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Supercomputing Helps Ecologists Overturn Popular Theory

Brian Enquist, principal investigator of the BIEN group and professor at the University of Arizona.

By Makeda Easter, TACC/iPlant Collaborative

With an estimated 350,000 plant species on earth, one of the greatest challenges facing ecologists is quantifying plant diversity and understanding its relationship to plant survival. To make matters more difficult, even with all of the observation data collected by independent botanists and researchers for the last 500 years it has been nearly impossible to organize all of these data without the appropriate computational power.

Recent access, however, to Big Data supercomputing resources is revolutionizing the field. This research has been recently published in a series of papers in journals including Ecology, Ecography, Ecology and Evolution, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) is an international group that leads collectors of botanical data, ecologists, and computer scientists worldwide to categorize and analyze plant species in the Americas. Using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources through the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), the researchers combined data — from some of the very earliest plant collections, to modern day herbarium specimens, to ecological surveys and measurements of plant traits to answer important questions on plant diversity.

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