Herbaria are important things. They are museums that curate plant samples, and often they do more than that.

The Wesley E. Niles Herbarium, connected with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is an important collection of plants focusing on the American Southwest. It also serves University teaching and research functions.

A recent example of the importance of herbaria was demonstrated with the use of herbarium samples to study the origin of the potato. Teaching and research institutions, including and perhaps especially state institutions need to understand their role as curators and stewards of timeless resources such as museums. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that the UNLV administration is taking steps to gut the Niles Herbarium. They are not specifically closing it, but they seem to be de-staffing it. Please read the following letter and send of a note via snail- or e-mail to Dr. Riddle expressing your concern.

13 March 2008

Dear Colleague:

We are writing to inform you of a development of great concern and immediacy regarding the future of the Wesley E. Niles Herbarium (http://sols.unlv.edu/wesleyniles.htm ) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas ( http://sols.unlv.edu/wesleyniles.htm). We have chosen to send this notice to you because you are aware of the importance and value of natural history collections and because you have a concern for their continued development and maintenance.

Unfortunately, about a week ago, the Dean of the College of Sciences informed our herbarium Collections Manager that her half-time line had been transferred from the School of Life Sciences (SoLS) to the Department of Geosciences. As with many university natural history collections, the Niles Herbarium never has had a large support staff. In fact, the herbarium Collections Manager is the only salaried position within the SoLS devoted to curatorial activities. The Collections Manager has been responsible for the development and maintenance of a computerized data base for all specimens; accessioning and depositing incoming acquisitions; implementing nomenclature revisions; responding to requests for regional plant distribution data and plant identification; and facilitating herbarium visitations by researchers, federal and state agencies, resource managers, students, and the public at large.

It should be obvious, regardless of your experience with the maintenance of a viable natural history collection that, should the Collections Manager position be eliminated at UNLV, the herbarium activities will cease, and its educational and research potentials will no longer be realized. While the decision to eliminate this herbarium position is purportedly linked to the current budget crises that Nevada is experiencing, there is reason to believe that this administrative action will lead to an eventual displacement of the herbarium from the university.

Dr. Wes Niles (emeritus professor) began compiling the collection 40 years ago. It now contains 65,000, fully databased specimens of vascular plants (about 120 type specimens), and around 5,000 non-vascular plants (mosses). The collection contains a geographically and taxonomically diverse range of exemplar specimens representing floras from across North America, making it an extremely valuable resource for the education of UNLV students and faculty in comparative natural history, ecology, evolution, systematics, and conservation of vascular and non-vascular plants.

However, the core uniqueness and irreplaceable value of the herbarium lies in its tremendously detailed geographic and taxonomic coverage of plant taxa that occur across the diverse landscapes, ecosystems, and biomes that comprise the deserts, mountains, and riparian areas of the Mojave Desert and surrounding ecoregions. We emphasize that such a library for the floras of this unique segment of North American biodiversity is not replicated in any other herbarium.

A living and dynamic natural history collection needs to be available to and integrated within an array of user-groups, and the Niles Herbarium is irreplaceably important to researchers, resource managers, and a wide range of other botanists. Loans of specimens are made to qualified researchers working on plant taxonomy and systematics, resulting in a wide range of peer-reviewed publications, such as the Intermountain Flora and the seminal multi-volume Flora of North America. Resource managers and botanists in southern Nevada have a long history of relying on the Niles Herbarium as a repository of critical material derived through biodiversity inventories on sensitive lands, as a resource providing the opportunity to learn and hone taxonomic diagnostic skills, and as an historical record of locality information from a part of the country that is experiencing a “wildlands to urban” transformation at a faster pace than anywhere else in the country.

In short, the Niles Herbarium provides a unique and irreplaceable research, education, and biodiversity library resource to the SoLS, the College of Sciences, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Nevada System of Higher Education, the people of the State of Nevada, a broad range of state and federal resource management agencies, non-governmental organizations, and colleagues in the biological and conservation communities across the nation.

We would be grateful to receive any statement that you might wish to provide in support of our efforts to retain present curatorial expertise and thus secure the continued operation of the herbarium. Your response, along with those of others received within the next two weeks, will be forwarded to appropriate university administrators. Both letters and e-mails are acceptable. They should be directed to:

Dr. Brett R. Riddle
Professor of Biology
School of Life Sciences
University of Nevada, Las Vegas 4505
Maryland Parky. Las Vegas, NV 89154-4004

email: brett.riddle@unlv.edu voice: 702.895.3133

Our thanks to you for your interest and help in this endeavor.

Brett Riddle, Ph.D. Wes Niles, PhD.

The web site of the herbarium is here.

Comments

  1. #1 Karen
    March 19, 2008

    I’ll take a wild-ass guess that someone in Geoscience has been pestering the dean long enough for a curator for their collections that he decided to that one person can do rocks, soils, sediments, and whatever else they have along with, er, herbs. Collections are collections, right? Snort.