An important resource for research and teaching, UNSW Science’s John T Waterhouse has gone online with the collection now publicly available via the Australasian Virtual Herbarium. Researchers using the herbarium and depositing voucher specimens since 1960 and have worked across diverse fields such as ecological research, education, and biosecurity management. 

An essential tool for the identification of plants, the herbarium’s curator, Frank Hemmings, has seen scientists use the data for a variety of important questions.

“Historical herbarium data allows people look at what the landscape and vegetation looked like in the past. In a world with a changing climate, this data gives us a window into what grew where, how it looked, maybe what else it grew with.  It allows us to track changes into how a species range may change through time and may help us understand how our world may look in the future,” He explains.

“Similarly, herbarium data can help us look at invasive species and inform how far they have spread, how further they may spread, what interactions positive and negative they may have along the way.”

Herbarium data is also a gift that keeps on giving. Specimens collected 50 or a hundred years ago are being used to answer questions that were not being asked, and in ways not even dreamt of at the time of collection, and that is equally so looking into the future.

Before UNSW’s herbarium collection went online, anyone wishing to use the data from our physical herbarium collection would have to visit it in person or request a loan of specimens.  In many cases all that would be needed would be data about the specimen contained on the specimen label.  Now that label data is available in the database and it means it is publicly and readily available to anyone who needs it.

“Having our collection data online via the Australasian Virtual Herbarium (AVH) exposes our collection to a wider audience,” says Associate Professor Stephen Bonser, director of the herbarium, “As a smaller herbarium, many researchers looking for specimens or data would not necessarily be aware of what we have on offer. We now have the opportunity to share these resources and help scientists all over Australia.”

Professor Emma Johnston AO, Dean of UNSW Science, agrees, “Sharing scientific data is an important public service, and we are proud to make our substantial collection available to all.” 

“As a Faculty, we are committed to understanding and protecting the natural world. To do this we need to answer important scientific questions and share what we find with the community.  Having our herbarium resources online enables more of this work to happen and at scale,” she says. 

Frank has already seen benefits to having the collection online, “We have increased visibility since moving the collection online.  It’s incredible to watch the statistics, we’ve already had 114,217 records downloaded and we're only half-way through April.  This equates to more data requests than I would have had in the 20 years of managing the herbarium!”

The project was not without its challenges.  Having the right data in place and in a format that could be sent over was a particularly challenging one. 

“The herbarium community in Australia and New Zealand is a tight-knit and collaborative one and we all work together quite closely across our varying institutions,” says Frank.

“UNSW was grateful to receive help and advice in data migration and exporting from other institutions. Niels Klazenga, who works the National Herbarium of Victoria and for the Atlas of Living Australia, and Jacinta Green from BEES were particularly instrumental in setting up the data export process.  The process we use, different to that used by many larger herbaria at the time, was first trialled using our dataset.  We were the guinea pigs for what is now becoming the standard method for supplying data to the Australian Virtual Herbarium,” he says.

Another challenge was ploughing through the backlog of un-databased collections.  Frank says that while it is great to have database publicly available, the herbarium has a long way to go. 

“At current estimates are about 35% complete. Since 2005, all new specimens are databased, but our specimens date back to 1892. We still have work to do to capture all of that backlog data,” he explains.

“But, by focusing on groups, we've managed to completely database some groups like lichens, mosses and liverworts, ferns, conifers as well as a selection of families of flowering plants including the two largest - daisies and grasses. It’s been a huge body of work.”

What is an herbarium and why is it important that we have one? 

Herbaria are collections of pieces, or whole individuals, of plants, fungi, lichens or algae that have been preserved so that their morphological features are maintained.  Mostly these are pressed and dried, but sometimes they may be dried without pressing (e.g. fungal collections, bark, timber) or preserved in spirit.  Each specimen is tagged, named and labelled accurately with details of where, when and by whom it was collected and a description of the plant's habitat with details such as the soil, aspect and surrounding plant community. Carefully prepared and curated specimens can last indefinitely and there are many specimens in the world still extant from the eighteenth century.

The John T. Waterhouse Herbarium is in the lower ground floor of E26 Biosciences South under the Biolink Building. Most of its 61,000 specimens are Australian and of these the majority are from NSW, with a local emphasis on the Sydney Region, although parts of Australia are represented and there are a small number of collections from a range of other countries.

During normal operations, the collection is available, by appointment within work hours, for use by staff and students of UNSW and external visitors. Specimens are available for loan to other institutions for study.  All undergraduate students are allowed supervised access to the herbarium; staff and research students who may need unsupervised access are given the training and induction to do so.

Find the collection online.