‘Win-win-wins in conservation: presentation at UNESCO ‘Botanists of the 21st C’ Conference

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Brosimum alicastrum fruits with the fleshy skin that is consumed by bats and birds, and showing the large seed that drops to the forest floor where it can be harvested. Image by Erika Vohman.

I have been very lucky to present some of the work that Tonya Lander at Oxford University and I have been working on at the UNESCO ‘Botanists of the 21st C’ Conference in Paris. The work builds on a project whose aim was to provide scientific tools for the sustainable harvesting of the underutilized crop and tropical forest tree, Brosimum alicastrum that Tonya and myself undertook in association with the Maya Nut Institute and which was funded by the Darwin Initiative. Tonya and colleagues at Exeter and Oxford University developed a clever way of using investment risk data to help prioritise conservation actions. The basis of this was to use investment risk ratings as a surrogate for the risk of a conservation action failing because of corruption, lack of government infrastructure or capacity

Click here to see a pdf of the slides and notes

September 22, 11 am. Venue: Room IV, UNESCO Headquarters, 7 Place de Fontenoy, Paris, 75007, France

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Rural community dweller rinsing Brosimum alicastrum seeds collected from the forest floor. Image by Erika Vohman.

Coffee interview with the Naked Scientists

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Graihagh Jackson from The Naked Scientists, Lizz Booker from Starbucks and myself in a coffee shop in South Kensington after the interview

On the 13th of September I had the pleasure of working with the Naked Scientists, a media-savvy group of physicians and researchers from Cambridge University who use radio, live lectures, and the Internet to strip science down to its bare essentials, and promote it to the general public. I also had the pleasure of meeting Liz Booker, a coffee taster from Starbucks. The interview was about coffee and the chemistry and the genetics behind its flavour and was in response to scientists having now sequenced the genetic code of one of the the coffee species used to make coffee. I am no expert on coffee but served as botanist for the piece.  After the event I took Liz Booker and Starbucks Press Officer Nicky Gaskell to visit our coffee collections in the Herbarium where we looked at a number of 18thC specimens. The peice was broadcast on BBC Cambridgeshire, BBC 5 Live and Australian ABC, click here to hear the interview and read the transcript

Our first Inga agroforest plots six months on

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A member of the Motacusal community standing next to a row of Inga saplings that is well on the way to becoming a functional agroforest plot. Image by Rolman Velarde, Herencia.

We have established Inga agroforest plots on abandoned slash-and-burn sites, degraded pasture and land used for road grading where the topsoil is removed with a bulldozer. After six months seedlings have established on all of these sites but with slower growth and some mortality on the bull-dozed and pasture sites.  We planted out our plot at Motacusal, an abandoned slash-and-burn site at the end of February and since then the seedlings here have done very well, most over 1.5 m in height. At this site we have 1,200 plants growing and they may well ‘capture’ the site a year after planting in six months time. By capture we mean that they dominate the weeds and other competing vegetation and control the site.  Now that the dry season has ended and the seedlings have become saplings we are well on the way to delivering our first agroforest.

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A likely new species of Pilea from the Dominican Republic

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A possible new species of Pilea characterized by large tubers which probably enable it to survive in fissures in limestone karst cliffs where it grows. Image Alex Monro.

On my recent trip collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic we came across what is very likely a new species of Pilea, a group of about succulent nettles. I thought it might be useful to outline what happens from collecting / discovering something new to it being published as a new species, from my own botanical perspective of course. In the case of this species, it has a couple of distinctive features which make it stand out from similar looking Pilea species: 1) a well developed above-ground tuber, up to the size of a small potato, and 2) relatively large male flower clusters for the group of species it is in. This gives me two diagnostic characters to check with in existing collections and in the literature. Pilea is a genus of over 700 species found in tropical and subtropical Asia, Madagascar, Africa and the Americas. All but a few species are restricted to one of these areas or a much smaller area and this knowledge enables me to delimit my search area. In this case, the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Hispaniola).

