Royal Ontario Museum



[Museum] Approaches to the Study of Biodiversity


Uses of plant specimens and specimen data


The point of the last few labs has been to give you exposure to herbaria, online databases, and herbarium specimens. You’ve learned about where to access summaries of scientific data about plant groups (e.g. species), and you’ve learned about accessing data from individual plant specimen in museum collections.

These data are all useful and unique, but in vastly different ways. The assignment is to demonstrate to us that you know and understand these resources: the different kinds of data they provide, how to use them, and what their limitations are. Keep in mind the distinction between specimen data and species data. You might think of specimens, specimen data, and the individuals (and populations) that the specimens represent, as the raw materials of organismic biology. Observations made on specimens from a particular species are assembled so as to allow us to characterize that species to which we say those specimens belong. Here, “characterize” might mean to prepare a morphological description of the species, or a description of its habitat preferences, or a description of its place in a molecular phylogeny.

Museum collections of specimens are also special in ways that go beyond the relationship between specimens of a particular species and our concept of that species. Museum collections often comprise many specimens of each species, each specimen possibly collected at a different place at a different time. As a result we can say things about spatial properties of species, or about temporal changes or lack of changes, or about both of those together – based on the existence of actual specimens, and not just anecdotal, unvouchered observations.


Some more links:




Molecular evolution of the Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans

DNA from herbarium specimens settles a controversy about origins of the European potato


Lecture slides, 17 October 2011


| The ROM Green Plant Herbarium | Plants and their Classification | Plants online | Uses of Plant Specimens |
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