A quest to digitize 1 million plant specimens
The Australian National Herbarium in Canberra depicts nearly a million plant specimens using an automated system developed by the Dutch company Picturae.
CSIRO Group Leader for Digitalization & Informatics, Pete Thrall, who oversees digital assets at the National Research Collections Australia, managed by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, said the project would help with bushfire recovery and biosecurity.
“Digitizing the herbarium is a huge step forward for sharing specimens for research. As a result, we can quickly provide information for projects such as forest fire recovery and biosecurity,” said Mr Thrall.
“Creating a digitized replica also provides security for the herbarium’s irreplaceable physical specimens,” he said.
Imaging manager of Parks Australia, Ms Emma Toms, based at the Australian National Herbarium, which is coordinating the Picturae project, said the work would be completed in the next 9 months.
“It would have taken us about eight years to digitize these specimens in-house with a standard camera setup,” she said.
“The first step is to visually check each copy to make sure it is in good condition and has a barcode to link to the digital record.
“Three people operate Picturae’s conveyor belt, which moves specimens under a camera to take a high-resolution photograph. Two people unpack the specimens at the start of the conveyor belt and one person repacks the specimens and checks the photographs for any mistakes,” she says. said.
One of the new technologies that is transforming the use of collections is artificial intelligence (AI).
CSIRO Postdoc Dr. Abdo Khamis said machine learning and AI allow researchers to extract information about properties from images.
“We can use digitized herbarium specimens to understand how plants respond to climate change, for example by determining how the reproductive structure of flowers changes over time,” he said.
The team will continue to expand the herbarium’s digital assets as more plant specimens from Australia and the region are added to the collection.
“We will have an internal digitization program in place once this process is complete, so new specimens will be photographed before being included in the collection,” said Emma Toms.
The full digital collection of the Australian National Herbarium is made available through the Atlas of Living Australia, including to the general public.
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