Dr. Pamela S. Soltis, Founding Director of University of Florida Biodiversity Institute, Distinguished Professor and Curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History
We are living in a new geological era, termed the Anthropocene, in reference to human impact on our planet. This impact has led to extinction rates that are 1000 times higher than background extinction and the view that we are currently witnessing the Sixth Mass Extinction – this one caused by human activities. Climate change is forcing plants to respond to altered temperatures, precipitation, community structure, and more. Although some plant species are able to tolerate these alterations, others are being pushed closer to extinction. Successful conservation requires a multi-pronged approach, with data and tools from diverse sources. The world’s herbaria house nearly 350 million specimens, collected over centuries, and together these specimens hold immense information about plant species habitats and distributions. Through digitization of natural history specimens, this information is becoming increasingly available for modeling, computation, and other analyses. These digitized herbarium data have much to offer the field of plant conservation. For example, ecological niche modeling of rare species can help forecast future distributions and clarify potential future threats. Development of phylogenetic diversity indices for geographic regions of interest can also help identify areas that should be prioritized for conservation based on the distributions and evolutionary history captured regionally. Examples from the Florida flora will be presented to illustrate these new applications for “old” data.