Monday, April 22

Duke Shuts Down Huge Plant Collection, Causing Scientific Uproar

Duke University has decided to close its herbarium, a collection of 825,000 specimens of plants, fungi and algae that was established more than a century ago. The collection, one of the largest and most diverse in the country, has helped scientists map the diversity of plant life and chronicle the impact of humans on the environment.

The university’s decision has left researchers reeling. “This is such a devastating blow for biodiversity science,” said Erika Edwards, the curator of the Yale Herbarium. “The entire community is simultaneously shocked and outraged.”

Scientific societies have also protested the move. “Duke’s decision to forgo responsibility of their herbarium specimens sets a terrible precedent,” the Natural Science Collections Alliance wrote in a letter to the university last Friday.

The alliance, along with six other scientific societies, endorsed a petition asking Duke to reconsider closing the herbarium. As of Wednesday, it had gained over 11,000 signatures.

“It is very shocking that such a large collection at a wealthy university would be deemed dispensable,” said Regina Baucom, a plant geneticist at the University of Michigan.

In an email sent last week to the herbarium’s staff, Susan Alberts, the dean of natural sciences at Duke, said that the university had decided that the collection should be moved elsewhere in the next two to three years.

“This is a loss for Duke,” she said in an interview with The Times. “We see it as the responsible thing to do to make sure that this collection is preserved for posterity in a place that’s designed to hold it.”

So far, however, no place has agreed to give it a home. “There are no herbariums that could absorb something like this,” said Kathleen Pryer, the director of the herbarium. “I’m very concerned that it will end up in a warehouse somewhere and become forgotten.”

Herbariums have been a mainstay of biology for centuries. Botanists return from expeditions with dried leaves, flowers, stems and seeds, which are then stored for posterity. Some specimens have even been the basis for naming new species.

But herbariums are also valuable because they include plants collected over long stretches of time, helping scientists track the impact of humans on the environment. Some collections have shown that plants have shifted their ranges as the planet has warmed, for example.

The collections have become even more useful as technology has advanced. With improved DNA sequencing, researchers have begun to extract genetic material from dried plant specimens, tackling old scientific questions such as the origin of the world’s crops.

Botanists are far from finished documenting the diversity of plants. And every year, they identify new species that need to be stored because many are already threatened with extinction.

In recent decades, some other universities have closed their herbariums, unwilling to retain the space needed for the collections or the money required to maintain them. In 2017, the University of Louisiana Monroe cleared out half a million specimens to make space for new sports facilities.

The specimens were saved from destruction at the 11th hour when they were moved to other collections that found room for them.

The Duke Herbarium was established in 1921 and has steadily grown in the 103 years since. Researchers not only study the plants, but also other species, such as lichens, to examine the effects of air pollution on the environment.

As recently as last March, Duke University boasted about the climate research performed at the herbarium in a promotional video.

But Rytas Vilgalys, an expert on fungi at the herbarium, said that it had been clear for some time that Duke was considering closing it. “We have seen the writing on the wall for years now,” he said.

Dr. Pryer said that last year, Duke administrators asked her to write reports to justify continued support of the herbarium. But after discussions with a potential donor fell through in January, Dr. Alberts informed Dr. Pryer that it would be closing.

“It really is a tragic state of affairs,” Dr. Pryer said.

Dr. Alberts said that Duke’s biology department has to spread its support across many fields. “We will not dictate to the department that they must hire in these areas in perpetuity,” she said. “We are a university with limited resources.”

Duke University has an endowment of $11.6 billion.

Dr. Alberts also stressed that Duke’s plan was to move the herbarium somewhere else. “We are not destroying anything,” she said.

Jonathan Shaw, a biologist at Duke, said he was negotiating for the mosses and related plants to be taken in by another herbarium. “I have high hopes that we can move the collections to places with a real commitment to biodiversity,” he said.

But Dr. Pryer said that even institutions that have expressed interest weren’t sure if they could find the money to take in parts of the collection. She feared that portions of the herbarium could be lost in the shuffle.

Brent Mishler, a former herbarium curator at Duke who ran the herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley, for 30 years, said that Duke’s decision would also mean the loss of a strong tradition of academic research on the diversity of plants.

“It is shameful for Duke to abandon research and training in biodiversity studies,” he said.