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February 25, 2010

Project “CyberFlora Louisiana” celebrates anniversary; receives more funding

"CyberFlora Louisiana" celebrated a one-year anniversary in February with more than 44,000 plant specimens digitized at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and an additional $101,665 of second-year funding through a National Science Foundation grant.

“CyberFlora Louisiana” seeks to digitize the images and data of more than one million plant specimens in 15 Louisiana herbaria, of which 475,000 are housed at the ULM Museum of Natural History.

ULM has the largest collection to digitize among the other Louisiana universities involved in one of the first statewide projects of its kind.

New software makes possible the efficient digitizing of the specimens, and student workers at ULM have been busily scanning the specimens since October, according to ULM Associate Professor of Biology Thomas Sasek.

The students are able to completely scan four to five specimens per minute to a central server, with the images ultimately becoming part of an electronic statewide database.

Sasek wrote the NSF grant with herbarium curators from around the state and was awarded almost $500,000 last year for the three-year project at ULM and seven other Louisiana universities, which will serve as a model for other state networks.

“What we’re doing is important because it will demonstrate for others what works and what doesn’t,” said Sasek.

A strategic plan by the Obama administration for digitizing U.S. natural history collections would likely include a U.S. Virtual Herbarium, improving the chances that continued funding is a strong possibility, according to Sasek, who added that the CyberFlora Louisiana database could be one of the first to tie into it.

The next important step is the implementation of software that will make possible the digitizing of label information in a similarly efficient way as the plants are now being digitized, said Sasek.

Sasek said Michael Giddens of SilverBiology, a leading web portal for biological collections located in Baton Rouge, is developing the software.

]“It’s very exciting and looking like the new software might work much sooner than expected,” said Sasek. “If this software is mostly automated and can make digitizing the identification labels easier, it could be really amazing.”

Once scanned, the digitized images and data will offer fast data sorting and filtering, rapid delivery of images, mapping of specimen locations, and checklists of plants for particular locations, all freely available to the public, said Sasek.

The Web site will also feature digital images of live plants, plant parts, and identifying features for species found in Louisiana, according to Sasek, who added that visual identification keys will be developed to aid the general public unfamiliar with scientific terminology. These efforts at ULM are also being supported by funding through a Louisiana Board of Regents enhancement grant.

The first award of $317,070 was effective March 1, 2009. The NSF will award $80,244 in the third year, assuming funding availability and scientific progress in the project, for a total award amount of $498,979.

For more information about the project, contact Dr. Sasek at 318-342-1792 or

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