The Life of a Specimen

On Saturday, May 10, we were back up on Mt. Tam with the MMWD, documenting and collecting plants. A number of people asked me: what happens to our specimens after today? So, here, I present to you… the life of a specimen.


After all the work in the field (collecting, pressing in a field press, transferring to a plant press), there is still a lot of work back at the Academy to turn a collection into an herbarium specimen!



Once all the plant collections have been put in the plant press, they head to the Academy where they spend a week in the dryer. The dryer does exactly that - dries the specimens out so they don’t mold later. The presses are tightened after a day or so in the dryer, since the plants lose a lot of bulk once they start to dry, and the presses end up getting loose.


After a week in the dryer, the presses are given a big change in climate - into the freezer for a week! The freezer is kept at around -5° F. Freezing the specimens ensures that any insects or other living things we wouldn’t want in our herbarium are dead. There are often quite a few other interesting specimens from other research departments in the freezer as well!


After a chilly week in the freezer, the plants can finally be moved to the Botany department. As the presses are unpacked, each specimen is checked against a spreadsheet of all the data collected that particular day on Mt. Tam - that way we make sure all specimens are accounted for, have the correct collection numbers, and have the species name given to them in the field. The specimens themselves are also examined to make sure they fully dried.

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Once we know that we have all the specimens and all the associated information is on the newspaper, the ID of each specimen is verified by a Botany staff member. When we have a confirmed ID, a label can be produced for that particular specimen, which includes all the relevant information: when and where it was collected, who it was collected by, and all the other data we collect as well - habitat, number of plants, etc.


Each label is then inserted into the newspaper holding its corresponding specimen. When specimens and labels are matched, they then can be mounted together on an herbarium sheet. A group of volunteer mounters work with the Mt. Tam specimens, gluing them carefully (and usually quite artistically!) onto the herbarium sheet, gluing the label, and adding a fragment packet to hold any little pieces of the plant that may have gotten loose. You can see the fragment packet to the right of the specimen below.


After being mounted, a specimen is ready to become part of the herbarium collections! The specimen is given a barcode, the information about the specimen is databased, and then the specimen is filed in the herbarium, first by family, then by location.

So… from the mountain, it usually takes about a month (or more, depending on how busy things are for citizen science and for Botany!) for a specimen to go through the full cycle and become part of the research collection. After that, it could still have other exciting adventures: having its DNA extracted for population genetics research, being loaned out to a researcher at another institution who wants to study it, having its label updated if the genus or species name changes… the life of a specimen goes on as long as the herbarium exists!

Biodiversity in San Francisco!!



Did you know that the highest elevation dune habitat in North America is here in San Francisco?  A string of hilltop parks and natural areas in the Inner Sunset showcase the remnants of the ecosystem that historically made up most of the western part of our city. You can read more about the area in a 1967 plea to save the last bits of this habitat, here. Thanks to the amazing work of Liam O’Brien (his website), Peter Brastow (now doing this), Nature in the City, the Golden Gate Heights neighbors, the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program and countless stewards these areas are being protected and maintained for generations to come. To spend time in these dunes is magical, a chance to travel back in time and get a feeling for the native heart of our city.  


Historic photos and essays related to the area can be found at Found SF (run and maintained by our awesome friends at Shaping San Francisco.  Here are some of my favorites:

Growing up on Golden Gate Heights

San Francisco’s Sand Dunes

Grandview Peak

Grandview Park

This precious dune habitat is home to native plants like the San Francisco Wallflower, Beach Knotweed, Coastal Buckwheat, Seaside Daisy and Sea Thrift. The Green Hairstreak Corridor, a Nature in the City Project spearheaded by Liam (the story is here), works to maintain, add and connect native habitat in Golden Gate Heights.  The tiny and beautiful Green Hairstreak Butterfly, an endangered species that lives only in upland dune and coastal habitats and can only fly about 300 ft, and it’s obligate host plant (where it lays its eggs),Coastal BuckwheatEriogonum latifolium are both found here, as are many of the plants on which it feeds. Although this butterfly is found in other places in California, the Inner Sunset population is isolated from all the others. The corridor project works to connect park land and other bits of habitat within Golden Gate Heights in order to ensure the persistence of this population.



Photos by D Pomeroy and JK Johnson

One could spend time in these incredible places mourning the loss of their original extent or we can celebrate the fact that they remain.  We are so lucky to have these special places and the diversity that relies on them here in our city.  


We choose to celebrate and recognize what has been saved! 

We choose to engage everyone in the wonder of this place!

A hopeful and enthusiastic group of over 40 people, led by Amber Hasselbring of Nature in the City, spent the bulk of their Sunday documenting the plants, animal and fungi of the Green Haristreak Corridor.

