Tag Archives: The Natural History Museum

Checklist to the plants of La Amistad National Park published!

The field team from one of nine expeditions to La Amistad that formed the source of some of the records.

Finally, and after many years of fieldwork, identification, writing, checking, editing and correcting our checklist to the vascular pants of La Amistad Binational Park, produced by a team of Costa Rican and Panamanian botanists, and myself, has been published! It has been a challenging and protracted undertaking which at several times I thought would never be completed and special thanks go to a very patient and dedicated editor, Maarten Christenhusz. Checklists are generally not highly regarded in scientific circles as they are effectively lists of what has been documented at  particular place. They are though, incredibly important as they represent verified and falsifiable lists synthesising data from several sources and are often the building blocks of other scientific research and much more highly cited publications. They also provide a baseline for conservation and future exploration.

View across a small portion of the park from Cerro Asidbeta in 2012

La Amistad itself is a UNESCO World Heritage property and Binational Park shared by Costa Rica and Panama. It covers about 4,000 km2 and contains an incredible 3,046 species of vascular plants, of which 73 are found nowhere else. This makes La Amistad one of the most species-rich places on earth for vascular plants and of great importance for conservation. Part of the reason for this high diversity is the number of contrasting habitats from Paramo, natural grasslands to evergreen oak forest, cloud forest and tropical wet forest.

Vaccinium bocatorense Wilbur (heather family), one of 73 species known only from La Amistad.

The plan to do a checklist to the park followed several years of field exploration undertaken as part of Flora Mesoamericana and then a Darwin Initiative project to generate baseline information for the park’s management. This involved hiking and camping for two to three weeks at a time and was some of the most exhilirating fieldwork that I have done. Once we had our collections identified we then used inventories of local herbaria in Costa Rica and Panama, existing taxonomic treatments combined with reliable online resources such as Tropicos to compile a more exhaustive list.  We then compared this to a vegetation map which we had produced and elevation ranges from specimen labels to associate each species with a particular vegetation type and in the interests of verifiability we cite all of the known colections of each species made in the park.  I am sure there are several errors waiting to be uncovered in the list but despite this, and its relatively low impact factor, it is probably the paper that I am most proud of having been involved with. Firstly because for several years I feared it would never get finished, and secondly because most of the authors are Costa Rican or Panamanian.

Our field laboratory in 2008 in the Rio Frio sector of Panamanian La Amistad.

Working on Cuban nettles in Berlin herbarium

A Cuban species of nettle, possibly undescribed. The leaves are about 2 mm across. To the middle right of the picture you can see a small cluster of female flowers about 1/2 mm in length

Funded by the Synthesys project I am studying the Cuban nettle collections of the Berlin-Dahlem Museum. The aim is to finish my account of the nettle family for the Flora of Cuba project that I started five years ago. It might seem odd that Cuba has so many nettle species that I can still be working on it, albeit in a fragmented way, for five years. Also that Berlin should be an important repository of Cuban plants, but there is a reason.

Cuba has an exceptionally rich flora and is especially important for the nettle family, Urticaceae, which is represented by about 70 species in eight genera. Together the Greater Antilles, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, is a centre of species-richness for one group of nettles in particular, the genus Pilea. There are over 150 species of Pilea in the Greater Antilles, 60 of which are native to Cuba. The reason for such high diversity is unknown but may have something to do with the age of the islands, preponderance of limestone substrates or something else that we haven’t thought of yet. It does, however mean that I have been spending a lot of time looking at herbarium spcimens of this genus in the Berlin herbarium.

Room K10 in the underground, bomb-proof Berlin-Dahlem herbarium. This is where the Cuban collections are stored

The connection between Germany and the the Greater Antilles started with botanist Ignatz Urban, who did a  lot of work documenting the plant diversity of the Greater Antilles. Tragically most of his collections were destroyed in World War Two when the herbarium was bombed. During the Cold War the connection that had established between Berlin and the Caribbean switched to East Germany and the Jena herbarium impulsed by the formidable Johannes Bisse who founded the National Botanic Garden of Cuba. This lead to the foundation of the Flora of Cuba project a collaboration between the many excellent Cuban botanists and their German counterparts, initially in Jena and then from 1993 in Berlin. So that is the reason that I am in Berlin looking at Cuban nettles!

Ghost flowers in the nettle family

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A pickled Flower of Boehmeria zollingeriana, 1.2 mm in length viewed under a Zeiss Axioskop microscope. You can clearly see the two stigmas (ling filament like structures) and if you look carefully the two overlapping eggs within the ovary (dark egg-shaped structures)

Nettles are characterised, amongst other things, by having flowers with a single egg in their ovary and a single stigma, the structure which conducts the pollen to its target. Work by developmental biologists almost a century ago suggested that the ancestor of nettles probably had two eggs per ovary after discovering that at a very early stage of development nettle ovaries contain two eggs one of which disappears as the flower develops resulting in the single egged flower which characterises the family. It was therefore a great surprise when plant collections from Costa Rica examined in the 1990s were found to have flowers with two or three eggs and stigmas per ovary. These very unusual plants were described as a new species: Boehmeria burgeriana  by colleagues Melanie Wilmot-Dear and Ib Friis. Continue reading Ghost flowers in the nettle family

Seminar at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on the nettle family

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View of the tropical glass house at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to present a seminar on  the nettle family, the Urticaceae at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I have been working on this group of plants for over fifteen years with various collaborators  and am finally ready to publish a revised classification of the family. I had a good audience who asked some insightful questions as well as making some good suggestions for future research. You can see a pdf of my slides by clicking on the following link: Edinburgh Urticaceae 19-6. Afterwards I had a chance to talk to a number of colleagues that I would like to start collaborating with in the future.

