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Research Spotlight

Herbarium data shows that lichens are more diverse in the tropics

Klara Scharnagl used data from the MSU Herbarium and the Consortium of North American Lichen Herbaria to show that lichens, like many other types of plants and animals, are more species rich near the equator than near the poles. She used over 700,000(!) data records from herbarium collections of New World lichens to show that these remarkable organisms do indeed have a latitudinal diversity gradient. Building large databases of herbarium specimens enables researchers to ask big questions like this. Her research also resulted in the addition of over 3,400 specimens to the MSU Herbarium. Klara did this research as part of her PhD dissertation in the Prather Lab at MSU before moving to the UK for her postdoc at the Sainsbury Laboratory, and then a permanent position at the University and Jepson Herbaria at UC Berkeley.

Left Image: Klara Scharnagl inspecting tree. Right top image: graph. Right bottom image: log with lichens Left image: Klara Scharnagl. Right top image: Rarefied species richness divided by log land area plotted against latitude. Extent of the tropics is marked by vertical dashed grey lines. One southern point (latitude = -60) was removed due to the small amount of land area and the fact that the log-area slope parameter changes between small and large values. Right bottom image: lichen specimen.

You complete me: Voucher specimens enhance research repeatability and transparency

The MSU Herbarium archives specimens documenting their research. In some instances this is required by funding agencies or journals, and documenting plant material is always best practice. Some recent examples are specimens from researchers studying Armillaria resistance in cherries (Pratima Devkota, Ray Hammerschmidt Lab), biodiversity in prairies near blueberry fields (Dr. Knute Gundersen, Rufus Isaacs lab), evolutionary history and genomics of grasses, sedges, and rushes (Jose Planta, Kevin Childs Lab), mint genomics (Robin Buell, Buell Lab), and climatic responses in pine tree rings (Paula Marquardt & Frank Telewski, USFS). Documentation through specimen deposition means that future researchers will have free access to plant samples, increasing reproducibility and linking research projects across time.  

Top: three mounted plant specimens. Bottom: unmounted specimensPine specimens ready to be mountedFrom top left to right: Rudbeckia hirta collected by Dr. Knute Gundersen in 2016, Prunus serotina collected by Pratima Devkota in 2019, and Carex scoparia collected by Dr. Kevin Childs and Selvedina Velic in 2019. Middle row: unprocessed Lavandula x heterophylla specimens deposited by Robin Buell in 2020 as vouchers for the Mint Genome Project. Bottom row: Pinus arizonica vouchers collected by Paula Marquardt and Frank Telewski in 2019. Image credits: Matt Chansler.

Native species loss in Baker Woodlot

Baker Woodlot is a protected natural area on Michigan State University’s campus. These natural areas are small, rare, and contain high biodiversity, so botanists are interested in whether they are sustainable over time. Members of the MSU Herbarium collected, accessioned, and databased hundreds of specimens from two surveys that took place 40 years apart (1969 and 2009). The information gathered from these surveys showed that even though Baker Woodlot is a protected area, native species are lost at a rate of about five species per decade. A team of 18 MSU Herbarium researchers, mostly undergraduates, participated in the most recent Baker Woodlot survey. Click here to learn more about the woodlot and view some extirpated species and look for the research paper in the third issue of Rhodora, 2020. 

Left: man in woods. Right: open woods with path Left: Matt Kolp. Right: image of Baker Woodlot. Image credit: Matthew Chansler

Extrafloral nectaries may vary with climate adaptation in Viburnum species

Bruce Martin, a PhD student in Dr. Marjorie Weber’s lab, uses Viburnum specimens from the MSU Herbarium to study extrafloral nectaries, which produce nectar but are not found in flowers. These nectaries attract insects that do not pollinate the plant, but are beneficial in other ways, especially in defending the plant from herbivores. In the US, Viburnum is often used as an ornamental shrub. These species have a suite of unique characteristics on their leaves that recruit beneficial insects and arachnids for defense against herbivory and disease. These include tufts of hair that shelter fungus-eating mites and nectar-secreting glands that also attract mites and ants, indicated by an arrow (pictured). Bruce uses the MSU Herbarium's large collection of North and Central American Viburnum species to study how the form and placement of extrafloral nectaries has changed as Viburnum adapted to different climates over the course of its evolutionary history.

