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Biological collections in an ever changing world: Herbaria as tools for biogeographical and environmental studies

Lavoie Claude Lavoie Claude Lavoie
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Journal Article
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Plant specimens stored in herbaria are being used as never before to document the impacts of global change on humans and nature. However, published statistics on the use of biological collections are rare, and ecologists lack quantitative data demonstrating the relevance to science of herbarium specimens. I found 382 studies with original data that used herbarium specimens to document biogeographical patterns or environmental changes. Most studies are less than 10 years old, and only 1.4% of the herbarium specimens worldwide have been used to answer biogeographical or environmental questions. The vast majority (82%) of papers dealt with vascular plants, but some studies also used bryophytes, lichens, seaweeds and fungi. The herbarium specimens were collected from all continents, but most of the studies used specimens from North America (40% of studies) or Europe (28%). Many types of researches (conservation, plant disease, plant invasion, pollution, etc.) can be conducted using herbarium specimens. Climate change, and especially phenological reconstructions, are clearly emerging research topics. By group, small herbaria (<100,000 specimens) are consulted as often as very large herbaria (>1,000,000 specimens) for biogeographical and environmental research, but in most cases, only large facilities provide specimens collected worldwide. The median number of specimens per study in papers using computerized collections (15,295) was much higher than for papers that did not include electronic data (226). The use of molecular analyses to investigate herbarium specimens is still relatively unexplored, at least from biogeographical and environmental points of view. Combined with recently developed procedures to correct biases, herbarium specimens might provide in the near future exciting additional spatio-temporal insights that are currently unimaginable.

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