The Lady Gaga Ferns Are Losing Their Home. It's Surprisingly Tragic for Science and Society. – Atmos Magazine

Photograph by Ambra Crociani / Connected Archives
 
WORDS BY HANNAH SEO
Duke University is closing its century-old herbarium—a legendary plant collection and training ground—to the outcry of many.
In the rooms of Duke University’s herbarium—a library-type collection of plants and specimens aggregated for research—biologists bestowed unto Lady Gaga one of the highest honors a person can receive: They named a plant after her. 
 
In 2012, plant taxonomists realized that certain ferns belonged in different genera than previously thought—some needed to be classified under a new genus entirely. Duke University researchers called the genus Gaga, inspired by the pop star and her advocacy with the Born This Way Foundation. In its bisexual reproductive stage, ferns from the Gaga genus looked the spitting image of the star’s 2010 Grammy Awards performance costume, and hidden in its DNA was a unique genetic signature not found in other ferns that read “GAGA.” They dubbed these two newly discovered species: Gaga germanotta, after Lady Gaga’s real name, Stefani Germanotta, and Gaga monstraparva, which translates to “monster-little,” in reference to Lady Gaga’s fanbase, the Little Monsters.
 
The original Gaga specimens lie to this day inside the collections of Duke University’s herbarium—the second largest collection of its kind owned by a private university, after Harvard. But where they’ll be in five years is uncertain. This month, Duke University announced its plan to shut down its century-old herbarium. Its collection of 825,000 specimens will be split and rehomed over the next two to three years. 
 
“Duke Herbarium will be the largest and oldest herbarium in the history of the U.S. to be abandoned by its host institution,” herbarium director Kathleen Pryer wrote in an email to Duke’s biology department last Wednesday night. Its closure “will lead to broken legacies and a colossal breakdown,” she continued, pleading with her colleagues to join her fight against the decision. 
 
The herbarium has been under pressure “since before Covid,” Pryer told Atmos. It takes up a lot of space—plus, while the five faculty members associated with the facility have brought in over $30 million in grants from the National Science Foundation over the last 20 years, according to Pryer, that doesn’t necessarily bring in much overhead. 
 
A confluence of variables has turned this into “a perfect storm,” said Paul Manos, the herbarium’s curator of vascular plants. The buildings that house the collections are due for renovations. At the same time, the five faculty members attached to the facility are set to retire in the coming years. “Duke did no hiring to mitigate this rash of retirements,” said Manos—it seems the university is taking advantage of faculty churn and the opportunity to remake the space to move the herbarium out.
“Duke Herbarium will be the largest and oldest herbarium in the history of the U.S. to be abandoned by its host institution.”
Duke’s dean of natural sciences, Susan Alberts, wrote to the herbarium faculty in an email that because of the facility’s large resource demand, “it’s in the best interests of both Duke and the herbarium to find a new home or homes for these collections.” According to another email circulating from Duke, maintenance and staffing of the herbarium, including faculty positions, would cost at least $25 million. This is more than Duke is currently willing to spend. As of June 30, 2023, the university’s endowment totals approximately $11.6 billion.
 
Pryer said that she and colleagues have brainstormed a number of solutions, like sending duplicate specimens to other herbaria to cut down on space, moving the collection to a new building at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and fundraising for an endowment specifically for the herbarium—all of which university leadership has ignored. 
 
Alberts told Atmos in an email that “the estimated costs of continuing to responsibly host the herbarium at Duke far exceed any donor interest expressed to date.” But Pryer said that fundraising was a very real possibility. 
 
After Duke’s alumni magazine wrote about the herbarium and its tentative future back in December, a potential donor got in touch with her. “He was in a position to propose a $3 million endowment for the herbarium, where he was going to give the first million and Duke needed to come up with the other two,” Pryer said. But after that glimmer of hope, Pryer was told they were being shut down. “They had to really show their hand at that point, because that was the plan all along,” she said—they had already decided to jettison the herbarium, they couldn’t very well be soliciting donations for it. 
 
The decision to close the herbarium has rocked the scientific community. In the days since the news broke, a coalition of scientist-led organizations has created a petition that has over 14,000 signatures as of February 25. Various organizations and individuals have written Duke letters decrying the decision. And biologists across the country—many of whom have trained at Duke’s herbarium—have taken to X, formerly known as Twitter, to pour out their protest and dismay. 
Dismayed to hear that Duke University is about to divest itself of its herbarium of nearly one million specimens, which is the largest in the southeast of North America and in the top 3% in the United States. If this goes forward, it will be a huge blow for biodiversity science. https://t.co/gzXwgYRYHE
— Brian Sidlauskas (@BrianSidlauskas) February 15, 2024

Amplifying this as a Duke alum who got started in plant research at @DukeU, this saddens me deeply because my fascination and appreciation of botany started in this herbarium. Having only worked in the lab setting, being in the herbarium was a big ‘aha’ moment for me 🌱🌏
— E. Han Tan (@ekhtn) February 18, 2024

“My feeling, much like the rest of the natural history community, was one of shock,” said Trina Roberts, the associate VP of collections for the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County and the vice president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance. This sort of collection closure is not uncommon at smaller institutions, she said, but “Duke is a very large, relatively well-funded institution with an extremely large herbarium… that is not something that you expect a university to just turn its back on.”
 
