with Jennifer Doubt
Three years ago, I came to the Canadian Museum of Nature’s herbarium searching for a fern species native to Quebec. I ended-up discovering far more than I’d expected!
Museum herbarium curator Jennifer Doubt helped me with my request, and then suggested that, given my fern knowledge and enthusiasm, I help with a slightly bigger project. Over the years, fern scientists had improved our understanding of how various species are related to each other, and as a result many species now possessed new scientific names. Now, the museum’s entire fern collection needed to be reorganized to reflect current botanical understanding.
This would be a major job: the herbarium’s international collection of ferns and lycophytes (clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts) fill more than 400 cabinet shelves. But I’ve been a museum visitor for almost 50 years, and here was a chance to deepen my involvement with two things I love: the museum and ferns.
So, in response to my modest initial request, Jennifer turned me from a visitor into an official volunteer, one with the responsibility to drive this 21st-century fern reorganization plan.
To start, we updated the Canadian ferns with current botanical names.
Determining the correct name for older or unusual specimens was often a multi-step process. This could involve searching traditional databases, on-line resources, historical sources, as well as tapping into the expertise of museum botanists and other local and national experts.
Next, I updated the names of the international specimens. Although the herbarium has fewer of these than Canadian ones, there are vastly more international genera and species, resulting in a more intensive specimen-by-specimen update.
Simultaneously, I created four new geographically specific folder colours to replace the blue folders previously used to identify all specimens from beyond Canada and the United States.
Finally, we reorganized the entire fern collection to reflect the latest fern DNA sequencing research.
We began this by creating an Excel file with an updated list of each shelf’s current contents, and adding new family names and numbers (Christenhusz 2011)1 for each genus. Then, the file was reorganized by new family number.
Presto: we’d created a revised order indicating where each specimen would be shelved in the new system. Without this meticulous preparation, the two days of work it required to physically reorganize the specimens — including a lot of bending, stretching and lifting — might have taken weeks, significantly disrupting access to the fern collection.
No sooner was the reorganization finished than we began the digital barcoding and imaging of the collection’s ferns and lycophytes from the Canadian Arctic.