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Latin American Science Initiative Puts Tropical Rainforest Diversity Online

Tropical plant guidebooks are written largely by scholars from museums and universities in the U.S. and Europe where plant collections are housed. Researchers and conservationists in countries where the plants were originally collected may not have access to tools for understanding some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

The Latin American Plant Initiative aims to make plant samples in herbaria available worldwide by placing unique high-resolution scans of plant collections online. The second annual meeting will be hosted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Darwinion Institute from Nov. 17-21 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Initiative was announced in Oct. 2007 at the Smithsonian in Panama, one of the Initiative's regional centers for the scanning of herbarium specimens.

To identify an unknown plant sample, researchers and students traditionally compare key characteristics with characters on known, dried plant specimens. To capture even minute features such as leaf hairs and flower parts, samples are scanned using high resolution scanners, making it possible to identify plants by comparing them to the images online. As of Aug. 2008 the new database already includes 53,143 plant specimens.

More than 138 people from 93 institutions will attend the meeting in Buenos Aires. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation also has supported the Africa Plants Initiative, a similar project, since 2002. The resulting network of botanist and bioinformatics specialists represents 124 organizations in 44 countries. Project programmers are in the process of transferring all data from the African Plant Initiative's original Aluka website to a more accessible site maintained by JSTOR.


Contact: Beth King
703-487-3770, ext. 8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Page: 1

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