Right: man holding stick. Left: (top) specimen image (bottom) arrow to nectariesBruce Martin. Extrafloral nectaries, indicated by the arrow, from  a specimen of Viburnum opulus from Drummond Island collected by S. N. Stephenson in 1993. Image credits: Bruce Martin (top two) and Matt Chansler (bottom one).

Polyploidy drives morphological evolution in Phlox amabilis, a rare species from Arizona

Matt Chansler, a former master’s student in the Prather lab, and current Collections Assistant at the MSU Herbarium,  studied the role of polyploidy, or chromosome duplication, on morphological traits of Phlox amabilis, an Arizona-endemic plant. Phlox amabilis was useful species for learning about polyploidy because not only does it have three ploidy levels, its close relatives do as well, allowing for additional comparisons between species. By collecting specimens and measurements of 31 morphological traits of plants from populations across species’ distribution, he found that polyploidy influenced many morphological traits and that ploidy levels could be distinguished from one another. This was a collaborative project, and the plant specimens it generated  are now housed at Michigan State University, the Desert Botanical Garden, and Kansas State University. This research was published in the American Journal of Botany in September 2016.  

Top left: man in forest collecting specimens. Top right: figure. Bottom: mounted specimenRight figure: from Chansler et al. showing that tetraploid Phlox amabilis plants had longer leaves than diploids or hexaploids. Left image credit: Alan Prather. Live plant and specimen images credit: Matt Chansler.


Twenty-seven new lichen species discovered from Glacier Bay National Park

In 2011, Dr. Alan Fryday, former Assistant Curator of the MSU Herbarium, was part of a team of researchers that began a survey of lichens of Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. The team surveyed over ten thousand square kilometers of land in order to establish a baseline lichen inventory and provide a georeferenced database. The study, concluded in 2020, showed that Glacier Bay has the highest diversity of lichens and associated fungi ever documented in the Americas. There were 947 species discovered, documented by almost 5000 herbarium specimens. Of the 947 species, 98 could not be assigned to a known species and the authors described a total of 27 as new to science! Voucher specimens collected for this project are held in the MSU Herbarium. Click here to view the publication. 

Top: two men on a mountain. Bottom: three images of lichen species on rocks

Top image: Alan Fryday and Toby Spribille, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Image credit Måns Svensson. Bottom three images: Placynthium glaciale, one of the 27 new species described as part of this collaboration, photo credit Matt Chansler.

Diploid and tetraploid Phlox plants occur on different soils at the microspatial level

Alex VanTill, a former undergraduate researcher in the MSU Herbarium who is now a graduate student at Western Colorado University studying climate change mitigation, tested whether soil differences contributed to the ability of diploid and tetraploid Phlox amabilis plants to grow at the same site. She worked with scientists at the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory and found that tetraploid plants of Phlox amabilis grow in more acidic soil with higher nitrate and potassium levels than diploid plants. Even though polyploids are common in Phlox amabilis, they have not yet been found growing together with diploids except at Alex’s research site. Her results suggest that this site is very heterogeneous ecologically.  Even though plants of different ploidy are as close as a few meters, their microhabitats are markedly different. Alex will be a co-author on a paper that includes her study and other research on this system. 

three graphs and image of Alex VanTill in forestTop image: Alex VanTill. Bottom figure: results displaying the relationship between soil potassium, soil nitrate, soil pH and ploidy level.

Mutualism between beneficial mites and Michigan’s woody plant species is widespread

Some plant species produce special structures on their leaves called “domatia” that provide a place for beneficial mites to live. These mites may be predatory on other mites or even consume pathogenic fungi that attack leaves. Riley Scanlon, an undergraduate researcher and artist formerly in the lab of Dr. Marjorie Weber, studied hundreds of herbarium specimens of Michigan’s woody plant species, such as the red maple pictured. The number of species he examined with domatia far outnumber those without. This prevalence underscores the importance of the mutualism between beneficial mites and plants. Riley captured these data by using specimen scans, light microscopy, and electron microscopy, and then relayed those results in an artistic way that captured the beauty of the microscopic world and the importance this understanding can bring to the broader community.

Top Left: Man in scenic area. Top Right: maple specimen. Bottom: microscope images of maple specimen

Image credits: Riley Scanlon (pictured in top left image). 

