Karina Knight's red boxes

Taxonomy needs more than just taxonomists. In some ways they have the easy job: they get to go to exotic places collecting specimens, have the thrill of discovery, and the satisfaction of naming new species and exploring the evolution of life on Earth. At least this sounds cool.


So spare a thought for some of the other critical people in the taxonomy sector, the staff who manage, curate and look after the biodiversity collections - the scientific specimens - on which taxonomy and taxonomists depend.


Karina Knight has a background that will be familiar to anyone in the taxonomy community. She grew up in Melbourne then Perth, in places with plenty of bush to play in and marvel at. When the family moved to Perth she lived at first in a house nestled between Kings Park and the Swan River - bush on one side, estuary on the other - followed by other houses close by the Swan River estuary. Young Karina often had jellyfish and other creatures in jars on her windowsill, and chased bugs, frogs and lizards in the bush on weekends.


Not surprisingly, biology was a favourite subject in high school, then later as an undergraduate at Murdoch University. It was at the latter that Karina gradually moved from an interest in animals to an interest in plants - dissecting worms and frogs in zoology practicals was not really her thing. A summer school course and field work in Tasmania clinched it - Karina would work with plants and botany, if she could get a lucky break.


And a lucky break came, one that would set her career. The Western Australian Herbarium in Perth employed her for a temporary, one-year position to set up a reference herbarium - a collection of plant specimens that could be accessed and used by the public to help identify Western Australia's world-renowned wildflowers. Karina clearly stood out in the role and showed commitment and skill, because at the end of the year she was offered further work, essentially odd-jobbing in the collection and helping with the Herbarium's taxonomic work. It was the start of a 35-year career.


Keeping a biodiversity collection well-managed, carefully curated and scientifically current is a never-ending and highly skilled task. For the next twenty years Karina essentially served a long apprenticeship in all aspects of herbarium management. She carefully mounted botanical specimens, helped keep the collection safe from pests that can turn specimens into little more than dust and beetle droppings, renamed and re-ordered specimens as names and classifications changed, and helped the taxonomists create distribution maps and write their papers.


When computers first became available in the mid-1980s she entered the first record - information on a specimen of Acacia neurocarpa - in the Western Australian Herbarium's specimens database. That database is still going today, and is the core of the Herbarium's Florabase website and the vouchered records in the Atlas of Living Australia and Global Biodiversity Information Facility.


After her 'apprenticeship' in all aspects of the management of a biodiversity collection, Karina was appointed as Collections Manager, a position she's retiring from in a few days. The Western Australian Herbarium couldn't function as a scientific institution without the care, skill and hard work of Karina and her staff. Her dedication was recognised by Herbarium botanist Bruce Maslin when he named the new rare species Acacia karina in her honour.


Perhaps not surprisingly, working in taxonomy and with taxonomists, and building on a fascination with the living world since childhood, Karina has also taken up her own taxonomy project, studying Australian slime moulds. These remarkable and famous organisms (not moulds at all, though definitely slimy in their plasmodial stage) are very poorly known, particularly in Australia and other countries in the southern hemisphere. Also not surprisingly, Karina recently discovered her first new species, in the genus Clastoderma, and has a fair idea on a second, in the genus Cribraria.


She's very likely to retire as Collections Manager on a Friday, and turn up at the Herbarium as a Research Associate the following Monday to continue working on her slime moulds and prepare her first taxonomic paper.


Karina Knight among the red boxes that hold plant specimens at the Western Australian Herbarium. Photo: K. Thiele CC-BY

And the red boxes? Good collections staff are sticklers for orderliness. The Western Australian Herbarium recently accessioned its 800,000th specimen, and a lack of orderliness just wouldn't do when you have 800,000 scientific specimens to look after. When the Herbarium moved from an old building to a new in 2011, an opportunity arose to move the specimens from cardboard boxes in open shelving - wide open to insect attack, dust and wear and tear - into purpose-built, secure, plastic boxes. After an open call amongst staff to work out a colour scheme, the word came down from Karina - the boxes could be any colour people wanted as long as they were red.


800,000 scientific specimens, well-managed, well-curated, that together document the plant biodiversity of Western Australia, and all neatly arranged in red boxes, is a legacy Karina will leave to future generations of taxonomists.


Not to mention some new slime moulds.


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