By Tara Roberts
The University of Idaho’s Stillinger Herbarium is providing scientists with new insight into plant evolution and giving the public access to a vast collection that represents a historical archive of the plant diversity in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.
Founded in 1892 and supported in part by a trust established by Charles R. and Nettie Mae Stillinger, the herbarium is home to more than 200,000 specimens. It is the largest herbarium in the state of Idaho.
Several scientists use the specimens for research, including herbarium director David Tank, who has received a five-year, $800,000 National Science Foundation Career Award. His work focuses on plants in the genus Castilleja, commonly known as the paintbrushes, which are diverse and abundant across the West.
Tank studies systematics, a discipline that pairs the naming and classifying of organisms with the study of their evolutionary history. His research seeks to understand how the patterns and processes of evolution resulted in the diversity of life on Earth today. His past work includes contributions to the NSF-supported “Angiosperm Tree of Life Project,” which maps the evolutionary relationships of flowering plants.
The herbarium offers a wealth of data allowing Tank to examine species-specific traits, including the morphology, geography, ecology and genetics of individual species, as well as work toward a better understanding of what constitutes a species.
Traditionally, species are described by their physical variations, but with advancements in technologies used to sequence DNA, now, these molecular tools allow more detailed study of species boundaries. Because species are fundamental to our understanding of patterns of biodiversity, delimiting and naming species in the most scientifically accurate way is vital to conservation policy, Tank says.
“It allows us to quantify diversity and understand the processes that create that diversity,” he says.
The herbarium benefits U-Idaho students as well. Teaching collections in the herbarium support several courses, students have helped gather specimens across the state and Tank’s Career Award will support an advanced field botany course at the university’s McCall Field Campus beginning in summer 2013.
Students also have been heavily involved in the digitization of the Stillinger Herbarium’s vascular plant collection, making them widely available online to people beyond the laboratory.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Tank has collaborated with several Northwest universities to create a digital database of plant collections that can be found at www.pnwherbaria.org. The University of Idaho data include more than 160,000 high-resolution images and specimen data, making the Stillinger one of only a few collections worldwide with photos of all its vascular plants available online.
“Every time I talk to people about this project it generates a lot of excitement. Aside from the images – which are spectacular – this project has produced a number of tools that are really useful, including the ability to generate species lists for every county in the Pacific Northwest, or by simply drawing an area on a map,” Tank says.
This is a really cool tool that gives both plant professionals and botanical enthusiasts the ability to know what species they might encounter in any given geographic area – and the coolest part, in my opinion, is that this information is based on our hard-earned scientific knowledge that until now was largely inaccessible to the general public.”