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Close-up of the leaves and flowers. The cluster of red flowers on the left are male and are borne on a relatively long stalk, to the right you can see a cluster of female flowers. This cluster is only a few mm long and contains several flowers.

My second job is to see if the species has already been described. To do this I need to look through the collections of the most appropriate herbaria for this area, starting with the National Herbarium of the Dominican Republic. This can take quite a long time although many collections have been digitised and are available online. I then need to follow this up by reviewing the literature for the region to see if I find any descriptions which match or are close. Once I have done this I should have a list of species that are possible or close matches. These I can then compare in more detail with my possible new species and confirm whether it is new or not. This I will do by looking at the type specimens under a microscope and comparing their key features: leaf and stem shape, the nature of their hairs, the size and shape of the flowers and of course in this case, the presence or not of a tuber. This also provides me with the information I need to write the diagnosis of the new species. Once I am sure that this is a new species I can start writing the description and think of a name. A new species description will include a detailed description of the plant, a line drawing illustrating the diagnostic features and a species conservation assessment which will provide an indication as to how threatened with extinction it is.

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A cross-section through one of the tubers. The tuber likely serves as a water storage device to help the species survive dry periods growing in narrow fissures in rock.

Lectotype of Urtica baccifera L. from Plumier (1760)


lectotype urera baccifera Plumier 1760 tab CCLX Resultpdf-3This beautiful plate from Plumier’s 1760 Plantarum Americanarum was designated as the lectotype for the Linnean name, Urtica baccifera by de Rooij in 1975 ( Fl. Suriname 5: 302).  Whilst very beautiful the plate is not sufficient in its own right to distinguish the species from closely related ones and so I designated an epitype in 2009: Fawcett 7177, collected on 13 Mar 1898; in Jamaica and stored at BM.

 

Revising the Pilea species of the Dominican Republic

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Sorting all the collections of Pilea into species piles based on morphology and existing identifications. I ended up with over 80 piles and 110 names

Pilea is a genus or group of over 700 species in the nettle family (Urticaceae). It is mainly comprised of succulent herbaceous plants that grow in the shade of forest and is especially diverse in the Greater Antilles and on limestone. Currently over 110 species are recorded for the island of Hispaniola which encompasses the Dominican Republic. They are very variable in their shape and form and probably most people (including many botanists) might not think that they were related to nettles. It is a group that I have been working on for over 15 years and I began work on revising their classification for neighbouring Cuba in 2010.  Surveying the species in the herbarium of the National Botanic Garden in Santo Domingo helped me to see how they compared to the species in Cuba.

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Examples of Dominican Republic Pileas: P. depressa, P. microphylla, P. fairchildeana & P. cf christii. These four species demonstratethe great diversity in form of the genus Worldwide and why they are such an interesting group

After a week looking at the collections and sorting them into piles I started to get an idea as to the species present on this amazing island. Of course establishing their correct names involves a whole other body of work but at least I now have an idea as to what there is in the Dominican Republic, what might be conspecific with Cuban species and where there are complexes of closely-related and potentially interbreeding species. Not bad for a week’s work.

Collecting nettle seeds, no easy task!

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Collecting Pilea cellulosa fruit on the border with Haiti whilst trying to avoid 300 escaped prisoners. Collecting the fruiting bodies is relatively straight forward but recognising and extracting mature fruit is not.

For a week now I have been accompanying a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank on a field trip to collect seed of plants endemic to Hispaniola for banking at the Jardín Botánico and Kew. I have been taking advantage of this trip to collect nettles but also to learn how to harvest and bank their seeds. The Greater Antilles which includes the Dominica Republic  / Hispaniola is a centre for species diversity for nettles and most of the 100 or so species found here are found nowhere else. Given obvious pressure on the island’s forests both in the Dominican Republic as well as in Haiti, banking their seeds could support their reintroduction as a last ditch attempt to prevent their extinction.

