Specimen Work in the Lab: Cataloguing Plant Biodiversity at the Field Museum

This guest post is the third installment of periodic blogs this winter/spring from Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies major Colleen Dennis, who is working as a student intern in the botany division of the science department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. This post is an interesting look at the scientific reasoning and assessment that goes into even the most mundane, everyday task of specimen analysis.

image12In our current project with its countless botanical specimens to catalogue and photograph, there are numerous samples that are left out of the documentation process for various reasons.  For example, nearly every folder contains at least one sample sheet with no physical sample at all.  Instead, a sheet of text (seldom in English) or a photograph will take its place.  When these articles stand alone on the page without an organic sample, they are bypassed in our cataloguing process and excluded from the database.  Only when there is a mix of organic and inorganic material on a sample sheet, sometimes including drawings of plant parts that could not reasonably be pressed and preserved, do these articles make the cut.

I personally take pictures of only the samples that were large enough to mount onto these sheets – some are too small and have to be stored in tiny cardboard boxes or paper envelopes.  Those samples are handled by veteran scientists and museum staff, only to be studied or photographed using special equipment.  Even as we are cataloguing these collections, new specimens are coming in – freshly mounted and labeled, collected within the past year.  Scientific collecting is a continuous process, as biodiversity constantly changes and the scientific community races to keep up.

image13Sometimes, botanists disagree on the naming of a specimen as a particular genus or species.  The original determination stays with the sample, always on the primary label in the lower right corner of the page.  When other botanists examine the samples and disagree, they attach their theories to the specimen page either by attaching another slip of paper with a printed “corrected” label, or writing directly on the page.  Some pages may have more than five different theories, and the most current correction is the official name of the sample – for now.  Some corrections are decidedly more scientific than others.

image16The labels can be misleading for several reasons, however.  In some instances, the collector who is, at that point, essentially guessing the actual species to which their sample belongs either believes it to be unnamed, does not know the name, or has only heard the name spoken rather than written.  This leaves a substantial amount of room for confusion when scientists are then interpreting the spelling of names they’ve only heard and putting it on paper.  Once the samples come through the museum and are looked over by other scientists, ideally, they become significantly more accurate.

image17When I’m entering the label information into the database, I have a list of every plant’s name down to the species to choose from.  When I come across a name that is not yet an option in the database, this can mean a few things: a) the spelling of the name is simply an interpretation of the actual spelling and is already listed as such, b) the labeling is incorrect, and the specimen is actually of another species which is currently listed, or c) the naming is accurate and thus has to be entered into the database (by a supervisor, not by me) as a valid species.

image14Sometimes the work I do here can get repetitive, or at times even a little dull.  There are so many samples that have to go through the same processes, one after another.  But the reality of it all, knowing that each specimen was collected by a real person out in nature just as he/she found it, and that no two are the same, adds a certain thrill of adventure to each page.  There are holes in the leaves where insects have chewed through them; two samples of the same plant will be different colors if collected in different seasons; sister seeds of the ones I’m photographing went on to grow into their own new shrubs and produce new seeds.  They had a life before they came here, and that is something to be respected and appreciated.  I take great pride in knowing that I can look back on this project and point to the pictures I took, and that their quality affects other scientists’ ability to learn from them.

A Personal Aside . . .               

Roosevelt had Spring Break this week, and I spent mine in Florida with my best friend.  More often than she appreciated, I had to stop to look closer at different plants we saw.  I couldn’t help but want to bring back a branch and identify it! I have more pictures of plants from this trip than of either of us, or anything else that we saw.  I don’t know yet if my future career will have much or anything to do with botany, but I do know that this internship has changed the way I look at the world, and I will always keep that with me wherever I go from here.

IMG00148Colleen Dennis is a Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University and an intern in the Botany Department of the Field Museum of Natural History. She’s writing for the SUST blog about her scientific internship experience during the spring 2014 semester. Colleen began working for economic botany collections manager Christine Niezgoda in the fall of 2013 as a student in Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans‘ SUST 330 Biodiversity course at the Field Museum.

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