Tim James, the curator of fungi at The University of Michigan Herbarium, did his Ph.D. at Duke in the early 2000s. “Learning to actually handle specimens there trained me more than anything,” he said. “It’s disappointing that they have failed to reinvigorate the program since.”
 
Herbaria are crucial to science—they’re repositories of data and knowledge that are becoming more vital as the climate and biodiversity crises loom large. Their archives reveal how humans have moved species, introduced invasive ones, disrupted reproduction, winnowed genetic diversity, and wiped taxa off the map entirely. Some ambitious researchers even want to sow the seeds of the preserved plants as a last-ditch effort to save critically endangered plants and resurrect extinct ones. Duke’s decision to shutter the herbarium one and a half years after announcing its “climate commitment” and “at a time where we are facing such a diabolical crisis regarding diversity and climate is just appalling,” said Pryer. 
 
Sure, many of these research initiatives can forge ahead if the collection goes to another institution, but the storied training grounds at Duke will be hard to replace, said Ian Medeiros, a soon-to-be postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian herbarium who recently defended his dissertation at Duke. Those faculty positions, graduate student slots, the lab space—these are the things not so easily recovered, Medeiros said. That is an especially hard loss when you consider Duke’s historical place on the vanguard of biodiversity research, especially for lesser-studied organisms like lichens, ferns, mosses, and fungi. “There are species of lichens, or ferns, etc. where the people at Duke are the only ones who have ever found these things, or documented them,” he said. “That’s what’s lost if Duke abandons this.”
Duke’s destroying a globally recognized generational legacy. I know 15 biology faculty and curators who trained at Duke’s herbarium, just in my 10 years there. 2023’s Climate Commitment “for life”? A budget is a moral document and Duke has shown its cards. https://t.co/3OkYbZ55MK
— Matt Johnson, PhD (@mossMatters) February 17, 2024

🙋‍♀️ My first research experience was in @NYBG‘s herbarium. The mentorship & experiences there confirmed that plant bio was the field for me & led directly to where I am now. I’m heartbroken for trainees who won’t be able to fall in love with plants if the @DukeU herbarium closes https://t.co/XIkgUAxf44
— Molly Edwards, PhD (@science_irl) February 18, 2024

Rehoming Duke’s collection will be no easy feat. Given the size of it, it’s unlikely that one institution will be able to take it all in. “Our hope is that the herbarium can be logically separated into two different collections,” Pryer said, “ones that reproduce by seeds and ones that reproduce by spores.”
 
Packing up, transporting, and re-cataloging all this material will require an incredible amount of time, manpower, and money, Manos said. “I think Duke underestimates this process… it’s no low-budget endeavor.”
 
It will cost the receiving institutions space, time, and money, too, Roberts said. All the while, the collection won’t be supporting science.
 
This trend of consolidation, where fewer and fewer herbaria hold more and more of our research specimens, concerns Roberts. More than 100 herbaria have closed since 1997. In 2017, for example, the University of Louisiana-Monroe vacated its science collection to expand its athletic track—the institution’s “fiscal situation” forcing a choice between priorities. “At a time when we are all working hard to increase diversity and inclusion in science and museums, having this resource that is held by fewer institutions for the use of fewer students is counterproductive,” Roberts said.
Herbaria are crucial to science—they’re repositories of data and knowledge that are becoming more vital as the climate and biodiversity crises loom large.
It’s uncertain what will become of Duke’s herbarium’s space once it is vacated. “As I understand it, it will become more lab space,” said Medeiros. He presumes the priority is to carve out space for research that brings in larger grants: “The faculty connected with the herbarium absolutely do bring in grant funding, but just by nature of having an herbarium you require more floor space, and so the grant dollar-to-square foot ratio of the herbarium might be lower.” If that’s a metric Duke wants to maximize, he said, “then they probably see the herbarium as a waste.” 
 
The university may say that closing the herbarium is a matter of funding, but it’s ultimately a demoralizing message that the university doesn’t value the work they are doing, said Medeiros. “Duke has shown many times that if something is a priority, Duke will find the resources,” he said. “I wish Duke would be forthright about this being a priority change rather than an issue of resources.” And what should a university be prioritizing if not knowledge? 
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