionary biology who helped spearhead this project.

Andrea Liu, a third year biology student, turns on a photo box that’s connected to a digital camera and a computer so she that can digitize plant specimens from the herbarium that will be added to this database.

“You’re going to want to open the photo box and place the specimen inside," she says.

This specimen’s scientific name is Streptanthus tortuosis, also known as the California mountain jewel flower. It’s dried out and pressed onto paper -- appearing brownish in color with little flowers coming out of its long stems.

“You take the picture on the computer by clicking the snapshot button," she says.

Digitizing these specimens is one goal of the project. The other is using the digital images for a climate change study.

“These specimens were originally collected as a way for people to just document biodiversity and they didn’t realize they were so powerful and we can use them as kind of snapshot into the past to understand flowering time,” says PhD student Natalie Love who studies plant biology.

She says the timing of flowering can tell us a lot about climate change. The warmer temperatures cause plants to flower earlier.

Mazer says it will be critical to look closely at this trend across many species through what will become an extensive database.

“Not only will we be able to understand the causes of variation in flowering time but we will be able to make predictions about the future flowering times of these species,” she says.

She says plants -- and animals that depend upon them for their pollen, nectar, fruits and seeds -- could be in danger.

“For example, we know that Streptanthus tortuosis flowers about five days earlier for every increase in temperature by one degree centigrade. If the pollinators on which it relies don’t respond similarly, then the plant may be flowering at a time when insects – its pollinators – are not available,” says Mazer.

Scientists could eventually use this information towards conservation efforts to mitigate climate change affects.

The Cheadle Center’s director Katja Seltmann, says when the specimens are all digitized, nearly a million plants will be accessible online for researchers around the globe.

“We are really living in a big data time. And the is not only answering climate change questions but other kinds of evolution questions and biology questions,” she says.

The hope is that the data collected will enable us to become better stewards of the environment.