Pollen Image Management: Using Digital Images to Teach Recognition Skills and Build Reference Collections

Peter Shimeld, Feli Hopf, Stuart Pearson


A reference collection is a necessary outgrowth of many research projects, including some undergraduate PBL. The need for modern morphological information at appropriate taxonomic levels seems to drive the early stages of many projects. In palynology, the development of these collections is often a fundamental part of researcher training. It is a time consuming and materials-expensive task that includes: the gathering and identification of herbarium specimens; the destructive processing of the specimen; the storage of reference vials of material; and the recording of the images for later cross-referencing. The microscope slides and processed materials have a limited (undefined) shelf-life. Retrieving reference material for routine comparison with unknown materials can be frustratingly slow using reference microscope slides. Consequently, students have traditionally used a combination of annotated sketches and photographic print film to compile a reference collection. Most pollen laboratories are festooned with hardcopies of pollen images for the enjoyment of those in the laboratory and the collections tend to 'go with' the collector. This does not result in accumulation of taxonomic information.

The 'siliciophobic' response of teachers and researchers described by Attwood (2000) has an additional variety called 'pixilophobia'. Digital-image technology and the Web are now widely available and accepted in most applications except in the collection and sharing of reference materials. For example, the field of palynology has its professional heart in image recognition, yet the systematic collection and sharing of images over the Web or on CD-ROM is relatively recent. This paper seeks to promote this recent development. Although this paper relates to a pollen collection, however, the principles and techniques used have universal application to people working with image management. We believe the model described here is a useful development, and although the endpoint may be LucID (Norton et al. 2000), we hope this low budget model encourages others in the sharing of reference materials in digital forms.

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