For my placement undertaken via my DurhamARCTIC Leverhulme PhD, I spent 3 weeks at the herbarium in NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) natural history museum. I undertook several tasks including finding coordinate data for herbarium samples, processing herbarium samples to be stored safely and collecting my own samples from the field.
For the coordinate data, I was given a spreadsheet containing thousands of records from specimens taken in the UK. These were mostly old samples (1850-1890) and usually only gave a brief description of their location. I searched locations and filled in the missing coordinates. This was valuable work as it means that the herbarium samples can now be visible on a map on websites such as GBIF.org and artsdatabanken.no. This is important for studies which take location into account and may select herbarium specimens based on their location.
I processed around 90 herbarium specimens. This involved taking specimens which had already been dried and arranging them on to acid-free paper, securing them and attaching labels so that they could be documented.
To collect additional specimens for the herbarium, I took a day trip with the herbarium director Tommy Prestø who taught me about identification of plant species. He was extremely knowledgeable and showed me how to conduct surveys in areas such as the arboretum in the Bymarka park near Trondheim, and at a rocky beach further down the coast which contains many small alpine flowers. Some of the surveying he usually does is to note how non-native plant species, such as the arboretum pine trees, have spread from their introduced locations. This work is important in determining potential risk species which can then be monitored further, and if required they may be removed from the locations they spread into. In terms of the rocky beach area, surveying means that the critically endangered flower species can be monitored as their populations are suffering due to climate warming. Throughout the day we took samples of species which Tommy had not surveyed in particular locations before, or which he did not have recent samples for. Each sample was cut from the main plant and information recorded such as GPS location and ecosystem type. I was then shown how to dry the samples and how to input data into the herbarium database. By the end of my placement, most of my samples had dried sufficiently for me to secure and label them, ready to be stored in the herbarium for the next several hundred years.
As well as learning practical skills (drying specimens, securing and labelling them, inputting coordinate data), my placement at the herbarium gave me a much deeper understanding of the behind-the-scenes work which is required for herbarium samples to be accessible for the public. I analysed over 2,000 herbarium specimens for one of my PhD studies and was not aware of the processes leading up to the photographs of each specimen which were the basis of my study. The placement made me appreciate the hours required for specimens to be stored for future scientific research. In addition, I learned about the organisation of a herbarium which enables it to survive for hundreds of years despite obstacles such as taxonomic changes to species names and preservation of the specimens so that they won’t degrade or become damaged by pathogens or insects. I was also able to contribute to the herbarium, carrying out important work for them as well as learning a huge amount from Tommy. This placement was a very valuable experience and I really enjoyed it.