Zonas de transferencia para Brosimum alicastrum en América Central

Zonas de transferencia recomendadas. Al restringir el movimiento de las plántulas o semillas a dentro de cada zona no debería haber ninguna erosión de la diversidad genética de Brosimum alicastrum. Imagen hecho por Tonya Lander

Como parte de un proyecto de la Iniciativa Darwin del Gobierno del Reino Unido (# 18-010) hemos recibido fundos para proporcionar herramientas de apoyo a la reforestación sostenible con Brosimum alicastrum. Brosimum alicastrum, conocido como Ramón,  ojoche, ojite, ojushte, ujushte, ujuxte, capomo, mojo, ox, iximche, masica, uje o mojote, es un árbol común en América Central, y es bastante utilizado para reforestación. El objetivo de nuestro trabajo era de proteger la diversidad genética de la especie y el carácter distintivo genética de las regiones, mientras que al mismo tiempo permitir que sea utilizado en reforestación y restauración. Para esto hemos realizado un estudio genética de la especie a través de su rango de distribución con especial énfasis en América Central, donde la especie es más común y donde la demanda de su uso en la reforestación es mayor.

Tonya Lander analizo los datos genéticos y con el uso de técnicas estadísticas pudo identificar áreas que eran genéticamente distintas unas de otras. Estos se caracterizan por líneas negras gruesas en el mapa de arriba. Le recomendamos que las semillas y plantas no se mueve de un área o zona a otra. Si se mueven de una zona a otra, una vez que alcanzan madurarse,  comienzan a liberar polen y producir frutos, lo que erosionará el carácter distintivo genético de esta zona. Afortunadamente, dado el tamaño de las zonas que hemos delimitado no debería afectar en gran medida la reforestación con Brosimum alicastrum en América Central.

Las zonas identifacad son:
1) México, Guatemala, Belice, El Salvador, Honduras & Nicaragua,
2) Costa Rica, Panamá y Colombia,
3) Las Antillas,
4) América do Sur excluyendo a Colombia.

Frutos de Brosimum alicastrum con la semilla saliendo. Normalmente pájaros y murcielogos comen la parte verde y solo cae las semillas por el suelo



Seed transfer zones for Brosimum alicastrum in Central America

Recommended seed transfer zones. By restricting the movement of seedlings or seed for restoration to within each zone there should be no erosion of Brosimum alicastrum’s genetic diversity. Image: Tonya Lander

As part of a recent grant from the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative (#18-010)  to provide tools to support sustainable reforestation with Brosimum alicastrum, a common tree in Central America, we have identified safe zones for seed and seedling transplantation. The aim is to protect the genetic diversity  of the species and the genetic distinctiveness of the regions whilst at the same time allowing it to be used in reforestation and restoration. To do so we undertook a genetic survey of the species across it’s range but with special emphasis on Central America where the species is most common and where demand for its use in reforestation is greatest.

Tonya Lander analysed the genetic data and using statistical techniques identified areas that were genetically distinct from each other. These are marked by thick black lines on the map above. We recommend that seeds and seedlings are not be moved from one area or zone to the next. If they are moved from one zone to the next, then once they reach maturity and begin to release pollen and produce fruits, this will erode the genetic distinctiveness of this area. Fortunately given the size of the zones this should not greatly impact ongoing reforestation in Central America.

The zones identified comprise:
1) Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras & Nicaragua,
2) Costa Rica, Panama & Colombia,
3) the Greater Antilles, and
4) South America excluding Colombia.

Fruits of Brosimum alicastrum showing the green fleshy sweet skin. Usually birds and bats eat the flesh whilst the fruit is on the tree causing the slippery seed to fall to the ground


Solving the mystery of Myriocarpa flowers

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Composite image of the base of a female flower showing what we now believe are bracts at the base. Note the small stalked glands spaced evenly along each bract. You can see each cell in the flower thanks to the amazing imaging facilities at the Natural History Museum.

For over a hundred years the genus Myriocarpa in the nettle family which comprises ca 15 tree species in South and Central America has been impossible to place within the family. This is largely because of the very unusual shape of the part of the female flower that receives pollen, known as the stigma (see image below) and the fact that neither of the two great experts could agree over whether the petal-like structures at the base of the flower were petals associated with the flower, or bracts associated with the stalk. Whilst this might not seem like the stuff to keep a botanist awake at night it has become of interest again as using DNA data we have identified as sister to another small group of trees, Gyrotaenia, found in Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Central America that has a flower which consists of the petals fused to form a tube which is fused to ovary.

