The plant tomb

by Catalina Myers  |   

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Justin Fulkerson, lead botanist for the University of Alaska Anchorage Herbarium, displays specimens from the extensive collection. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage) 


In a plain, brightly-lit room, filled with rows of tall beige metal cabinets and lab tables stacked high with archival paper sandwiched between two boards on the west side of campus, is the University of Alaska Anchorage Herbarium (UAAH). While this unassuming, neutral-colored room in Beatrice McDonald Hall (BMH) is deceivingly plain — it’s what’s in-between the archival stacks, also known as plant presses, and what’s housed inside the rows of metal specimen cabinets that are truly remarkable.

“You might think of this as a very well-organized plant tomb,” said Matt Carlson, director of Alaska Center for Conservation Science (ACCS), which manages UAAH, and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Carlson and Justin Fulkerson, UAAH’s lead botanist, heave one folder from the giant stacks in the metal cabinets onto the table and carefully reveal a delicate flower gently splayed out on thick archival paper — a specimen collected from the field earlier this summer. 

“We have like 20,000 plant specimens,” said Carlson gesturing to the plant presses and metal cabinets. “But the real value is the actual tissue that’s there, the morphology that we can see and also the location, the habitat it was collected in — all that information gets entered into databases that makes that information available for scientific study.”


The herbarium

Carlson has been managing the university’s herbarium through his role at ACCS since 2002 and has helped grow the collection from around 5,000 to 20,000 specimens over the last 18 years. He said, essentially, the “well-organized plant tomb” is a natural history library of raw data cataloging and documenting plant species across the state, the Yukon and the Pacific Northwest.

About 20,000 plant specimens from Alaska, the Yukon and the Pacific Northwest are housed in UAA's herbarium. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)


UAAH is part of the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria, a network of 36 herbaria in the Pacific Northwest hosted by the University of Washington. About 97% of UAAH’s specimens originate from Alaska, while the remaining samples come from the Yukon, Washington and Oregon. Essentially an herbaria’s main function is to help botanists and other scientists correctly identify plants. Carlson said that the plant specimens found in UAAH and herbaria’s across the country serve as a reference for how one particular plant species looks like and how it may differ from another. The collection as a whole exhibits how a species might differ in how it looks at one side of its distribution, or from one habitat to another.

From an educational standpoint, UAA students across the sciences benefit from UAAH’s carefully preserved specimens through research, labs and lectures. Outside of the university, the herbarium offers organizations from the National Park Service to the Alaska Botanical Garden their expertise in identifying different plant species collected or grown across the state.

Carlson likens ACCS to UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, better known as ISER, and said that about 10% of its funding comes from the College of Arts and Sciences, while the other 90% comes from external sources. 

“We’re also tied to national and international level data organizations, one of which is called, NatureServe,” said Carlson. “All 50 states, Canadian provinces and Mexican states have these conservation data centers that provide data to the public and federal agencies. We just happen to be Alaska’s heritage program.”

Community service

Both Carlson and Fulkerson said that in addition to their work within the university, ACCS offers many land management agencies, both state and federal, the crucial scientific data needed in managing their lands, whether it’s the United States Department of Agriculture bringing in specimens so they can help make determinations on forest health, the Bureau of Land Management asking for help to potentially identify an invasive plant or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game bringing in specimens to help determine the health of a particular animal’s habitat.

Matt Carlson, director of Alaska Center for Conservation Science, which manages UAA's herbarium and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, examines a specimen in the herbarium's lab. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)


“We also help out with identifications of invasive alien species and help provide some of the scientific backbone and data to help them manage their lands and management goals,” Fulkerson said. In addition to state and federal agencies, organizations like oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips to small private consulting firms seek out ACCS for their expertise and the extensive specimens housed in UAAH’s collection.

“We have a lot of federal contracts with the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and to an extent the Forest Service — but depending on the project, we’ll collect plants in the field that relate to our scientific study,” Fulkerson said. “A lot of times, plants are really hard to tell apart in the field, even though we’re really good at it, so bringing it back to the lab allows us to identify it correctly. Sometimes you need that high-powered microscope to look at the little hairs on leaves or seeds.”


Plant sleuths

Carlson said that although most of ACCS’s work is pretty harmless, there was one particular instance in which the herbarium played a crucial role in helping the Alaska State Trooper’s develop their case against a man who was accused of growing opium-producing poppy plants.

“The State Troopers contacted us and asked us to identify seeds that were confiscated in a bust in Palmer,” said Carlson. “We were like, ‘Yes, that is an opium poppy,’ and that collection of the opium poppy that we have here in the herbarium had potential to be used in this guy’s trial. But he ended up pleading guilty.”

UAA's herbarium plays an important role in helping correctly identify plants across the state for researchers and students at UAA to state and federal agencies, as well as local organizations. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)


Fulkerson added that the specimen grown for the Trooper’s case is still part of the evidence and that in the UAAH catalog that particular poppy specimen contains the case number along with its other identifying information. 

In addition, Carlson said they may get a phone call from time to time from the Department of Health and Social Services epidemiology office to help identify a specimen if a child has accidentally ingested a poisonous plant. 

Carlson said UAAH serves many purposes inside the university from providing samples for biology lectures to hands-on opportunities for students in lab, to being a valuable resource for local organizations and state and federal agencies, as well as being a living, breathing, library cataloging the history of the state’s plant life and how that affects the larger ecosystems we depend on.

“The herbarium serves as a catalog or inventory of life,” Carlson said

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