$148,000 project to digitize thousands of rare native plant specimens

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uh Mānoa student Chase Kane prepares a plant specimen to be photographed and digitally accessible to researchers around the world.

A university of Hawaii to the Mānoa project to digitize tens of thousands of plant specimens Hawaii, across the vast Pacific Ocean and around the world, received a major boost from the National Science Foundation. Three-year, $148,882 grant will help School of Life Sciences assistant professor Karolina Heyduk and his team to digitize and catalog over 55,000 plant specimens, many of which are extinct, to preserve and improve access worldwide to one of the oldest plant collections in the Pacific.

person looking at computer with dried plants on desk
uh Graduate student from Manoa g Young Kim analyzes plant specimens after digital processing on a computer.

“Our goal for the project is to digitize all 55,000 plant specimens for the world to see and facilitate research on Hawaiian plants around the world,” Heyduk said. “The herbarium represents a truly unique collection that is used both by researchers and also used in classes and teaching on campus.”

Hawaii has one of the largest biodiversities in the world and there are approximately 1,400 plant taxa (species, subspecies and varieties) native to the state, according to the Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources. Nearly 90% are found nowhere else in the world. However, over 100 plant taxa are extinct and over 200 have 50 or fewer individuals in the wild.

red flower and green plant
Metrosideros tremuloides (lehua ʻāhihi)

uh Joseph of Manoa F. Rock Herbarium was established in 1908 and houses many specimens of rare and endemic plants from Hawaii and other Pacific islands, some of which have since disappeared. The herbarium serves as a crucial biodiversity record and is an invaluable resource for extinct, threatened or endangered species.

The uh The Mānoa Collection will join other herbaria around the world, which have digitized their collections and made them available through a dedicated Consortium of Pacific Herbaria web portal and iDigBio.org.

Heyduk plans to employ nearly 10 students each year for the next three years to work on the digitization project, with a focus on educating students from historically excluded groups, including Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. . Herbarium staff plan to organize volunteer scanning events, increase collaboration with uh Arboretum of the Mānoa campus and uh The Lyon Arboretum of Mānoa, engages with the public through events at local botanical gardens and continues its efforts to connect the herbarium to Hawaiian culture and knowledge.

Learn through the herbarium

two people looking through a folder with dried plant specimens
uh Mānoa Assistant Professor Karolina Heyduk and graduate student g Young Kim browses through one of the herbarium’s many sets of plant specimens.

Chase Kane, a junior biochemistry major, is one of the students working on the project. Kane said one of the biggest lessons he’s learned working in the herbarium is discovering the importance of native Hawaiian flora, especially with native ecosystems. Kane hopes to attend medical school and said her work in the herbarium sparked her interest in the medicinal properties of plants.

“I have a much better understanding of the medicinal effects of a lot of native Hawaiian and Pacific plants and flowers,” Kane said. “They’re just very important in the past for healing and medicine, and I think that’s something we should think about moving forward in modern medicine.”

dried plant specimen
Polymorph Metrosideros (ʻōhiʻa lehua)

G Young Kim, a master’s student in botany, obtained her bachelor’s degree in botany in 2021 and is also working on the digitization project. She looks forward to seeing how her work will help researchers around the world access the collection without having to travel.

“The herbarium contains mostly native Hawaiian specimens and it will help researchers assess and learn more about plants in the Hawaiian archipelago without having to come here,” Kim said. “It will be really valuable in the scientific world.”

To support Joseph F. Rocky herbarium, visit the uh Foundation website.

-By Marc Arakaki

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