Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rocky Mountain Herbarium


Curator, Professor of Botany
Collections Manager

The Rocky Mountain Herbarium (RM, 1894) with the integrated National Herbarium of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS, 1910) and the associated Wilhelm G. Solheim Mycological Herbarium (RMS; 1929) contains the world’s largest assemblage of plants and fungi from the greater Rocky Mountain region. It contains more than 1,360,000 plant specimens and ranks 10th in the nation of more than 750 herbaria.

The staff of the RM has developed a philosophy to aggressively inventory the flora of the Rocky Mountains and adjacent plains and basins. This was necessitated by the vast, uncollected or under-collected areas. Such areas are remote and often requiring hikes of 10 to 25+ miles, although many areas are easily reached by vehicle yet remain unexplored. The result has been a relatively “fine grain” sampling in order to capture, based on voucher specimens, species distributions as a whole. In addition, genotypic/phenotypic variation and ecological differentiation are documented. Impressive yet not excessive numbers of collections per unit area (4.4 specimens/mi2) have been obtained. The development of new tools through the decades that place broad-scale floristics into an interdisciplinary framework with biogeography, ecology, and land management is fortuitous. These include computer hardware and software advances, GIS applications, informatics, the Internet, website development, and molecular systematics.

In 1977, the RM initiated this major floristic inventory of the greater Rocky Mountain region. This inventory is now the largest program of its kind in the annals of North American botany. More than 74 (48 by MS students) major floristic studies have been completed; 620,000 new collections have been obtained for the projected Flora of the Rocky Mountains as well as the Flora of North America (16 of 31 volumes published by Oxford University Press; the curator has been on the board of directors since its inception 25 years ago). The maps show the distribution of floristic inventories and the intensity of collecting (figures below). 

Map of study areas where intensive inventories have been conducted by students and staff of the RM. The number of collections range from 8,000 to 20,000 per project. This is contrasted by fewer than 30,000 collections obtained by most taxonomists during a life time. Two additional projects (not shown) on the west slope of Colorado are in progress. Additionally, the entirety of Phillips County is included with Valley County (red) in northeastern Montana.
This is a detailed map of all collecting sites associated with the botanical inventory conducted between 1978 and 2010.  In most cases, a dot represents 50-150+ collections.

The projects completed during the 1990s in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming resulted in the inventory of 79,391 mi2. Most importantly, 414 different species of conservation concern were documented at 1,459 sites, most of them new. Additionally, projects completed during the 2000s in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming resulted in the inventory of 89,363 mi2 of mostly state and federal lands. During this period, 430 different plant species of conservation concern were documented at 1,678 sites. As many of the taxa collected during the 1990s had been removed from Natural Heritage lists prior to 2000, this is even more remarkable.

In 1991, the RM Plant Specimen Database was initiated. Currently it serves over 700,000 specimen records, 30,000 specimen images, and over 4,000 vouchered field photographs ( In the past two years, the database has been rebuilt using MySQL. The new web interface is among the best in the field. We have a memorandum of understanding with UW Library (Imaging Lab, Digital Collections and Systems Department) for housing and maintaining the website and database.

The RM has received four NSF grants in collaboration with regional herbaria for data basing and more than 70 cost-share agreements with federal agencies for botanical inventory. These inventories have been conducted in 11 regional states. In the past five years $1,066,885 (not including indirect cost) from 39 grants have been acquired for inventory, specimen processing, data basing, imaging, and curation. Several of these are in collaboration with the UW Library and include: 
  • Data basing/georeferencing of  >30,000 specimens of vascular plant species from Arizona and New Mexico at RM/USFS. This complements data acquisition on 45,000 recent collections from north central New Mexico (five projects funded separately by the FS and the BLM) and 6,500 collections from selected areas in Arizona.
  • The data basing of 18,000 specimens from BLM lands in Wyoming.
  • The imaging/data basing of the 6,500 specimens in the Grand Teton NP herbarium (funded by UW/NPS) ( Likewise the processing/imaging of 8,200 collections at RM obtained recently from the Park. We have completed the imaging of herbaria at Bandelier National Monument (2,000) and the Black Hills cluster (Devil’s Tower, Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Mt. Rushmore – 4,000+ collections). We have an agreement in place to image the herbaria in the NPS units throughout in their Northern Great Plains region.
  • The processing/imaging of 35,000 specimens from recent inventories on Shoshone NF.
  • The data basing of RM specimens from the Missouri Plateau (eight of 23 counties in Wyoming and major portions of Montana, the Dakotas, and northern Nebraska; funded by NSF through Black Hills State).
  • Imaging/databasing >5,000 nomenclatural type specimens at RM (funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. [A type specimen is one on which the description of a species new to science is based; they are critical to understanding the circumscription of a species.
Additionally, a proposal to the National Science Foundation is in preparation. It includes a “virtual herbarium” of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and completion of databasing of Wyoming specimens at the RM. Thus digitization of RM/USFS specimens from Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming will be complete.

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