Digitization of the Australian National Herbarium could help us better understand how plants respond to climate change, researchers say

Written by Javed Iqbal

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

The plant objects, many collected as far back as a century ago, are stored in 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 the samples using a standard camera.

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

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

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

“Digitizing the herbarium is a big leap forward in sharing samples for research,” Mr Thrall said.

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

More details than you can see

Dried, pressed, leaves on one side.
Researchers hope that digitization will help them better understand how plants respond to climate change.(ABC News: Patrick Bell)

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

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

But he said the biggest benefit of digitizing the plant samples was that the collection would then be available to other researchers to study how plants responded to changes in the natural environment, such as those caused by climate change and extreme weather events.

“This is like the basic task or the basic task from which experts can move forward.”

Thrall said there had already been interest from researchers in investigating the long-term effects of the Black Summer bush fires.

“Knowing what species are, how rare they are … this kind of information we can extract from collections can help us make those kinds of assessments,” he said.

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