Domatia on the underside of a maple leaf (lower right). Mites that were living in the domatia are visible in the electron microscope image on the lower left. The red maple specimen images were captured by Riley in 2019 from a specimen collected by Margaret G. Ries on July 4, 1932 (top right image).

MSU Herbarium researchers contribute to massive effort to catalogue all North American plant species

Former undergraduate researcher Elizabeth Straley used MSU Herbarium specimens, along with loans from many other North American herbaria, to write a treatment of the genus Pogogyne, commonly known as mesamints. These plants are native to western North America and are tiny, ephemeral plants of playas, vernal pools, and other wetland habitats. Most Pogogyne species are rare and several are threatened or endangered. The treatment was prepared by Elizabeth and Alan Prather for an upcoming volume of The Flora of North America, a comprehensive multi-volume work that will provide descriptions to all of the species of land plants growing in North America North of Mexico. Elizabeth went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and now works for a private company doing crop improvement research on watermelons.

Left: Pogogyne specimen. Right: images of desk with assorted specimensElizabeth Straley’s workspace at the MSU Herbarium, showing the diversity of Pogogyne as seen in herbarium records.

More contributions of MSU Researchers to the monumental Flora of North America:

Garrett Crow, a former graduate and local retiree now based at the MSU Herbarium, wrote the treatment for the parasitic aquatic Lentibulariaceae (bladderwort family).

Alan Prather, Director of the MSU Herbarium, contributed to the upcoming Lamiaceae (mint family) volume by writing treatments for four genera: Hedeoma (false-pennyroyal), Monarda (beebalm or horsemint), Poliomintha (rosemary-mint or mintbush), and Rhododon (sandmint).  

Deb Trock, former collections manager wrote the treatment to Achillea (milfoil) and finished the treatment to Packera (ragwort) while she worked at the MSU Herbarium.

Josh Springer, former graduate student in the Jarosz lab, wrote treatments for Dryas (mountain avens) and Chamaerhodos (little rose).

Image of four mounted specimen

Top left image: Pinguicula ionantha specimen from Florida collected by Garrett Crow, 2009. Location obscured because of the rarity of this carnivorous plant. Top right image: Hedeoma hispida specimen collected by Warren Douglas Stevens, 1970. Bottom left image: Achillea ptarmica specimen collected by E. A. Bourdo, 1969. Bottom right image: Dryas specimen collected by Josh Springer, 2009.

Modeling how polyploidy affects ecological niches of plants

Polyploidy, having multiple sets of chromosomes, can affect the ecology of plants. In Phlox amabilis, there are three different chromosome races, or cytotypes, and each cytotype has slightly different ecological tolerances. Shannon Fehlberg (Desert Botanical Garden),  Carolyn Ferguson (Kansas State University), and Alan Prather (Plant Biology, Director of the MSU Herbarium) used herbarium specimens and field work to locate and confirm populations of each cytotype, and then used GIS information about those sites to uncover those differences. What we found was that temperature, humidity, snowfall, and total precipitation predict which cytotypes occur at a given place. Hexaploids (with six sets of chromosomes), in particular, occurred in cooler, less humid, places with more snow and total precipitation.

Left image: niche graphics. Right image: unmounted specimen on folder Left image: ecological niche modeling of Phlox amabilis cytotypes. Upper left shows the niche by ploidy in two-dimensional niche space, lower left shows the contribution of the main ecological traits, and upper and lower right side show differences in attributes of the niche by ploidy. Right image: late night hotel room pressing of plant specimens to voucher populations used in the niche modeling study. Image credit: Alan Prather.

minimal computer design

Digitization of MSU Herbarium collections contributes big data to big science

Specimen data from the MSU Herbarium and other natural history museums are aggregated in data portals for researchers, educators, and naturalists to use. Portals like GBIF, iDigBio, and Symbiota provide a diversity of mapping, imaging, and download tools to make these data sets useful.  Researchers can ask questions about plants, their evolutionary history, and the niches they occupy using these large-scale data sets. Using specimen occurrence data that includes records from the MSU Herbarium, researchers discovered that...

All this is made possible by the deposition of specimens by botanists, decades of stewardship by herbarium members, and also to the many volunteers and students that help digitize those specimens and make them available to scientists around the world!

Click here to explore our databases.