Texas Tech University

50-Year-Old Biology Collection Enables New Research Opportunities

Glenys Young

April 10, 2020

Texas Tech University’s E.L. Reed Herbarium is now the official repository for plant specimens from Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Thanks to the work of two Texas Tech University researchers half a century ago, a new agreement between the university and the National Park Service will benefit both for the foreseeable future.

The E.L. Reed Herbarium within the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences is now the official repository for all plant specimens collected from Guadalupe Mountains National Park. How it came about is an unlikely tale of the right people being in the right places at just the right time.


The herbarium – like a museum for dried, mounted plant specimens – opened its doors in 1925, the same year as Texas Technological College. E.L. Reed, one of the first two botanists at the college, became the herbarium's first director in 1928.


The facility moved around campus over the years, from the science building to the Museum of Texas Tech University in the 1980s and then to the top floor of the biology building in 1990, where it fell into disuse.

"When I got here, this had been sort of a forgotten facility for a couple of years," said herbarium director Matt Johnson, who joined the department as an assistant professor in 2017. "It was, 'Put stuff in here, no one's really doing any plant taxonomy research, no one's going to care.' It was super cluttered and not a good research facility."

He and several research assistants spent the summer cleaning it out – a project they jokingly referred to as "Fixer Upper: Herbarium Edition."

"This place got a major overhaul," said lab technician Haley Hale. "As soon as we were starting to clean it out, even before I was here, we had undergrads working. One of the first undergrads working in the herbarium, Zachary Bailey, was the one who kind of discovered the treasure trove of Guadalupe Mountains – or, rediscovered it."

Matt Johnson joined the Department of Biological Sciences in 2017.

A discovery

One of the first projects undertaken in the herbarium was to digitize the existing collection. It's an intense process that includes making sure the plant is mounted on archival-quality materials with a label, taking pictures of the specimen and posting the records online on the Texas Oklahoma Regional Consortium of Herbaria (TORCH) database. For any specimens that contain sufficient location information, a GPS coordinate is calculated and included with the record to show where that plant was collected.

Of the roughly 30,000 specimens in the E.L. Reed Herbarium, more than 21,000 are now recorded on TORCH.

At about the same time the herbarium was working to digitize its collection, the National Park Service was updating its records. Jonena Hearst, the physical science program manager for Guadalupe Mountains National Park, reached out to Johnson to confirm with him the herbarium's holdings from the park.

"In the past, a lot of national parks, like Guadalupe Mountains, allowed researchers to take this material and put it, essentially, wherever they wanted," she said. "Every researcher wants to keep the stuff they collect at their institution, so we end up with over 100 institutions that hold our materials, and that number keeps growing. But because we are the National Park Service, anything collected from the national parks remains federal property – especially museum property. We have to track all of that every year. To be frank, it becomes a very onerous task to track every institution."

Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Hearst said it's not unusual for a researcher to leave one university and take their collection with them but forget to notify the National Park Service. Or sometimes, when a researcher retires, their lab will be cleaned out and the material gets thrown away.

"I discovered this when I first started working with our collections," Hearst said. "I went back to all of our research permits and I tried to track down every collection. I could only find about 30% of our stuff. I found one where the researcher died and his wife sold everything at a yard sale. I found another one where the researcher said, 'I haven't worked on that stuff for 40 years. I needed space in my lab, so I tossed it all.'"

So when Hearst reached out to Johnson, it was initially just to confirm that the E.L. Reed Herbarium still had the 120 specimens she thought it had.

"The first thing I did was open up this cabinet that says, 'Guadalupe Mountains National Park,'" Johnson said, opening the cabinet to show hundreds of mounted specimens in neat bundles. "This was already here when I got here, and there's clearly more than 120 specimens in here."

Stacks of mounted specimens in neat bundles, like these, were Matt Johnson's first clue that Texas Tech had a larger collection from Guadalupe Mountains National Park than the National Park Service realized.

As undergraduate research assistants digitized the Guadalupe Mountains collection, they soon realized the herbarium housed close to 5,000 specimens.

