Digitising the Australian National Herbarium may help us better understand how plants respond to climate change, researchers say

A new high-resolution camera at the CSIRO is set to photograph one million plant specimens in nine months, as researchers look into how the natural world is changing.

The plant objects, many collected as far back as a century ago, are being stored at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra, but according to CSIRO group leader for digitization Pete Thrall, it would take about eight years to digitize all of the specimens using a regulate camera.

Dried eucalyptus on a piece of paper.
Eucalyptus pyriformis at Australian National Herbarium in Canberra.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Instead, the new 100-megapixel camera, attached to a conveyor belt, will help researchers take up to 5,000 photos per day.

After only a few months, the images will then form a digital collection, which can be examined to assess changes to the natural world over time.

“Digitizing the herbarium is a huge leap forward for sharing specimens for research,” Mr Thrall said.

“Creating a digitized replica also provides security for the herbarium’s irreplaceable physical specimens.”

More detail than meets the eye

Dried, pressed, leaves on a page.
Researchers hope the digitization will help them better understand how plants are responding to climate change.(ABC News: Patrick Bell)

Postdoctoral researcher, Dr Abdelwahed Khamis, said the higher quality picture could also reveal more features of the plants than when using a regular camera or the naked eye.

“The leaves, the fruit, the stems … we can do reliable object detection on them from the digital replica,” he said.

But he said the biggest advantage of digitizing the plant specimens, was the collection would then be available for other researchers to examine how plants were responding to changes in the natural environment, such as those caused by climate change and extreme weather events.

“This is like the base task or the base assignment from which experts can move on.”

Mr Thrall said there had already been interest from researchers in examining the longer-term effects of the Black Summer bushfires.

“Knowing what species are there, how rare they are … this sort of information we can pull out of collections can help us make those kinds of assessment,” he said.

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