Researchers at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra are digitising nearly a million plant specimens. They’ll soon be available for everyone to use. 

What’s in the herbarium?

A herbarium is a collection of plant specimens that record the biodiversity of an area. Specimens can include native plants, weeds and even cultivated garden plants.

The Australian National Herbarium holds more than a million plant specimens focussing on Australia and our region. Scientists press and mount most plant specimens on sheets of archival card. But they store some specimens, such as orchid flowers, in vials of ethanol.

Imagine you’re on a field trip in a national park to collect specimens of eucalypts. The first step is to cut specimens about 30 centimetres long that show the leaf structures and any flowers or seeds present. Then you press the specimens between sheets of newspaper and cardboard in a plant press, replacing the sheets of paper every night. Later, in the lab, you dry the specimens in a special oven. Then you freeze them to kill any insects. After that, you mount the specimens on sheets of archival card, approximately A3 size.

Your specimens are then stored flat on shelves within a compactus in the halls of the Australian National Herbarium. Researchers may use them to understand biodiversity, to name new species, to know what grows where to restore land after bushfires. They might be loaned to researchers at herbaria within Australia or overseas. And now, they will also be digitised and made freely available online.

Digitising the entire collection

Pete Thrall is in charge of digital assets at our National Research Collections Australia.  

“We are using an automated conveyor belt system developed by Netherlands company Picturae to create a digitised replica of the herbarium,” Pete said.

“Digitising the herbarium provides security for the irreplaceable physical specimens. It’s also a huge leap forward for sharing specimens for research.

“As a result, we’ll be able to provide information quickly for projects like bushfire recovery and biosecurity. We’ll also be able to use image-based technologies like artificial intelligence,” he said. 

Digitised specimens from the herbarium.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) enables researchers to extract trait information from images.

Juggling thousands of specimens

Parks Australia imaging manager Emma Toms, located at the Australian National Herbarium, is coordinating the process of getting every specimen in the collection onto the conveyer belt. 

“It will take around nine months to digitise the entire collection. This is at least 10 times faster than using a standard camera rig,” Emma said.

“The first step is barcoding. We check each specimen and label it with a barcode to link the physical specimen to its digital record. To image specimens, we work through the rows of each compactus in the collection. We carefully remove specimens from their stacks in pigeonholes. Then we transport them on trolleys to the imaging room.

“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. At the other end, one person repacks the specimens and checks the photographs for any errors,” she said.

Dried specimens at the Australian National Herbarium
The Picturare system looks a little like an airport scanner. Specimens travel like bags on a conveyer belt. Then they pass under a camera for a high-resolution photograph. These specimens are plants in the cinnamon group. 

After Picturae is complete, the team will use an in-house digitisation system. 

“Our collection is always growing because we continue to collect new specimens from Australia and our region. We will photograph each new specimen as it enters the collection in order to create a digital record alongside the physical record,” Emma said. 

Want to see more?

The full digital collection of the Australian National Herbarium will be made available for researchers and the public through the Atlas of Living Australia. 

The Australian National Herbarium is part of the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint venture between Parks Australia’s Australian National Botanic Gardens and the National Research Collections Australia at CSIRO. 

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