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The herbariums of the andalusian universities are part of a world project on biodiversity

Andalusian herbariums of the universities of Málaga, Almería, Granada, Córdoba and Seville are part of a world project whose aim is to publish by 2010 in the Internet all the information on live organisms known in the planet for their free consultation. In Spain, the program is sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Science.

’It is the project on the human genome of biodiversity’, the web page of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) says, the entity promoting the initiative. ‘The idea is to create an interconnected database network that can be used as a basic tool for the scientific development of the countries, which also contributes to a better protection and use of biodiversity in the planet’, the portal says. The project is on all live organisms, whether animals or plants.

Specimens of botanical species are collected at herbariums, plants such as Spanish firs, flowers like orchids, ferns, mosses, algae and fungus are part of these scientific collections which contributes to learn the variety of species of a specific ecosystem.

According to Prof. Baltasar Cabezudo -head of the MGC Herbarium of the Department of Vegetal Biology of Malaga University (UMA) and head of this department-, the Andalusian herbariums will provide the GBIF with the data regarding local vegetable species.

The researcher clarifies that this initiative is not after unknown species but tries to update the knowledge of scientific collections. ‘Knowing a species is not just knowing its name, but its distribution, ecology, phenology, morphology, and reproductive structure, among others’, the expert said. One of project GBIF’s strong points is precisely that the situation of any vegetal species can be located in the future using geographical coordinates, thus giving any researcher or project manager the opportunity to observe and locate a plant or a fungus right in the middle of nature, which would be otherwise difficult to find.

Furtive collectors of rare botanical species

In some cases, the geographical location data using GPS coordinates is publicly known. However, despite the fact that the information is free and can be accessed by anyone, there is a restriction for threatened and endemic species. ‘In these cases, we cannot make the location data public, as there are collectors who would not doubt it to use them to collect such species and take them’, the University of Malaga’s Professor regretted. Another interesting point of the GBIF’s project for a latter phase is including digital photos of each species in the database so that anyone can have an idea of what the plant or the fungus looks like.

A ‘live’ collection
The MGC herbarium has about 75,000 documents of catalogued herbariums, an amount that is monthly growing with the new materials that are being added. Professor Cabezudo explains that the data of about 1,500 to 2,000 documents of the herbarium will be monthly computerized for the GBIF project. The information on each species includes fields with their scientific name, place and date of recollection, the names of the picker and the identifier, and the ecology of the plant.

The vegetal heritage of the UMA herbarium mainly includes species from the western Mediterranean region, both of Spain as well as Morocco. It displays a wide catalogue of endemic and threatened species. There are mainly plants with flowers, ferns, and algae, although there are also bryophytes and lichens. Prof. Cabezudo underlined what areas have a highest number of vegetal species in this scientific collection- ‘The natural parks of Los Alcornocales, Sierra de las Nieves, Sierras Tejeda, Alhama and Almijara, the land and sea ecosystems of the Malaga coastline, and in general, the provinces of Málaga, Cádiz and Seville’. Moreover, the herbarium has a palinoteque where samples of spores and pollen grains of most of the collection’s species are kept, which is essential for the aerobiological study of the atmosphere we all breath in.

One of the reasons that support the relevance of the Malaga herbarium is that between 20 and 30 per cent of its heritage is normally borrowed by other research centres. ‘The herbarium is internationally known with the acronym MGC and it is a member of the Asociación de Herbarios Iberomacaronésicos’, Prof. Cabezudo added.

Institutional support

There is a lot of work behind a herbarium. First, you need to collect the plant in its natural habitat. Then, you need to dry or freeze it. Later on, you have to analyse and identify it , and finally computerise it. But it does not end here. You still need to keep the collection in excellent conditions. Prof. Cabezudo regrets: ‘The University of Málaga exceptionally collaborates regarding the location and infrastructure, we have very good facilities and we must be thankful for that. However, I cannot say the same about the staff’. The researcher stresses that a specialised curator is necessary- ‘A herbarium is not a stamp collection. The material is organic, and it gets damaged, and therefore must be continuously controlled. If we had a herbarium curator, we could make qualitative progress as, so far, the herbarium has been kept thanks to the uninterested work of some researchers. We must not forget that according to the Spanish act on the Andalusian wild flora and fauna, the preservation, maintenance and custody of scientific collections are the responsibility of their owners, in this case the universities’.

Ismael Gaona | alfa
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