CSU, Chico News

Herbarium Collection Contributes to Climate Study

Date: 07-01-2008

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs
Greg Liggett
Northern California Natural History Museum

The Herbarium at California State University, Chico, located on the first floor of Holt Hall, is a little-known treasure, a warehouse of approximately 98,000 native plants. Data on native plants from the herbarium was recently part of a study to analyze current distributions of plants native to California and to project distributions into the future.

The herbarium, a scientific collection of plants, was recently placed under the auspices of the Northern California Natural History Museum (NCNHM). It is part of the Consortium of California Herbaria, a group of 17 museum collections that serves as a gateway to information about plant specimens housed in herbaria throughout the state. The consortium database now includes information for more than 959,000 specimens.

David Ackerly, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, led a team of botanists that used herbaria consortium data and analyzed the current distributions of more than 2,000 plants native to California. They then projected plant distribution into the future under various climate change models. Their results suggest that many of the native California species are in great danger unless they can move to new localities with appropriate climate.

“Our study projects that climate change will profoundly impact the future of the native flora in California,” said Ackerly. “The magnitude and speed of climate change today is greater than during past glacial periods, and plants are in danger of getting killed off before they can adjust their distributions to keep pace.”

Ackerly’s team cautions that their study can’t reliably predict the fate of specific species. However, the trend is clear: The researchers project that in response to rising temperatures and altered rainfall many plants will need to move from their current locations to areas with more suitable habitat. But many species are highly vulnerable to extinction because the movement of plant species is dependent on the dispersal of seeds away form the parent plants, which in many species is only a short distance.

“The Ackerly study demonstrates the importance of museum collections to modern societal issues,” Greg Liggett, director of the NCNHM, said. “Compiling the data from the Chico State herbarium and all the others in the consortium was the only way to understand modern distributions of native plants. And only through continued collecting will we be able to measure the impact of climate change on species today.”

The research collections at CSU, Chico are not static, explained Liggett. “We maintain these collections, and add to them, because they hold critical information for us to understand our changing world,” Liggett said.
Researchers and visitors are welcome at the herbarium. Call botanist Lawrence Janeway, 530-898-1148, curator of the collection, for herbarium hours.