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UMFK professors put lichens on-line for researchers world-wide

February 8, 2002



Information on North America's largest collection of so-called "stubble lichen" and the largest set of lichens from old-growth forests of northeastern North America will soon be available to researchers around the world thanks to the efforts of two UMFK professors who are using technology to make the data available on-line.


Working with funding allocated under a University of Maine System Trustee Professorship, Steven Selva, professor of biology and environmental studies and Raymond Albert, associate professor of computer science, have taken valuable information on the extensive collection of unique plants, and have placed it in a database, which will be made available on the Internet.

UMFK's lichen herbarium includes approximately 60,000 specimens of the plant comprised of a fungus and an alga that is typically found growing on trees. The vast collection, housed in gray cabinets on the second floor of Cyr Hall, is included in the international registry of herbaria, and until now has been accessible only to those who request the information of Selva or those who come on-site.

"We have always been open to sharing data from our collection," said Selva. "Until now I have always assisted individuals and researchers requesting information by finding it for them. This new on-line database will allow the researchers immediate access to the same information."

The data researchers and the general public will soon have at their fingertips will be extensive. Information contained in the electronic database has been compiled over three decades. Selva, with the assistance of students in his lichenology class, first began collecting and recording information on the plants in 1977, when he began his tenure at UMFK.

The vast majority of the specimens in the university herbarium, however, were collected as part of an ongoing research project, begun in 1986, in which lichens are being used to assess the ecological continuity of northern hardwoods and spruce-fir forests in northern New England and Maritime Canada.

One of the many hundreds of students to enroll in Selva's class over the years was Albert, who took the course in 1983, his senior year at UMFK. He joined the UMFK faculty in 1987 and is now Selva's colleague and project partner.

"The idea of creating a database came from a casual conversation with Steve about ten years ago," said Albert. "We created the initial design and have been working ever since at refining and upgrading its implementation to take advantage of improving technologies."

Contained in the database are various statistics on each lichen, including specific information on the location where they were found, habitat information, and the substrate or base on which the plant was found.

Through the years, Selva's research and collection have earned national recognition. His ongoing project has received outside funding from such reputable groups as the National Geographic Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, the Sweet Water Trust, and Parks Canada.

"UMFK's lichen collection, and others like it, are the basis for our understanding of biological diversity and the interactions taking place in natural ecosystems. It is the responsibility of institutions like ours, that house and maintain such collections, to provide access to these specimens and associated data for research by those who wish to use them," said Selva.

That access will be granted to researchers globally for the first time on Wednesday, February 20, when Selva and Albert launch their new on-line database. The event will be marked by a reception at the UMFK president's residence at 7:00 p.m., where both faculty members will discuss and illustrate their work.

Although the result of many years of research and data input, the new website will remain a work-in-progress. Selva and his students continue to add to the collection of lichen with nearly every trip they make into the forest, and the lichenologist says he has a backlog of nearly a year's worth of collection yet to be entered into the database.

Furthermore, both Selva and Albert hope to enhance the database in the future by adding highly detailed graphic images of each plant and including specific longitude and latitude information on where the lichen was found.

However, for now, both men are content with sharing information with the world that has, until now, been available to a much smaller population.

The new lichen on-line database, which will have its own website address that will be determined in the coming week, can be found by logging on to the University of Maine at Fort Kent website at after February 20.

Members of the community interested in attending the reception for the website launch are asked to contact Naomi Nicolas in the president's office by calling 834-7504.