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Let’s Cactify!

Posted on 14-08-2017 by Becky Desjardins

Most people know me as a museum preparator, creating study skins of birds and mammals, plus the occasional shark or reptile.  However, while Naturalis builds our new museum, my duties have expanded to go work wherever I can be helpful.  Mainly I am occupied with cleaning historic whale and dolphin bones, but one day a week I work in the Herbarium. This department is one of the largest and most active at Naturalis, consisting of between 5 and 6 million specimens including samples of wood, vascular plants, fungi, moss, fruit and more. In addition, there are many busy researchers and a steady stream of visitors to the collection. Last fall I helped re label samples in the wood collection but now I am helping to digialize the cactus collection!

Over the past few years, technicians have been busy data all the specimens at Naturalis. Digitalization is very important, because that way information about the item is available online for anyone to use; researchers, environmentalists, taxonomists, etc. Though millions of specimens in different departments are already digitized, the cacti were still to be done. We started working on this project back in January.  It has been really fun to see all the different shapes and types of cactus, though handling them with gloves is required due to the spikes!

There are three steps to this project, the first being data entry in the herbarium database. The second step giving the samples paper labels and physically arranging them in the herbarium box, and the final step is making a scan (picture) on the botanical scanner that will be accessible to anyone via the internet. Data entry is the least interesting part, but working with the paper labels is like playing bingo trying to match up numbers with other numbers.  

The scanning part of the project, where everything is scanned and then uploaded so that the whole world can have access to this data, is the most interesting part. Each specimen that needs to be scanned has lots of different parts: a sample of the plant, maybe some seeds, some dried flowers, some spines, and then lots of paper labels. Laying these out on the scanner so that they can easily be read and seen is like creating a small piece of art. Many times some of the labels are wrinkled or folded so it takes a little fiddling to get it looking nice and most importantly, be legible to the viewer!


Many of the specimens so far encountered by the team are type specimens described by Friedrich Ritter (1898-1989), a German botanist who lived most of his adult life in South America. At the age of 29, he gave up his mining career to become a full time botanist. Over the course of his life, he described more than 800 new species of cactus and 43 new genera. His collection is divided between natural history museums in Zurich and Santiago, in addition to Utrecht (which later was adopted by Naturalis).  Interestingly, Ritter’s specimens came to Utrecht thanks to his friendship with a Dutch moss researcher, Peter Arnold Florschütz. Dr. Florschütz was also good friends with Utrecht’s cactus researcher (and prolific collector) Albert Frederik Hendrik Buining. Buining had used a number of Ritter’s specimens for research and realized they were very important. He convinced Florschütz to encourage his good friend Ritter to deposit his specimens in Utrecht. And so he did.

The progress on this project is going slowly but steadily. We have finished the cacti from the Utrecht collection, and in a few weeks will begin working on specimens from Leiden! Stay tuned for more updates on this prickly situation.

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