Digitization TCN: Collaborative: American Crossroads: Digitizing the vascular flora of the south-central United States
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The advent of data mobilization from biological specimens housed in U.S. institutions has profoundly enhanced the value of museum collections and has allowed scientific questions to be addressed in novel ways. The process of mobilization involves specimen digital image capture, transcription of label data, addition of geographic coordinates, and dissemination of the data through searchable online portals. This four-year project brings together 46 collaborating herbaria to mobilize the data from nearly two million plant specimens collected in the states of Oklahoma and Texas. Most of the herbaria in these states, as well as key herbaria from other states with large Oklahoma and Texas holdings, will participate. Because these two states constitute a major crossroads of North American ecological and plant diversity, digitizing their plant specimen data can serve as a key element for understanding ecosystem evolution across the North American continent. The project will include data for species of conservation concern, invasives, and environmental health indicators, thus enhancing species and habitat conservation and management and contributing to wide-ranging applications in biodiversity science. It will also involve as participants members of plant enthusiast organizations (such as native plant societies) in specimen data entry. The project will contribute to a globally competitive STEM workforce through workshops and lectures for its technicians and practical training for undergraduate interns. Digitized herbarium specimen data for the South-Central U.S. are sparse relative to other parts of the country, leaving a large geographic gap in our knowledge of North American plant biodiversity that impedes both regional and larger-scale efforts in solving environmental issues. To address this problem, the researchers will 1) establish a Thematic Collections Network (TCN) to digitize the data from nearly two million vascular plant herbarium specimens collected in Oklahoma and Texas; 2) disseminate the digitized data through an integrated online platform; 3) develop and implement innovative strategies to increase efficiency in specimen digitization; and 4) engage citizen scientists and students on project-based activities. The project is primed for action by its strong integration with the well-established Texas and Oklahoma Regional Consortium of Herbaria (TORCH; www.torcherbaria.org), which will help oversee and guide the project. Coordination with Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio.org) hub will facilitate team-wide meetings, broader impact elements, and data workflows, mobilization, and access. Natural history collections are well positioned for the analysis of global change and the resulting impacts on regional biota. In this context, the digitized herbarium specimen data from the TORCH TCN will provide the capacity for addressing major hypotheses in the region concerning patterns of species richness and phylogenetic diversity, vegetation responses to climate change, and species distribution models based on substrate versus climatic data. Results of the project will be widely disseminated through professional publications and society meetings, local chapters of plant-enthusiast communities, social media outlets, and blogs on the TORCH website. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.