Museum’s Life Science Curator Digs Bio!

Rick Williams, Ph.D., Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) Life Science Curator and Idaho State University (ISU) biology professor, travels to Colorado to highlight the usefulness of digital natural history collections at the National Science Foundation sponsored Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio) and Organization for Biological Field Stations (OBFS) field station collection digitization workshop.

The workshop will take place September 16, 2015 at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. The focus of the workshop is on strategies for digitizing and mobilizing data from field station collections (including data transcription and imaging) and encouraging data use by a broad range of biologists and ecologists.

Williams will highlight the ways he and other researchers have been utilizing the digitized plant and insect collections at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory field station, near Crested Butte, Colorado, for education, research and outreach. Using a portable IMNH imaging workstation, he will provide a hands-on demo of digitization workflows for different types of life science collections, including plants, insects, mammals, birds, fish and amphibians.

Digitized flowering Mule Ears plant.

Digitized flowering Mule Ears plant.

The digitized plant data have been used to track historical changes in plant distributions with climate warming and changes in pollinator species over time. In addition, Williams and collaborators are developing a regional resource for plant identification using web-based keys, and initiating citizen-science projects to document plant and insect distributions. Many researchers, students, and the public use the physical and digital collections for identifying plants and animals. Williams and others are trying to make the process even easier to use and more accessible.

“Digital collections can be accessed from anywhere and the digital format allows the data to be combined and analyzed in novel ways to investigate new relationships and patterns,” said Williams.

The IMNH Ray J. Davis Herbarium, where Williams is the curator, has been digitizing its plant collection of over 60,000 specimens for the last five years. Williams says “digitization provides both greater access and greater protection of our natural history collections.”  The digital collection is linked with the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria website, which provides access to plant specimen data and digital resources from herbaria throughout Pacific Northwest. The website has approximately 2.5 million records and 930,000 images from 36 participating herbaria. The website received over 60,000 hits last year. You can visit this website at

The IMNH is always looking for volunteers to continue to digitize the collection and make available to the public. “Digital collections also provide resources and opportunities to engage students and citizen scientists in learning about the natural world and doing real science” said Williams. If you are interested in participating in this effort as a volunteer please contact our Education Resources Center at (208) 282-2195 or email our Education Specialist at