Small Herbaria as Repositories for Invasive Species and Federal Noxious Weed Vouchers in Collaborative Research

Guest post by Travis D. Marsico

This blog post is derived from a talk I gave at SPNHC 2016 in Berlin. My collaborators on the research (and the talk) were Jennifer N. Reed, Chelsea Cunard, Samantha Worthy, Lauren Whitehurst, Kevin S. Burgess, and Rima D. Lucardi. I’m writing this blog post for Cracking the Collections because I think the spirit of the research described here can be of use for emerging professionals who may be new to working in or being responsible for a natural history collection. Within the collections community you will find folks often talking about the many uses of their natural history collections. Of course, the main uses are research, education, and outreach, but each of these three uses can be broken down further into much more specific elements. For example, within research, the most common uses for herbaria are in floristic studies (as references), biogeographic research, and taxonomic or systematic research on certain plant groups. Sometimes ecological questions are posed and answered using herbarium specimens. Non-native, invasive taxa are often studied in natural history collections, too. These are all important uses for herbaria.

With respect to invasive species research, unfortunately, much of the ecological research is conducted without the use of natural history collections or neglects to provide voucher specimens. I say this is “unfortunate” because I see this lack of recognition of the utility of collections by other researchers as a real missed opportunity for important knowledge gains. As collections professionals, we need to reach out to our collections-naïve colleagues to let them know how making and depositing vouchers into our collections helps improve the quality and repeatability of their research. Ecological papers that involve field identifications of species should have their data backed up by accessioned vouchers in a natural history collection. Moreover, with specimens accessioned in natural history collections, future researchers can make use of the specimens from previously published research to answer questions not conceived by the original researchers.

Our collaborative team is working on a project to identify and model non-native plant species propagules arriving on refrigerated shipping containers at the Port of Savannah, Georgia, USA. As part of the overall project, we are using DNA barcodes to identify the propagules. Importantly, we are also accessioning fruits/seeds in the Arkansas State University Herbarium (STAR) and accessioning full-grown plant specimens collected from around the port and grown from germinated seeds at STAR and the Columbus State University Herbarium (COLG). These reference specimens are going to be linked to the DNA barcodes. One aspect of this research is the identification of potentially invasive species propagules. Therefore, it may seem pretty obvious that vouchers should be accessioned. Maybe less common, though, is accessioning fruit/seed vouchers only. It is also important to have a specimen voucher for each specimen with a DNA barcode so that the genetic evidence and morphological evidence can be matched.


Propagules collected from refrigerated shipping containers at the Port of Savannah, Georgia, USA.

Generally, however, researchers interested in modeling invasive species propagules and making predictions of introduction or establishment risk may not consider making vouchers of species or field specimens they are encountering and using in their research. Therefore, I make this call to all emerging professionals to make these important uses known to your non-collections colleagues. This is an important aspect of outreach we can do within our disciplines to others who may not think about all the ways collections can be useful to them in their research.

With respect to the Port of Savannah project described above, I was invited to participate in the project as the person who was going to lead the morphological identification of the seeds/plants resulting from collections made in the project. Obviously, making permanent vouchers of the collections was important to my collaborators and me in this project.

But I have also had a biochemist recently deposit vouchers of plant specimens used in biochemical research as well so that a permanent record exists of the accessions used in the biochemistry research. Again, the more researchers who see the value of permanent vouchers, the greater the variety of uses for natural history collections that can be realized.

Travis Marsico is an Associate Professor at Arkansas State University and curator of the STAR Herbarium. His research focuses on biogeography, biodiversity conservation, natural history, and species invasions. Currently he researches risk associated with hitchhiking plant propagules at US shipping ports, invasion of herbivorous insect pests, plant diversity patterns in fragmented landscapes of the Upper Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, and plant diversity patterns along elevation gradients in the Neotropics. His research emphasizes making and utilizing natural history collections in research. He also studies biology education and improvements to university-level education utilizing specimen-based projects in coursework.