We were a coalition of interested people and organizations, including but not limited to; Nature in the City, Nerds for Nature, iNaturalist, the California Academy of Sciences, Tree Frog Treks, SF Rec and Park, Kids in Parks, SFUSD (esp. Hoover Middle School), SFSU Biogeography students.

We made over 1373 observations of 219 species in just this 48 block area! Including the Green Hairstreak!

Find out more here:

The data we collected are critical for the continued stewardship of these areas!

We created a snapshot of what exists in these parks right now!

Many hands make little work…and many eyes make big, detailed snapshots of diversity!

Our compatriots at Nerds for Nature and iNaturalist started this movement almost exactly one year ago (Happy Anniversary!) This most recent blitz was the eighth iNaturalist driven BioBlitz organized by N4N.  Join our movement!  

Our next BioBlitz will be in along the coast of San Mateo County at Pillar Point or Mavericks on July 13th. More details:

Flying Kites (and looking for plants!) at Mt. Tam

Saturday, April 26 was the second day of our 2014 field season on the Marin Municipal Water District watershed on Mt. Tamalpais, where citizen scientists are working to document and collect one of every known plant species in the area.


Luckily with a late-season rainstorm the day just before our field day, lots of plants were blooming and groups had no problem finding many species to collect.


The Water District staff also asked us to bring our kite-camera, just to see what sort of photos it might produce. The kite was flown at our survey site near the Pine Mountain Road gate. While the wind was wildly unpredictable, going from roaring gusts to absolutely nothing in a matter of seconds, we still got some great shots from the kite: photos of Pine Mountain Road (notice the kite’s shadow and the kite flier!), photos where you can see the distinct line between serpentine shrubs and meadow, and some nice shots of nearby Phoenix Lake.




Bioblitzing Tilden Park

Sunday, April 20 was Easter… but there was a different type of Easter egg hunt going on for Earth Day at Tilden Nature Area in the Oakland-Berkeley hills: a bioblitz! Eager volunteers came to the Environmental Education Center at Tilden to head out on expeditions throughout the local area, intent on documenting via smart phone and camera as many species as they possibly could.


Groups got started as early as 7 am to look for birds and stayed as late as 9 pm to document moths and other nocturnal critters. During the day teams went out searching for pond and creek life, fungus, plants, and butterflies and other insects. All in all over 60 people came to the bioblitz and made 833 observations of 219 species (so far - that number is still climbing!).


Visit the Tilden Nature Area Bioblitz page on iNaturalist to see what everyone found, and sign up for our next bioblitz on May 4 of the Green Hairstreak Corridor in San Francisco’s inner sunset district!

Thanks to our partners at East Bay Regional Parks, Nerds for Nature, and iNaturalist for their hard work in making the Tilden Nature Area BioBlitz a huge success!

Early Morning on the Pillar Point Reef


On Friday, April 18, a group of sleepy-eyed but enthusiastic citizen scientists descended upon Pillar Point reef at 6:30 in the morning. What drives this group of volunteers to forgo sleep and instead wander amongst the tide pools? Well, a -0.7 foot tide is one good reason. Another is the incredible diversity of organisms you can see during such a good low tide!

The goal for the morning was to survey two of our permanent monitoring plots on the reef. Our citizen scientists carefully search a 10 m diameter area for echinoderms (critters like starfish and urchins), nudibranchs, and mussels (and all the things that like to live in and near mussels too!).

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We’re also testing out a new way of monitoring: aerial photos taken by kite-camera! We’re hoping that we can more accurately track change in mussel bed size through time with aerial photos of the beds. With the current sea star wasting disease removing most of the mussels’ main predators, there is a possibility that the lower limit of the mussel beds might expand. However, collecting mussels is also legal at Pillar Point, so the mussel beds might be losing individuals faster than they could potentially expand. Getting an accurate measure of mussel bed area is difficult and tedious to do by hand, so we’re hoping that aerial photographs may prove to be more accurate (and more fun!) over time.


               Kite’s-eye view of a mussel bed.


               Overhead view of our citizen scientists at work!

We’re still getting a hang of our kite-camera but we’re hoping to develop some reliable protocols for using it over the next couple months!

Back to Mount Tam!


Saturday, March 22 was our first official day back in the field for 2014. This day marked the beginning of the third year of the plant biodiversity surveys in the Marin Municipal Water District watershed on Mount Tamalpais, the goal of which is to document and collect one of every known plant species on the watershed.

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Twenty-four of us spent the day spread across the western side of the watershed in six groups, each group intent on cataloging the plant species found within their plots. Despite a winter with a relatively minute amount of rain, each group found species in flower or in fruit to document and collect, as well as photographed many other species not yet blooming.


All together, the groups documented 138 individual plants, and made 54 specimen collections comprising 46 different species!