The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) last week unveiled an online cornucopia for plant taxonomists: 2500 crisp digital photos of specimens from four vascular plant families. The dried plants, plucked and pressed by collectors as long ago as the 1830s, should aid biodiversity studies worldwide.
Other herbaria, most notably in the Netherlands and Sweden, have also put specimens online, but NYBG's is perhaps the most ambitious project yet--it's aiming for 75,000 specimens in the next few years. The high-resolution images, snapped beginning last May with a digital camera, are so detailed you can make out the type or handwriting on yellowing old ID labels. Such information makes the images nearly as useful as the actual specimens, which many museums hesitate to send out for fear of loss or damage, says Barbara Thiers, associate director of the herbarium. And NYBG's online specimens are all "types"--original samples used to describe new species, so examining them is something like consulting an author's original manuscript. Type specimens are "extremely valuable material when one is studying species relationships and species definitions," notes Anita Cholewa, vascular plant curator at the University of Minnesota Herbarium.
Thiers expects that the digital images will be most appreciated by field taxonomists--particularly those in tropical countries, whose biota is largely cataloged in museums up north.