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Collections-based research - Projects and Background

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A significant part of our research relies on botanical collections, especially the Aarhus University Herbarium (http://sciencemuseerne.dk/herbariet). These collections allow us to gather a wealth of biodiversity data from plants that are difficult or impossible to reach in the wild. These could be species that grow in remote, inaccessible places in the tropics, or populations that were collected decades ago, but are now extinct or altered. Because herbarium specimens preserve many of a plant's attributes, these extensive collections literally bring much of the World's plant diversity to our doorstep, allowing us to research biodiversity in space and time without even leaving the campus. Through the extensive network of the World's >3000 herbaria, we have got access to millions of specimens from all over the World.


Modern technologies ever increase the amount of information that we can extract from herbarium specimens. This includes DNA sequences that can be used for example for systematics, evolutionary biology, or conservation. Locality data from herbarium specimens are now being gathered in huge datasets that are invaluable for species distribution modelling and global change biology. New analytical methods continue to unlock a host of morphological, anatomical, and chemical traits that can inform ecological and evolutionary research. None of these uses were known at the time when most herbaria were founded, and most specimens collected. The future will undoubtedly bring even more new applications for herbarium collections. 


Importantly, our section has a strong focus on future-proofing the data we produce.  Besides obvious measures like data backups and documenting our work, this includes – perhaps surprisingly – botanical collections. Most of our biodiversity research is at the species level, i.e. each data point is associated with a species name. The validity of this name, which links the one data point to millions of others out there, is documented by the voucher specimen, a botanical sample that is permanently lodged in a herbarium and allows future researchers to check, and perhaps update, our species identification. Only by doing so, we can make sure that the data we produce survives future changes in our knowledge of species boundaries and relationships.


Our section also actively carries out taxonomic research, describing species and elucidating the boundaries between them. Although published in scientific papers, the most important outcome of this research are so-called type specimens – botanical specimens that define species and are usually distributed across multiple herbaria. Thereby, our research contributes to the all-important taxonomic reference system that is provided by the World's herbaria.


Some of our current collections-based research projects include:


·         Phylogenomics and evolution of the palm family (Arecaceae)

·         Palm community ecology  

·         Saxifraga as a model for the evolution of alpine plant diversity

·         The Flora of Thailand and Flora of Ecuador projects

·         Phylogeny and biogeography of Aquatic plants

·         Floral evolution of Macaronesian species of Lotus (Fabaceae)

·         Palms for Flora of New Guinea (PONG)

·         Taxonomy of the New World clubmosses (Lycopodiaceae)

·         Taxonomic revision of the grasses (Poaceae) for flora of Ecuador

·         Taxonomy of the genus Alchemilla (Rosaceae)