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Fruiting Pilea microphylla. For scale the leaves are 3 mm in length. Ripe fuits are brown in colour, immature flowers and fruit pale cream to pale-green.

The seed bank at Kew which banks the seeds of >50,000 species currently has only 14 sp of nettle which for me seemed a little on the low side given that there are about 2,000 species Worldwide. Support from the Bentham Moxon Trust is helping me to increase this figure significantly, both by enabling me to help develop seed-collecting protocols for nettles and so encourage seed banks to collect them, but also because I am learning from them how to collect seeds, something that I can do myself on future fieldwork in collaboration with other seed banks. Continue reading

Collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic

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One of very few collections of Rousselia humilis, a rare and unusual species that we found on the very first day! Click on the link to see a brief description.

I have just spent an amazing week with a team from the Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank collecting nettles in the Dominican Republic, thanks to funds from the Bentham Moxon Trust. The Dominican Republic represents half of the island of Hispaniola, the other half being Haiti. Thanks to a rich geological history, varied climate and very high mountains (to 2,760 m) the country is host to a very rich and diverse flora of over 5,500 species, many of which are only found on Hispaniola. We made some very interesting collections, the first two on the first day! One was of a genus, Rousselia that I have never before seen alive and of which few collections exist in herbaria, and which by coincidence I posted about a couple of months ago. The other was of a very unusual tuberous species of Pilea, a genus of ca 715 species of mainly succulent herbs, over 70 of which are found only on the island of Hispaniola.

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An unusual tuberous species of Pilea growing in cracks in limestone karst cliffs on Sierra San Francisco in the Province of San Juan, Dominican Republic. These tubers probably serve to store water during dry periods.

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Useful Plants Project workshop: rural livelihoods conserve plants

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Delegates at the Useful Plants Project workshop held at the Millennium Seed Bank from July 22-24. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Stuppy and the Millennium Seed Bank.

Last week the Millennium Seed Bank hosted a week-long workshop on useful plants and livelihoods as part of the evaluation of one of it’s flagship initiatives, the Useful Plants Project. The event was also an opportunity to take a broader look at Kew’s livelihoods projects and how we could maximise the way in which they meet rural communities’s needs and thereby increase their impact. The breadth and scope of Kew’s projects never ceases to amaze me: from the Great Green Wall project in subSaharan Africa to the restoration and conservation of dry forests in Peru, the conservation of forest reserves in Madagascar and of course the Useful Plants Project (UPP) itself; an ambitious and innovative initiative that seeks to link rural communities, livelihoods, restoration and the ex-situ conservation of seeds in Mali, Botswana, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa. Continue reading

Birth of a new research project… Ascension Island


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Ascension Island, southern approach. Image courtesy of the Guardian newspaper

It always surprises me the unpredictable mix of chance, curiosity and vision which can result in the birth of a new research project. Several conversations over the past few months with the British Ambassador to Bolivia, colleagues at Kew and at the Natural History Museum are hinting that a new research project focussed on a small forest on the UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island could be forming. It would be a project with strong links to the history of Kew Gardens, the Royal Navy and of two of the most famous UK scientists of the 19thC, Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker and their idea of using forest to capture moisture from clouds to provide  an isolated and important staging post in the middle of the South Atlantic with freshwater. Darwin and Hooker, each famous in his own right had visited the isolated volcanic island of Ascension in the South Atlantic during the first half of the 19thC. Both were struck by the barren nature of the island’s central peak and lack of water. For unlike many island peaks Ascension island had no forest to trap and extract moisture from passing clouds and so the Royal Navy Garrison stationed there suffered from water shortages. Darwin and Hooker set upon the idea of planting a ‘fantasy’ cloud forest using the most appropriate species from around the World  supplied from the Tropical Nurseries of Kew Gardens and the South African Botanical Garden in what was also a great experiment in reforestation and forest species assembly.

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The cloud forest, 160 years after it was planted on a design by two of Britain’s most famous scientists: Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker

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