Biology Professor Identifies 56 Plant Species Unknown to Have Existed in Worcester County

Robert Bertin makes discovery at EcoTarium’s herbarium collection

March 24th, 2014 by 

Biology professor Robert Bertin has identified 56 plant species previously unknown to have existed in the Central Massachusetts area. He made the discoveries while doing research on the loss of plant species in Worcester County and studying the herbarium, a collection of dried plants, at the EcoTarium, a science and nature musem in Worcester.

Kaleigh Pare, collections specialist at the EcoTarium, wrote a letter that was published in the January/February issue of Museum News detailing Bertin’s accomplishment (PDF).

“These specimens were collected between 1876 and 1938, allowing Bertin to document the loss of native plant species within the last 150 years in relation to succession, human activities and climate change,” Pare wrote.

The herbarium’s archives have been the main focus of Bertin since his first contact with the EcoTarium 13 years ago. “The EcoTarium is known primarily as a science education facility,” Bertin says, “but down in its basement, there is an amazing collection of these scientific objects, plant specimens, and so on.”

Bertin began his project by simply cataloguing and labeling many of these carefully preserved plant species gathered in Worcester. Most of these collected items, as it turns out, came from amateur botanists collecting at that time. “A lot of the collection harkens back to when botany, and science in general, was a very inclusive field,” Bertin says. “Rather than golf, or hunting, or other such recreational activities, many people – priests, lawyers, etc. – used to keep botanical collections as a hobby, for pleasure.” It is from these non-professional sources that many of the 4,000-5,000 pieces in the EcoTarium’s collection originate.

Bertin identifies with this personal interest in botany. With a father in the Air Force, much of his childhood was spent overseas in places like France, England, and Germany. A constant throughout was a love of the outdoors. “Since I can remember,” he says, “I’ve always loved nature, and I’ve always just loved being outside.”

Originally intending to study ornithology (bird zoology) in college, Bertin soon became more interested in the study of flora. He earned his Ph.D. in the field from the University of Illinois. Bertin came to Holy Cross in 1984 – this year marks his 30th anniversary on the faculty — and he’s been teaching in the biology department ever since.

Work as a biology department professor kept him from his earlier interest in plant research for some years, but the passion was re-ignited after teaching a field class in the late ’90s. He published an extensive survey in 2000 detailing plant life in the city of Worcester, titled “Vascular Flora of Worcester, Massachusetts.”

“I wanted to do something more analytical, though, rather than just a simple catalogue,” Bertin explains, “so I began this project with the Worcester EcoTarium. I began asking questions like ‘Has Worcester seen an increase in non-native species as its human population has grown?’ This is then what drove my research.

“I’m just glad to still be doing the thing I love most,” Bertin continues. “And even more especially, I love seeing a mutual collaboration between professional and non-professional scientists. That’s why any of this was even possible in the first place. It all just comes down to finding something you’re passionate about doing, and enjoying it.”

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