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Great Lakes invaders go digital

David Tenenbaum
UW-Madison News
UW-Madison sophomore Alex Idarraga carefully feeds a paper sheet holding a delicate dried plant into a light box. He is photographing the specimen for an online database of Great Lakes invasive species.

More than 2,500 species of plants, fish and mollusks will be invading the internet soon.

It’s an effort by more than 20 museums and universities around the Great Lakes region (including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Central Michigan University). They’re teaming up to digitize their collections of species that are not native to the Great Lakes.

Ken Cameron directs the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he’s leading the project. He and his collaborators will be pulling fish and mollusks out of jars and taking dried plants out of drawers, taking photos of them, and uploading them to the online collection along with data about the species. He and his colleagues around the region will be doing this for 1.73 million specimens.

Digitization makes more collections accessible

Credit David Tenenbaum / UW-Madison News
UW-Madison News
Ken Cameron is leading a project involving the digitization of invasive species collections at more than 20 Great Lakes-area institutions.

Cameron says one of the reasons he's taking on this huge project is because the U.S. government has recognized there's a wealth of information inside museums that could be made more accessible.

"We wanted to get those data out and available, and over the internet to democratize them, basically," says Cameron. A $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant was funded this summer to support the digitization project. 

There are at least 180 nonnative species already living in the Great Lakes, but with this collection, Cameron and his colleagues will be putting 2,550 species online. The reason, says Cameron, is "not only are there species in the Great Lakes of great concern, but there are number currently listed on 'watch lists.' We know they are getting close; they have the potential to become invasive within the Great Lakes basin, and those are the ones in particular we are monitoring and tracking their spread."

He says it was also important to target species that are closely related to known invaders, and species that are look-alikes. 

Cameron says they're hoping to use the online database to help track the spread of invasive species, and species that could become invasive.

"One of the most exciting aspects to the work is that our data is based on physically vouchered specimens; they are not rumors or reports, they are actually verified physical specimens." says Cameron. Some of the specimens are hundreds of years old. Cameron says the database will allow scientists to track the point of origin of a species and look for patterns in the historical data.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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