Use of herbarium data to evaluate weediness in five congeners.
It is often desirable to quantify a plant's relative weediness or synanthropy, that is, the degree to which a species associates with human-caused disturbance, in order to study and understand the biology, ecology and evolution of weeds and invasive plants. Herbarium specimens are among the most accessible and verifiable sources of data on distribution and habitat. However, the habitat distribution of species may not be reflected accurately by herbarium specimen data, due to well-known biases in plant collection. Here, we assess how well herbarium specimens reflect species' weediness, when compared with direct field surveys. We used five species of Melampodium (Asteraceae) and classified their degree of weediness with a modification of Nuorteva's synanthropy index, based on herbarium specimens. We then modelled the distribution of our focal species in Mexico using MaxEnt and identified a polygon of ∼3000 km2 in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, where there was a high probability of finding all five species. Systematic field searches in the target area documented all visible populations of four species along major and minor roads. Then we, again, classified their degree of weediness with the synanthropy index, based now on field data, and compared. We found that herbarium data were an accurate predictor of a species' weediness relative to its congeners despite the well-documented skew of herbarium data towards natural areas, which our data reflected as well. So, herbarium data can be used to classify species' weediness relative to each other, but not in absolute terms, if the specimens were correctly identified and none of the species were subject to particular collection bias. This study is the first attempt to compare herbarium and field data on this subject and may be relevant for other types of investigations based on herbarium data. Our work also highlights the usefulness of distribution models based on herbarium specimens.