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Digital record

Biology professor breathing new life into Memorial's herbarium


By Kelly Foss

An assistant professor in the Department of Biology is hoping to give new life to an old collection.

Dr. Julissa Roncal has been given responsibility for Memorial’s herbarium, the largest in the province.

Plant species

A collection of dried plant specimens, the herbarium includes information on the different forms within a plant species, their geographic distributions and natural history characteristics including blooming and fruiting times.

“Small portions of the specimens can also be removed to study pollen, plant anatomy, and its DNA,” said Dr. Roncal.

“Also, if a new plant fossil is discovered, a herbarium collection can also help identify it by comparing it to known species in the collection.”

Early explorers

Memorial’s collection holds approximately 100,000 specimens, of which 60,000 are mosses — making it one of the top five moss collections in Canada. Over 90 per cent of the 40,000 vascular plants were collected in Newfoundland and Labrador.

1/ Purple crowberry

Empetrum atropurpureum (purple crowberry) collected by Glen Ryan on Aug. 14, 1977, in Birchy Cove, Bonavista Bay.

Photo: Chris Hammond

2/ Buckbean

Menyanthes trifoliata L. (buckbean) collected by Laura Noel on Aug. 4, 1998, from a 'bog just before Wade's Farm Road.'

Photo: Chris Hammond

3/ Common Yarrow

Achilla millefolium L. (common yarrow) collected by Janet Stewart on Oct. 7, 1989, from 44 Station Rd., Glovertown.

Photo: Chris Hammond

The Memorial herbarium houses the original collections of early local plant explorers, Marion Agnes Ayre and Earnest Rouleau, who co-founded the herbarium in the late 1940s with sponsorship from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the time, Ms. Ayre had collected five-sixths of the then known flora of the province, and after her death her pressed flowers, field notes and watercolour paintings of nearly 2,000 of those plants were donated to Memorial University.

“[Marion Agnes Ayre] would have cut, pressed and dried each of them, likely using newspaper.” — Dr. Julissa Roncal

Her paintings have since been digitized by the Queen Elizabeth II Library.

“She would have cut, pressed and dried each of them, likely using newspaper,” said Dr. Roncal.

“We still do it like that today, but we put it all into an oven, instead of having to change the newspapers every day until the plants are dry. Once dry, Ms. Ayre would have mounted them on white paper next to a label with information such as the scientific name of the plant, the plant family name, who collected it, when and where, and other information that can get lost once you mount the specimen, such as flower colour. Some of her specimens were collected as far back as the early 1900s.”

Huge undertaking

However, for the past 15 years, the collection has not been very active.

Dr. Julissa Roncal examines some of the plant specimens at the herbarium.
Dr. Julissa Roncal examines some of the plant specimens at the herbarium.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Since starting at Memorial in 2013, Dr. Roncal has begun the huge undertaking of moving the massive collection from the former Library Annex building, next to the Henrietta Harvey building on the St. John’s campus, to a new home in a university facility near the Botanical Gardens on Mount Scio Road in St. John’s.

“Just getting it moved was a huge endeavour,” said Dr. Roncal.

“We have now moved all of the specimens, but we still have another 100 boxes to unpack. Unfortunately, I also don’t have any records in terms of how many species we have or the breadth of diversity of the collection. All I have is anecdotal information about it.”

She is now working towards funding to digitize the herbarium.

Digitization is made up of two components, databasing the information on the label of each specimen and geo-referencing the specimen if GPS co-ordinates are not available, and taking high-resolution photographs of each specimen according to international standards.

Research and teaching resource

Dr. Roncal is hoping digitization will make the collection more accessible to users around the world, and says herbarium specimens and associate data provide a unique opportunity to engage students in the practice of science.

“Students who work in herbaria develop a hands-on understanding of the kind of data held within specimens.” — Dr. Julissa Roncal

She says it is an important teaching resource for the Department of Biology, allowing students to learn important biological concepts in systematics, evolution and ecology, and to gain an appreciation of a collection’s value for research.

“Students who work in herbaria develop a hands-on understanding of the kind of data held within specimens, and the research questions that can be addressed with this data, for example, the effect of climate change on species distribution and flowering times.”

Digital databases

Dr. Roncal also believes an accessible herbarium will also increase Memorial’s visibility as a teaching- and research-based institution, and has received requests from researchers from across the country who would like to access it.

She says digital databases published in numerous online portals are visited by thousands of people worldwide, and are becoming a research facility requirement for external funding agencies.

“Our current lack of participation in national and international digital herbaria portals such as Canadensys and iDigbio is reducing Memorial’s opportunity to be a part of large research initiatives and minimizes the potential utilization of our herbarium data for local research and community service.”

In the meantime, she has been hiring MUCEP students to begin the lengthy process of digitizing the data. It might take longer, but will provide a valuable learning opportunity for those involved.

“Participation in a digitization project will give Memorial students the tools to handle large data sets, preparing them for future jobs in which familiarization and analysis of metadata is a requirement.”

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