Labs closed, researchers are turning to InsideWood

A radial section of Avicennia germinans from the InsideWood database. Photo by Jessica Lee.

A radial section of Avicennia germinans from the InsideWood database. Photo by Jessica Lee.

How do researchers continue their work when their labs are closed down by a global pandemic? They seek out online reference materials so they can continue their work in quarantine. And when it comes to wood, they are turning to the Libraries’ InsideWood database of images and anatomical information in droves.

Dr. Elisabeth Wheeler, now an Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor Emeritus, partnered with the Libraries in 2003 on the creation of the InsideWood database, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Since then, the database has been one of the Libraries’ most-used web-based resources. Users can search among over 50,000 images and nearly 10,000 descriptions of tree species, both modern and ancient. The resource also includes slides sets useful in teaching wood anatomy.

One reason InsideWood is such a popular resource is its usefulness across many disciplines. Ecologists use InsideWood to correlate wood anatomical features with certain environments or to see how trees might biologically respond to climate change. Paleobotanists and paleontologists identify fossil woods to reconstruct ancient plant communities and ecosystems, and archaeologists and ethnobotanists see what wood artifacts are made of to better understand trade routes or traditional uses of woods by ancient peoples. And InsideWood users are not solely academic—artists use its wood anatomical images in their work and customs agents use it to identify lumber and prevent endangered species trade.

But Dr. Wheeler has seen usage numbers spike since widespread quarantine measures were put in place internationally throughout March. She has seen the number of users jump well over 50% compared to the same months in 2019. “People are staying at home and can't use their 'actuo' reference collections, so they have been turning to InsideWood,” Wheeler notes. “If you have to do wood anatomical work from home, then you'd use internet available resources like InsideWood.”

Wheeler has also received grateful messages from researchers around the globe. One researcher writes: “Without InsideWood, my scientific research would be so much more difficult. I regularly use InsideWood for the identification of archaeological charcoal from Africa. For unknown wood types, InsideWood helps to get an idea into which direction(s) to look. The photographs help to support or dismiss ideas and to eventually confirm identifications reached with the database. Also, for colleagues in Africa, who do not have large libraries with wood atlases and/or the possibility to cut wood into thin sections for a reference collection, the database is a tool that supports research in these countries themselves.”

Another US-based researcher points out: “My comparative collection and most of my reference books had to be left at the lab, but I'm working from home. InsideWood is more useful than ever with lab visits only every 10 days or so!”