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The tip of the female Myriocarpa flower showing the very unusual forked stigma, the part of the flower which receives the pollen. You can see that it is covered in multicellular hairs, which are characteristic of the nettle family, and serve to capture pollen form the air and guide it to the stigma.

I was therefore very curious to see whether Vladimir Blagoderov, Manager of the Museum’s Sackler Imaging Suite could help me generate an image that would help us resolve the mystery. He could! The two images above are each composed of about 20 images which ‘slice’ through the sample which was of young flowers collected in alcohol in Belize over 10 years ago. The resolution was amazing, each cell being visible. In fact you could even make out the rough crystalline structure on the surface of the hairs! Both of these images also helped us to answer the question, revealing that this flower does indeed consist of a tube composed of fused petals that is subsequently fused to the ovary. This we could see in both images where the clearly visible ovary is enveloped by another distinct tissue, as in the case of Gyrotaenia. It was also confirmed by the petal-like bracts at the base of the flower having stalked glands, structures not known to occur on the ovaries of Urticaceae. So a morning’s work and an idea of evolutionary relationships enabled me to answer a question that had been frustrating an albeit very small group of botanists for over 100 years!

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Photograph of the string-like flower clusters of Myriocarpa longipes taken in Panama where it occurs as a small tree growing near rivers in tropical forest. Each flowers cluster consists of thousands of tiny flowers



Flooded forest agroforest plot five months after planting

Forest Engineer Rolman Velarde standing between two rows of Inga saplings planted in the middle of May at our Palacios site. The site is on wha would be flooded or ‘varzea’ forest had it not been cut to grow rice. Click to see a clip of the site (in English)

Our plot at Palacios is located in seasonally flooded forest on the banks of the Tahumanu river. This meant that we had to plant our seedlings after the flood had receded as they would probably not have survived if completely immersed. The up-side of flooding though is that the soils are rich and the seedlings, although planted late, have grown well. When the next floods occur in February they will be tall enough not to be completely submersed and so should survive. It might seem strange that a slash-and-burn site on such rich alluvial soils should be abandoned and this was something I was keen to find out from the community. They explained that after a year or more weeds invade the site very aggressively and are very difficult to remove. We are hoping that Inga‘s rapid growth, spreading crown and large leaves should act as an effective weed-suppressant. It may be that weed control could be one of the main uses of Inga in the Amazon.

The Palacios plot five months after planting. This plot is aimed at supporting the cultivation of annual crops, fruit trees and mahogany as timber. Growth has been strong but the plot needs weeding soon. Click to see Rolman Velarde talking about the site in Spanish.

The trees at Palacios have grown well, on average over 11 cm per month. Currently they range from 1.0-1.5 m in height at six months since planting. With the most intense rains to come they should increase this rate significantly over the next few months. They still need weeding, probably until after the next floods,. The community seem pleased with progress too and are planning another plot for after the next floods.


How tapping wild rubber can help protect the forests of the western Amazon

Pastora Bismark de Gónzalez, spent much of her working life as a rubber tapper in Porbenir. Her parents came to Porbenir from Peru to tap rubber for the infanous Suárez rubber company in 1899

One of the most effective ways to conserve natural forest is to maximize the income local communities get from it in a sustainable manner. Even if they are not the official owners of the land they will likely resist any deforestation if it impacts on their income.  The forests of the Pando are fortunate in having two important non-timber forest products: brazil nuts and wild rubber. Both of which have wrought the history of this part of the Amazon.  In recent years, with the drop in the price of wild rubber associated with the rise of plantation rubber in Asia, there has been a decline in the tapping of wild rubber. If done correctly the tapping of wild rubber does little lasting damage to the trees and produces a high quality rubber that is currently sold for 14 BOB a kilo, about £1.40 / $2 / €1.60. If that price could be increased then rural communities would be much keener to tap the wild rubber trees in their forests. By how much could be the focus of a fascinating research project.

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Mural in the centre of Cobija depicting the role of rubber in the Pando’s history. Image Alex Monro

Continue reading How tapping wild rubber can help protect the forests of the western Amazon

Tree planting on ex rubbish dump in Cobija

Staff from our partner NGO Herencia and RBG Kew planting seedlings of Inga edulis on an cleared rubbish dump on the outskirts of Cobija

Whilst in Cobija we were invited to participate in a mass planting of native tree seedlings around the town as part of an initiative organised by students from the University of the Pando. The students had decided to plant about 5,000 seedlings around Cobija with help from Bolivia’s Ministry of the Environment & Water and the support of the Ministry of Education. This particular site was a large unofficial rubbish dump next to their campus. Fortunately it had been cleared of rubbish prior to planting.

Amelia Baracat planting an Inga seedling in the searing heat, after having tried to clear away as many of the old plastic bags littering the site as she could

What was exciting for us was not just the fact that this initiative had been initiated and organized by the students but the fact that all but one  of the species planted were native. Something that most municipal planting in the UK fails to do. It shows that the students way ahead of most local authorities in London!

Continue reading Tree planting on ex rubbish dump in Cobija