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New Herbarium Collections Manager

June 12, 2024

As a child, Kai Battenberg couldn’t open a bag of nuts without then arranging them all by size, eating the smallest ones first and gradually working his way toward the prized specimens at the end of the line.

He’s painstakingly orderly and methodical. While in high school in Japan, where he was born and raised, Battenberg began tending his grandfather’s garden, digitally cataloging thousands of photos of each plant at the initial flowering stage, labeled by species name, image number and year.

In short, Battenberg was the perfect choice to be the collections manager of the University of Idaho’s Stillinger Herbarium. Battenberg assumed the position at U of I on Feb. 19.

“I’ve always liked the idea of knowing the name of things. I also liked organizing things. I liked it when things were in order,” Battenberg said. “I learned in graduate school that that was one of my strengths as a scientist — I’m good at boiling down datasets to the point that you can make a simple statement about them, sorting and extrapolating.”

An herbarium is a systematically arranged collection of dried plants that provides an important record of when, where and what plant species are found. Battenberg likens his elaborate gardening photo archive to an image-only version of an herbarium.

At the Stillinger Herbarium, located in the university’s College of Mines building, Battenberg oversees a large and prized collection — the largest plant collection in Idaho and the state’s official repository. The Stillinger collection includes more than 19,000 species and 210,000 digitized specimens, available to be viewed and downloaded by anyone from anywhere in the world. The collection also contains 188,000 vascular plants — those with tissue that conducts water — about 60% of which were collected in Idaho. Battenberg and his staff have been hard at work digitally processing another 40,000 specimens.

The Stillinger Herbarium was established in 1892, but the current collection has few specimens predating 1906, when the building that formerly housed the collection caught fire.

The herbarium chronicles how the state’s flora has evolved over time in the face of factors such as invasive species, development and a changing climate. Dylan Trimmer, a freshman in the College of Natural Resources majoring in environmental sciences, has spent three hours per week in the herbarium since January, searching through specimens and cataloging data for a class research project. Trimmer has been using the collection to help identify if climate change has affected the flowering dates of three native plants that bloom shortly after the snowpack melts at various locations in Idaho.

Trimmer was surprised to find the flowering dates have remained consistent, and he may revisit the experiment to study plants that bloom in the heat of summer.

“Herbariums are important so that people like myself can do these phenological studies to look at how plant behavior has changed over time,” Trimmer said.

Battenberg will also be tasked with growing the collection by making regular trips into Idaho’s wild places to collect additional plants. He aims to gather more than 400 new specimens this summer. To be catalogued, a plant must be arranged so that every part is visible, pressed, dried to prevent mold from forming and exposed to freezing temperatures to kill any insect eggs it may harbor. Samples are then digitized — Battenberg would like to acquire a 3-D scanner to begin recording images of pinecones and other samples in the collection that can’t be pressed.

The collection also includes plant samples designated for extractive uses such as DNA testing.

Doctoral student Dan Turck, who had been running the herbarium and will graduate this fall, has been helping Battenberg make the transition, providing him insights such as ideal locations for gathering new samples.

Battenberg earned a bachelor’s degree in law in Japan in 2008 before moving to the U.S. and earning another bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the California State University, Stanislaus. He then earned a doctorate in plant biology from the University of California-Davis, specializing in plant evolution. Specifically, he studied the evolutionary history of root nodule symbiosis, an organ through which certain families of plants can help sustain themselves by forming symbiotic relationships with special nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Following graduate school, Battenberg returned to Japan for five years to work as a postdoctoral researcher at a research institute, RIKEN, where he continued the study of how multiple plant lineages developed root nodule symbiosis independently of one another. Here he focused on how the regulation of genes changed in the roots to result in the development of root nodules. He was attracted to the job at the herbarium for the opportunity to work with plants as whole organisms rather than focusing on plant processes at the genetic level. In the future, he’ll seek to understand the mechanism that works in the background that paves the way for plants to gain similar features multiple times independently in general, as seen in the case of root nodule symbiosis.

“Asking why an herbarium is important is like asking why it is important to learn history. You cannot go back in time,” Battenberg said. “If you want to know what was growing in Moscow 50 years ago, because now it is so developed, you can’t see any plants, someone must have collected plants 50 years ago. If a species is going extinct, the only way to know where it used to be is the herbarium.”

Published in Catching Up with CALS

New Herbarium Collections Manager Kai Battenberg shows a photo of a dried plants species.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu.


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