Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009
K-STATE HERBARIUM FILLED WITH RICH NATURAL HISTORY, KNOWLEDGE
MANHATTAN -- Through the old wooden door on the top floor of Bushnell Hall at Kansas State University is a museum rich with natural history and for many researchers around the world, an important key to unlocking the mysteries of plant life.
The K-State Herbarium, established in 1877, is among the oldest, largest and most diverse collections of preserved plants in the Great Plains region, according to Carolyn Ferguson, Herbarium curator and associate professor of biology. The Herbarium is operated by the Division of Biology with additional support from the K-State Agricultural Experiment Station.
The specimens are housed in rows upon rows of towering white insect-proof cabinets that might not seem too exciting to the average person, but the treasures inside are a natural historian's dream, including pressed flowers, dried leaves, cacti, and mosses from all over the world. All the cabinets combined hold more than 10,000 different plant species, some samples dating back to the mid-1800s.
"It's not quite as showy as a regular museum because it's not behind glass, but that's because we are actually using and working with the material," Ferguson said.
Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, the Herbarium averages more than 70 visitors a year. Besides the occasional field trip and group tour, the majority of visitors are research scientists. Plant taxonomists travel from around the globe for the chance to get a glimpse of plant life over space and time.
With the approximately 200,000 specimens, many of the same species, scientists are able to use the Herbarium to understand variation in species over space and time, Ferguson said. They also are using the Herbarium's samples to study plant material directly instead of using a drawing or picture in a field guide.
"I use the Herbarium for identification," said Mark Mayfield, associate curator and plant taxonomist. "Anytime something is written down, drawn or even photographed, there is a little bit of a filter between the real thing and what is in that book; the Herbarium is just getting around the filter."
In fact, as part of a combined effort, Mayfield and collaborators have recently used Herbarium specimens to identify and describe a new species of Leatherwood, a yellow flowering shrub. The study will be published in the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in December.
Regular workers in the Herbarium, in addition to Ferguson and Mayfield, include two research associates, a graduate student and numerous undergraduate student workers. Herbarium students are involved with research in addition to assisting with curatorial work.
In an effort to better assist researchers throughout the world who are unable to travel to the Herbarium, an Internet database system has been created with support from various sources, particularly a National Science Foundation grant to Ferguson and Mayfield.
Collection data for the vast majority of the North American vascular plant specimens are in the database, and some images of the samples also are available. The database is available through a Web portal supported by the K-State Targeted Excellence program. The portal, called the K-State Biodiversity Information System, is a collaborative effort between the Herbarium, the K-State Museum of Entomological and Prairie Arthropod Research and the K-State Libraries. It is currently publicly accessible at http://biodis.k-state.eduFor more information about the Herbarium, plant analysis or how to contribute material or monetary donations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.