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Person in labcoat, mask and gloves looking at a screen and pressed plant specimens

This high-tech conveyor belt is photographing nearly a million plant samples!
Image: CSIRO

Open the large sliding cabinets to shelves, stacks and pigeonholes. In front of you is a plant collection with nearly a million different specimens. But what’s with the conveyor belt?

This is the Picturae process, and it’s all happening at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra. From eucalypts to daisies to lichens, the Herbarium’s collection is going online. Here’s how.

Snappy!

Person looking at pages of pressed plant specimen

Every specimen is checked before being photographed
Image: CSIRO

“This process is really exciting because it’s so fast,” says Emma Toms, the project coordinator. What would have taken 8 years to do, will be finished in just 9 months!

This snappy process is an automated system developed by Picturae, a company from the Netherlands.

At the Herbarium, a team of three people are using Picturae to digitise the collection. They take each sample out of storage, place it on the conveyor belt and take a high resolution photo. Lastly, they return it safely to its shelf home.

But where does this all start? Scientists collect specimens on field trips. But before a specimen finds its home on a shelf at the Herbarium, it is pressed, dried in a special oven and frozen to kill any insects. Herbarium staff also add a barcode so it’s easy to connect the real sample to information found online. And now there’s a digital back-up too!

Digitising this collection will also open it up to everyone. You’ll find it online at the Atlas of Living Australia.

A digital helping hand

Pressed plant specimen close up with rectangles superimposed on leaf parts

AI can help scientists identify different parts of a plant
Image: CSIRO

For researchers, it makes access to the Herbarium’s collection easier and faster. Important areas such as bushfire recovery and biosecurity will benefit from this.

What’s more, there are possibilities for projects using artificial intelligence (AI).

“Digitising as a whole is very useful for us because it gives us a playground to try our algorithms on more and more data,” says CSIRO’s Dr Abdo Khamis. He thinks AI could be used to compare the images of plants over time to see how they’re responding to climate change.

All up, this digital collection has tree-mendous potential!

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