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AbstractPhenology––the timing of life-history events––is a key trait for understanding responses of organisms to climate. The digitization and online mobilization of herbarium specimens is rapidly advancing our understanding of plant phenological response to climate and climatic change. The current common practice of manually harvesting data from individual specimens greatly restricts our ability to scale data collection to entire collections. Recent investigations have demonstrated that machine-learning models can facilitate data collection from herbarium specimens. However, present attempts have focused largely on simplistic binary coding of reproductive phenology (e.g., flowering or not). Here, we use crowd-sourced phenological data of numbers of buds, flowers, and fruits of more than 3000 specimens of six common wildflower species of the eastern United States (Anemone canadensis, A. hepatica, A. quinquefolia, Trillium erectum, T. grandiflorum, and T. undulatum} to train a model using Mask R-CNN to segment and count phenological features. A single global model was able to automate the binary coding of reproductive stage with greater than 90% accuracy. Segmenting and counting features were also successful, but accuracy varied with phenological stage and taxon. Counting buds was significantly more accurate than flowers or fruits. Moreover, botanical experts provided more reliable data than either crowd-sourcers or
Abstract Machine learning (ML) has great potential to drive scientific discovery by harvesting data from images of herbarium specimens—preserved plant material curated in natural history collections—but ML techniques have only recently been applied to this rich resource. ML has particularly strong prospects for the study of plant phenological events such as growth and reproduction. As a major indicator of climate change, driver of ecological processes, and critical determinant of plant fitness, plant phenology is an important frontier for the application of ML techniques for science and society. In the present article, we describe a generalized, modular ML workflow for extracting phenological data from images of herbarium specimens, and we discuss the advantages, limitations, and potential future improvements of this workflow. Strategic research and investment in specimen-based ML methods, along with the aggregation of herbarium specimen data, may give rise to a better understanding of life on Earth.