Stories from the dead: What herbarium specimens tell us about the living world 

November 17, 2022 Webinar at Noon. Register here now!

With over 390 million specimens worldwide collected by thousands of botanists over the past three centuries, herbaria (collections of preserved dead plants) comprise an enormous ecological resource for understanding the world around us. Historically, these museum specimens were primarily collected for use in taxonomy (that is, the classification and naming of species). However, herbarium specimens are increasingly being used in novel and unanticipated ways by a diverse array of disciplines. Ongoing large-scale digitization initiatives have made these data more accessible than ever (to scientists and the public alike), including detailed specimen information and high-resolution images. Further, technological advancements in research areas such as artificial intelligence, statistics, chemistry, and genomics have opened new research possibilities to use these data.

Mason will present an overview of the past, present, and future uses of plant collections in natural history museums to understand environmental changes in an era of rapid global environmental change, inform plant conservation, and appreciate the diversity of life in our very own backyards. Mason will focus on his ongoing research using herbarium specimens to understand changes in plant traits of introduced species, learn about belowground fungal communities associated with plant roots from over a century ago, uncover the impacts of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on poison ivy in Pennsylvania, and discover an overlooked consequence of climate change affecting understory wildflowers in forests in the US and worldwide.

Mason Heberling is the assistant curator in the Section of Botany and co-chair
of collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. A plant ecologist and botanist, his research explores plant functional strategies in deciduous forest understories, especially in the context
of environmental change. He is particularly interested in innovative uses for natural history
collections and rethinking how we collect.