Troy University Herbarium to expand capacity thanks to National Science Foundation grant

A grant from the National Science Foundation will enable the Troy University Herbarium to double its current capacity of its plant collection.

A grant from the National Science Foundation will enable the Troy University Herbarium to double its current capacity of its plant collection.

A National Science Foundation grant received by Troy University’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences will double the capacity of the University’s herbarium.

Dr. Alvin Diamond, associate professor of biology, and Dr. Michael Woods, professor of biology, received the $195,359 grant for their project, “Alabama’s Biodiversity Heritage: Expanding and Promoting Access and Use of a Regional Important Botanical Collection.”

The Troy University Herbarium, which was initially established in 1954 before falling dormant in 1988, was re-established in 1997 by Diamond and Woods. Today, as one of the fastest growing herbaria in the Southeast, it houses a collection of more than 48,000 plants and represents the largest collection of plant specimens from the Wiregrass region of the state.

The NSF grant will allow for the purchase and installation of new compactor storage units, which will double storage capacity, two new computers and a new camera and macro lens to capture images of plant specimens. The grant funds will also enable the herbarium curators to conduct workshops on plant identification and classification for the Alabama Science in Motion program and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.

“The herbarium serves as a museum of sorts,” said Dr. Diamond, project director. “Probably over half of the specimens we have here are collected within 50 miles of the University. We have the largest collection of plants from the Wiregrass region, which is one of the areas of the state with the highest level of biodiversity.”

Located in the Math and Science Complex on the Troy Campus, the herbarium provides benefit for anyone doing research on plant species and is used in coursework for TROY undergraduate and graduate students.

“The herbarium collection provides a record of what species grow in a certain area at a certain time,” said Dr. Woods, project co-director. “We currently have 36 cabinets in which to house our collection of plant specimens, and this grant will enable us to expand that to 72 cabinets in basically the same floor space.”

Plant specimens are collected through research by the curators, projects by undergraduate and graduate students and an active exchange programs with other herbaria, both in-state and throughout the United States. Some plant specimens in the collection date back to the 1800s.

“We collect, press, dry, mount, database and photograph each plant specimen before they are filed into the collection,” Dr. Diamond said. “Each specimen has a label that includes information such as who collected it, where it was collected, time of year it was collected and this information is searchable through the database.”

Two undergraduate research assistants have been hired to help with imaging and databasing of the collection thanks to the grant funding, and the new cabinet system is expected to be installed before the end of the year, Dr. Woods said.

TROY’s herbarium provides a valuable resource for a wide range of plant research.

“We are contacted by people who are doing distributional studies. For example, if someone is studying sunflowers that are found from Georgia to Texas, they may want to examine plants throughout the range to see the differences and see if they fall into different species within that range,” Dr. Woods said.  “If they are doing research on an endangered plant species, they may want to look at species over its entire range and determine if there are similar habitats in other locations where the species might be found. They may want to research what species grow in a particular habitat. We have specimens that were collected 100 years ago that have not been seen in the area since, so researchers may look at the habitat to see if there are other locations with similar attributes that would support that species.”

TROY students also benefit from the collection.

“In addition to research done by our graduate students, we also teach the course Field Botany,” Dr. Woods said. “As a part of that class, students will learn all aspects of how to curate an herbarium. They will collect the plants and will take them through all steps necessary to incorporate them into the collection.”

While TROY’s herbarium will reap benefits from the new storage cabinets, another Alabama university will also benefit. The cabinets that are being replaced will be transported the University of West Alabama for use in its herbarium.