Friday, 24 June 2022 11:51

One million plant specimens to be digitally converted into images


Nearly a million plant specimens housed by the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra will be imaged using an automated system developed by digitalisation company Picturae.

CSIRO group leader for digitisation and informatics Pete Thrall who oversees digital assets at the National Research Collections, Australia’s national science agency, said the project would help inform bushfire recovery and biosecurity.

"Digitising the herbarium is a huge leap forward for sharing specimens for research. As a result, we'll be able to provide information quickly for projects like bushfire recovery and biosecurity," Thrall comments.

"Creating a digitised replica also provides security for the herbarium’s irreplaceable physical specimens," he adds.

Parks Australia imaging manager Emma Toms, who is coordinating the project, is confident that the work would be completed in the next nine months.

"To digitise these specimens in house would have taken us about eight years using a standard camera rig," she says.

She then explains the process.

"The first step is a visual check of each specimen to ensure it is in good condition and has a barcode to link to its digital record.”

"Three people operate Picturae's conveyor belt, which moves specimens under a camera to take a high-resolution photograph. Two people unpack the specimens at the start of the conveyor belt and one person repacks the specimens and checks the photographs for any errors," she says.

Artificial intelligence is transforming the collection.

Machine learning and AI enables researchers to extract trait information from images says CSIRO postdoc Dr Abdo Khamis.

"We can use digitised herbarium specimens to understand how plants are responding to climate change, for example by determining how the reproductive structure of flowers is changing with time.”

The team will manage the herbarium’s digital assets as more plant specimens from Australia and the region are added to the collection.

"We will have an inhouse digitisation programme once this process is complete, so new specimens will be photographed before they are incorporated into the collection," Toms says.

The full digital collection of the Australian National Herbarium will be made available through the Atlas of Living Australia, including for the general public.

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