By Sylvia Orli, guest contributor
The latest buzz term in natural history is “connecting content.” We see the term used officially in certain contexts, such as the California Academy of Science’s collaborative initiative to digitize natural history field notes and connect them to natural history collections and Biodiversity Heritage Library publications. But connecting content can also refer to projects which connect concepts in various content areas. In the US National Herbarium, we are using our KE EMu (Electronic Museum) data system to store different types of content, such as specimen data, photo images, mapping coordinates, and genetic voucher details, which connect to each other and to outside content. To date, we have nearly 1.2 million specimen descriptive records, 300,000 geocoded collection localities, and 185,000 specimen images and live plant images in EMu and available online. With these resources, we can illustrate botanical taxonomic and geographic checklists with both live images and plant specimen images, create locality maps of our collections, and connect our botanical research to our herbarium collections through the use of online tools.
If the Department of Botany had the original report drawings, shouldn’t we also have the specimens from the expedition? The notion of combing the herbarium for specimens from this expedition to match the drawings seemed daunting, as 70 percent of the herbarium specimens are not inventoried. But Botany has also embarked on the Historical Collections project, an effort to document the botanical explorations in the US National Herbarium and digitize the collections associated with the expeditions as part of the Global Plants Initiative (GPI). By querying the name of the expedition in our EMu system, we were able to retrieve 71 records and specimen images for the Whipple expedition and match many of them to the original illustrations. A score for both the Whipple Expedition illustrations and specimens! We could now digitally connect the illustrations to their voucher specimen records.
But not all illustrations matched specimen records at the herbarium. For example, a drawing of Echinocactus whipplei was likely to be the illustration of the type. The Whipple Expedition report contained a charming note about Echinocactus whipplei: “This species was discovered on Lithodendrow Creek, near the Colorado Chiquito about 90 miles west of Zuni, in sandy plains, December 3-4, 1853. At first only dead specimens were found, afterwards young living ones were collected. We have named this very pretty species in honor of Captain A.W. Whipple, the zealous and talented commander of this expedition.” There was even a credit line to the illustrator, Paulus Roetter of St. Louis, who drew “with greatest accuracy” under the direction of Engelmann. Our Type Register specialist John Boggan managed to find a type of Echinocactus (Sclerocactus) whipplei at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium (MO), which turned out to be the specimen used for the illustration (right down to the groups of spines). Warren Wagner explained that Engelmann, who was instrumental in founding the Missouri Botanical Garden, was likely to file all of the cactus types at MO.
We will most likely have more illustrations of content from other institutions, and we may also have specimens for which illustrations were made and deposited elsewhere. Clearly our future challenges for connecting content involve connecting not only data outside of our data system, but content outside of the Smithsonian Institution. In the case of the Whipple material, we can relate our botanical illustrations back to the MO specimen in our own database, but a better system would be the reciprocity of data between and among institutions. This concept of a global electronic botanical network is slowly taking shape in several digital formats throughout the botanical world, and the Department of Botany strives to be at the forefront of that movement.