Revamped Biodiversity Software Opens The Door For Biologists

Sep 5, 2018

If you’re a scientist studying any kind of plant or animal species, you’ve probably come across Symbiota. But, if you’re like me and that’s not your cup of tea, you may have never heard of it.

 

“So Symbiota is biodiversity software, and so it’s for managing collections of information," said Curtis Dyreson, associate department head and associate professor in computer science at Utah State University. "And these collections are natural history museums, herbaria, other organizations that collect specimens.”

Plant specimen identified as Elymus scabrus stored in USU's herbarium.
Credit Intermountain Herbarium, Utah State University

He, along with a team of other scientists at USU and Northern Arizona University are working to revamp the Symbiota software. Some of the new features focus on user-friendliness and device compatibility.

 

“In computer science lingo, this is called responsive layout," Dryeson said. "So responsive layout is the idea that you have some user interface and it conforms to the device that you are using. So for instance on a cellphone maybe you’re using finger motions and gestures to swipe down to select an item, whereas on a PC you might use a mouse.”

 

Scientists hope this will increase the use of Symbiota. Particularly among smaller organizations that often have a wealth of knowledge, but not a wealth of resources. Local herbaria, like the Intermountain Herbarium located at USU, are a good example of this.  

 

“Well this is a key thing about herbariums is they’ve been collecting for a long time," he said. "So they’ve been collecting since 1800s and so you have an extensive historical record and that historical record is valuable for tracking things like climate change and species adaptation to climate change."

 

Currently 76 million specimens are digitized in the system, but this represents only 15 percent of the 500 million known specimens in the U.S. More digitization means greater access and more analysis can be supported.

 Other USU researchers include Mary Barkworth, director emeritus of the Intermountain Herbarium, as well as Will Pearse, assistant professor in the Biology department.   More information on Symbiota can be found here. And a link to the Intermountain Herbarium's catalog at USU can be found here.