Study calls for “Exciting new era” of increased use of plant specimens as trait data sources

Carnegie Museum of Natural History Botanist Mason Heberling makes case for digitized herbaria in Prestigious Coulter Review
International Journal of Plant Sciences, February 2022

A new review by Dr. Mason Heberling, Assistant Curator of Botany at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), cites diverse studies to synthesize past and current uses of plant specimens as trait data sources and to advocate for “an exciting new era” of potential future applications, bolstered by technology and digitization. The review, “Herbaria as big data sources of plant traits,” was published as the most recent John M. Coulter Review and featured cover article in the February edition of the University of Chicago Press’s International Journal of Plant Sciences. The prestigious Coulter Review provides scientists in the forefront of their fields the opportunities to share insights on the latest developments of plant biology.

Cover of the February 2022 issue of International Journal of Plant Sciences.

Thanks to the digitization of museum specimens, more than 3,000 active herbaria worldwide, including CMNH’s herbarium, serve as increasingly connected scientific resources documenting botanical diversity through time and space. With 396 million specimens and counting, these collections represent all formally described plant species—an ongoing effort of many thousands of botanists on every continent for over four centuries. However, these specimens are only recently being recognized for their potential as sources of extensive data on plant functional traits. 

Traditionally, herbaria and collections have been used for a handful of disciplines, including taxonomy and systematics, floristics and biogeography, species identification, scientific vouchers, and education. However, recent applications of herbaria data demonstrate a scientific relevance that diversifies beyond these original uses. They include the extraction of genetic material from century-old specimens to quantify changing plant-insect interactions. New molecular methods like next-generation sequencing make the extraction of genetic material from herbarium specimens possible in the developing field of “museomics,” or genomics exclusively studying organisms found in museum collections. Such molecular advances provide new insights into extinct species and detect genetic changes of introduced species as they spread across the landscape. Herbarium applications unanticipated—and unimagined—even a few decades ago are now mainstream. 

“As an ecologist coming into the herbarium for the first time, I was struck by the richness and enormity of information in these collections, and much of it is unrealized outside of taxonomy,” Heberling writes. “Tapping into specimens for trait data is by no means new but spread across many studies and often on smaller scales. I spent years compiling these uses of specimens as sources for trait data and staring at specimens, asking, ‘What information can we get from the many millions of decades-old specimens collected across the globe?’ This review aims to foster an exciting new era for herbaria.”

However, scientists often discount herbarium specimens as unreliable because modern utilizations may test hypotheses for which the data were not originally intended. While conceding validity to these points, Heberling argues that “preconceived assumptions about data suitability for use can stifle innovation” and suggests retroactive and proactive solutions to potential herbaria limitations, including addressing collector bias, validating herbarium-derived trait measurements, addressing microsite variation, and solutions to collecting. 

Heberling proposes new collection practices that will require a new scientific culture surrounding herbaria with significant digital, physical, and human resource infrastructural investment for transformative change. “It is an exciting time for collections,” he concludes. “Bolstered by more than a decade of digitization and emerging initiatives, the role of herbaria in modern research should only strengthen. Herbaria should be embraced as centers for functional trait research, with their uses as diverse as the specimens they house.”

The International Journal of Plant Sciences has a distinguished history of publishing research in the plant sciences since 1875. IJPS presents high quality, original, peer-reviewed research from laboratories around the world in all areas of the plant sciences. Topics covered range from genetics and genomics, developmental and cell biology, biochemistry and physiology, to morphology and anatomy, systematics, evolution, paleobotany, plant-microbe interactions, and ecology. The International Journal of Plant Sciences established the John M. Coulter Review, in 2012 in honor of John Merle Coulter (1851–1928), who joined the University of Chicago in 1896 as the first Head Professor of Botany.

About Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is among the top natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of millions of objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. Carnegie Museum of Natural History generates new scientific knowledge, advances science literacy, and inspires visitors of all ages to become passionate about science, nature, and world cultures. More information is available by calling 412.622.3131 or by visiting the website,