"That was eye-opening to the park," Johnson said.

The collection

Texas Tech's collection of specimens from Guadalupe Mountains National Park is unique.

Texas Tech biology professor and then-herbarium director David Northington and master's student Tony Burgess were two of the earliest collectors in the park when it was founded. They brought their massive amount of material back to the E.L. Reed Herbarium.

"This collection was made by Texas Tech botanists from 1971 to 1977, when the park first opened," Johnson said. "The park was a goat ranch that some oil barons-turned-conservationists donated to the National Park Service, so this is a botanical snapshot of the whole ecosystem from one point in time."

Burgess returned to the park every summer until his graduation in 1977. A journal that now lives in the herbarium shares some of the unique, colorful experiences he had while living in the park. But it certainly wasn't just an annual camping trip.

McKittrick Canyon.

Burgess traveled to very remote locations, like the park's McKittrick Canyon, and took copious, detailed notes about the plants he found. He identified the species he could, but for those he couldn't, he wrote what he thought it was. And most importantly, he created a cataloging system showing where all the plants were collected. Those notes enabled the GPS coordinates to be calculated.

When Northington and Burgess returned to Texas Tech each fall, they took care of the specimens they collected, pressing them between newspaper sheets to dry them properly.

"These look especially good for 50-year-old specimens," Johnson said. "I think it's a testament to the care that Burgess and Northington took. They changed out the newspaper really often."

Tony Burgess took copious, detailed notes on the specimens he collected.

Today, the collection includes at least four rare species and allows researchers to essentially look back in time 50 years.

"I don't think anybody has such a deep collection of the whole botanical ecosystem, from one little small chunk of time, the way we have here," Johnson said. "It's a really unique collection from the research side of things.

"But that also has opened up partnerships for curation and maintaining of specimens."

Repository agreement

Because of the difficulty Hearst was facing in tracking collected specimens across more than 100 institutions, Guadalupe Mountains National Park decided to designate specific institutions as its repository for certain types of specimens.

"We will not allow people to collect here unless they agree that, when they're done with their research, this material goes to Repository A or Repository B," Hearst said. "This way, we know it's going to a place where somebody is going to take care of it, that they have the knowledge to be able to curate that material correctly and they have the facilities to take care of it well."

From left, doctoral student Yanni Chen, junior Madeline Slimp and lab technician Haley Hale work with the Guadalupe Mountains collection inside the E.L. Reed Herbarium.

Hearst had three criteria in selecting a repository for the park's material:
• It had to be a research institution that could allow people from outside the institution to access the collections and, as a vital part of that, it had to have a curator who understood the material enough to make good decisions about who should have that access.
• It had to be an institution that already had a substantial collection from the park.
• It had to be an institution that was willing to work with the National Park Service to develop a repository agreement and adhere to the park service's sometimes stringent policies.

"That was critical for us, because a repository agreement is somewhat broader than simply a loan agreement," Hearst said. "Under a repository agreement, we can delegate some responsibilities to the institution that we cannot do under a loan agreement."

As Hearst explained, park employees are generally managers – not curators. That means it can be difficult for them to determine whether research requests outside their areas of expertise are reasonable.

Yanni Chen and Madeline Slimp work with the collection.

"I'm a geologist and a paleontologist, so you ask me a question about Permian invertebrates or Pleistocene vertebrate fossils, and I can tell you; I have no problem with that," Hearst said. "Or, 'Hey, I want to collect a hand sample of rock, and I'm going to do this, this and this to it. How much do I need?' I know how to answer those questions. When somebody comes to me and says, 'I want to look at the DNA of bats collected from 1974. Can I do that?' I don't know how to answer that, but the curators of these collections can. They have the expertise, or they know the people who have the expertise so they can get the answer.

"I wanted our material at an institution where the expertise resides."

Texas Tech is now that institution.

From 2020 on, any plant sample collected in Guadalupe Mountains National Park must be transferred to the E.L. Reed Herbarium once its collectors have finished using it for their research. Johnson, as herbarium director, will be able to loan specimens to researchers at other institutions and conduct destructive sampling – taking a small piece of tissue from a plant specimen, grinding it up and extracting its DNA.

But what about all the specimens from 1977 to 2020? They stay where they are. The specimens collected from the park are considered federal property and belong to the people of the United States. The National Park Service is trying to determine the best way to address the substantial volume of specimens in museum collections across the world. Those specimens hold a tremendous potential for scientific discovery, just like the material rediscovered at Texas Tech.

Using the collection

Other regional institutions that have herbaria – universities like New Mexico State University, Sul Ross University or Angelo State University – might have done research at the park in the intervening years, but the park's isolation could have dissuaded some potential research there.

Texas Tech's collection from Guadalupe Mountains National Park includes about 5,000 plant specimens gathered between 1971 and 1977.

"Let's face it, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is at the end of nowhere," Hearst said. "We are 60 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico, and 110 miles from El Paso. There's no easy way to get here. For somebody to come and do research, especially on museum specimens, is extremely difficult. We have no facilities for research, we have no microscopes, we don't have a place for them to work."

Having Texas Tech maintain the samples enables more work to be done with the collection. It's something Johnson hopes to see more of in such a relevant time.

"I think because it's a very isolated place, there's a little less interest in what's happening there," he said. "But I think right now is a key time to be studying what's happening to rare or at least endemic species that are restricted to one small area and figuring out what might happen. As we continue to increase carbon dioxide (CO2) and temperature, what's going to happen to these plants?

"Well, we have a snapshot of an entire botanical community from the 1970s, so let's try and figure out how they were experiencing those conditions."

Bailey, the undergraduate student who rediscovered the Guadalupe Mountains collection while cleaning out the herbarium in 2017 and now a curatorial assistant at the Harvard University Herbarium, began researching that exact topic.

Using the 1970s samples, Bailey looked at plants' stomata – the holes in the bottoms of leaves that allow the plant to take in CO2 and water and put out oxygen. Stomata can be used to track environmental conditions.

"If the plant is experiencing different conditions, it might make more or fewer or denser or less dense stomata," Johnson explained. "For example, rising CO2 might result in them having fewer stomata because they don't need to breathe as hard.

"Zach measured the stomata density for 13 species with a bunch of different samples per species – that's another advantage of having this big collection."

It's not difficult to conduct research like this. Except for the microscope, it can pretty much be achieved using household items.

"It's a super high-tech method of painting nail polish on the leaves and then pulling it off with sticky tape and looking at it under the microscope," Johnson laughed. "Then we can take pictures."

In order to compare how the plants have changed over the last half century, Johnson will need specimens of plants today. He and his students hope to visit the park in the near future for their first re-collection.

Madeline Slimp, a junior plant and soil science major who worked with Bailey on his research, is particularly interested to get into McKittrick Canyon to see if she can find some of the rare species Burgess collected there.

"Philadelphus hitchcockianus is a really unique species," she said. "There's not much documentation of them, especially in TORCH, so I am looking to collect this one if we can."

For her part, Hearst is excited to see the park's collections being used to advance knowledge.

"I'm absolutely delighted to have Texas Tech be a partner in this," she said. "Having our material at a research institution means researchers worldwide have greater access to the material from Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and that's what we want."


Guadalupe Mountains National Park also has a held-in-trust agreement with the Museum of Texas Tech. The museum now houses the park's cave paleontology collection, modern mammal collection and insect collection. The insect collection alone contains some 3,000 to 6,000 specimens, although the National Park Service is still working to find the necessary $20,000 to $30,000 in funding to catalog the insect collection in its entirety.

"Because we have confidence that the material is there, getting it cataloged into our collections is not as critical," Hearst said. "This is one of the things about a repository agreement: I know these institutions are good institutions, that the curators care about this material and it's well taken care of, so that gives me a great deal of confidence that the National Park specimens are being well cared for."