I hope that you are all returning from the Xmas and New Year break suitably refreshed and ready to “step up a gear” from IYB to IDB – recognising that sustaining the 10 million or more present-day lineages with an unbroken lineage from the origin of life on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago, each unique in some way, will require a long sustained effort that is not easily reduced to a “tweet”!
Below, I am pasting 3 separate pieces that somehow fell into one place and nicely represent one of our increasingly neglected “front-lines” – those brave souls who make huge sacrifices to bring, into our “brave new world” of ephemeral media soundbites and snapshots, the true diversity and beauty of biodiversity.
The first piece, from Kew Botanical Gardens, reveals how much biodiversity is still out there to discover, or rediscover. The second highlights those devoted their lives, sometimes literally, to exploring biodiversity and bringing its wonders into the “public domain”. The third piece reminds us that the major (external drivers of biodiversity loss arise from human pressure in megadiverse countries, and thus stresses the urgent need to find ways to increase awareness of biodiversity as a “national treasure”, with both intrinsic and utilitarian values that make “biodiversity loss as collateral damage of unsustainable development” something that has to be removed once and for all as a “hidden” consequence of national development planning.
IYB has raised the general public/media profile of biodiversity enormously – now let us use the IDB to take on the more difficult task of making biodiversity as a way of thinking about the world, and our role IN it, an integral part of the societies we choose to live in. Ten years may just be enough time!
Weird and Wonderful Plant and Fungal Discoveries of 2010
ScienceDaily (Dec. 24, 2010) — As the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity draws to a close, scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are celebrating the diversity of the planet’s plant and fungal life by highlighting some of the weird, wonderful and stunning discoveries they’ve made this year from the rainforests of Cameroon to the UK’s North Pennines. But it’s not just about the new — in some cases species long thought to be extinct in the wild have been rediscovered.
Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, “Each year, botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, working in collaboration with local partners and scientists, continue to explore, document and study the world’s plant and fungal diversity, making astonishing new discoveries from microscopic fungi to canopy giants.
“This work has never been more relevant and pressing than in the current era of global climate change and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.Without a name, plants and fungi go unrecognised, their uses unexplored, their wonders unknown.
“On average, 2,000 new plant species are discovered each year, and Kew botanists, using our vast collection of over 8 million plant and fungal specimens, contribute to the description of approximately 10 per cent of these new discoveries. Despite more than 250 years of naming living plants, applying each with a unique descriptive scientific name, we are still some decades away from finishing the task of a global inventory of plants, and even more so for fungi.
“Plants are at risk and extinction is a reality. However stories of discovery and rediscovery give us hope that species can cling on and their recovery is a very real possibility. Continuing support for botanical science is essential if plant based solutions to human challenges, such as climate change, are to be realised.”
This year’s new showstoppers include;
1. From Africa with Love — Wild Mozambican Mistletoe …
This parasitic, tropical mistletoe was named in 2010, and was first discovered near the summit of Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique, a region which hit the headlines in 2008 when a Kew-led expedition uncovered this lost world bursting with biodiversity. Since then, the team at Kew have worked tirelessly sorting through the hundreds of specimens they collected, and they have described this new wild mistletoe (Helixanthera schizocalyx), just in time for Christmas!
It was spotted by the expedition’s East African butterfly specialist, Colin Congdon, while the team were trekking up the mountain, on a path that took them from the moist montane forest up to where the broad granite peaks break through the dense foliage. Colin quickly realised this species was different from anything he had seen on the mountains in neighbouring Malawi and Tanzania, and on closer inspection back at Kew it was confirmed a new species.
Tropical mistletoes, from the family Loranthaceae, are a great example of biodiversity and the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Birds play a vital role in both pollinating these mistletoes, and also distributing the seeds. As birds eat the small fleshy white sweet fruits, the seeds are then wiped on a branch to which they adhere. Once germinated the root grows into the living tissue of the tree to obtain the new plant’s nutrients. Tropical mistletoes are also popular with butterflies and in particular the blue group Lycaenidae. These strong links between the plants, their host trees, and various birds and butterflies, shows the interconnected nature of forest species, and the need to conserve all elements in order to preserve the environment.
2. A Lustrous Vietnamese Orchid…
From one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Vietnam, comes a strikingly beautiful orchid, Dendrobium daklakense, with glossy white-and-bright-orange flowers. The orchid was first collected in 2009 by a local plant hunter, who said he found it in a remote area in the Dak Lak province of southern Vietnam. It was brought to the attention of Vietnamese orchid expert Nguyen Thien Tich, who being unable to identify it, passed photographs and drawings on to Kew orchid specialist André Schuiteman and his colleague Jaap Vermeulen from the NCB Naturalis in The Netherlands.
As soon as they saw these images they suspected that it was an unknown species of Dendrobium (1), which was confirmed after further research. Working in partnership, the three botanists teamed up to produce a formal publication. André Schuiteman comments, “Although undescribed orchids are still discovered regularly in the tropics, it is remarkable that such a distinct and showy species could have escaped detection until recently. The next step is to determine its exact location so that we can assess its conservation status, though I suspect that it is endangered.”
3. Cameroon Canopy Giant…
A gigantic tree, Magnistipula multinervia, described excitedly by Kew’s well seasoned plant hunter, Xander van der Burgt, as “the rarest tree I have ever found,” has been discovered in the lush green rainforests of Cameroon.
Towering above the canopy at 41metres high this critically endangered tree was discovered in the lowland rainforests of the Korup National Park — a hot-bed for new discoveries in the South-West Province of Cameroon. Due to its height, rarity (with only four trees known) and the fact that the flowers hardly ever fall to the ground, it proved difficult to identify and collect in flower. After numerous visits to the four known trees over a period of several years to check if they were flowering and fruiting, the team were successful and using alpine climbing equipment, they managed to scale the dizzy heights, and make their collection, and identify it as new.
4. Steely Blue and Spiky Dragon Palms…
The palm flora of Madagascar is exceptionally rich, varied and yet also threatened. Kew experts have been studying the palms of this extraordinary island since the 1980s. Having added a local palm expert, Joro Rakotoarinivo, to the team the rate of palm discovery has continued to accelerate.
This year Rakotoarinivo, along with Kew collaborator John Dransfield, described a further 14 species new to science, all of which are threatened in the wild, with seven rated as critically endangered. This brings the total number of Madagascar palm species discovered by Kew scientists to 101(2), which is 54% of the total Madagascar palm flora.
Among the dramatic new species described this year are Dypsis metallica, so-named because of its thick, steely-blue leaves; and Dypsis dracaenoides, which resembles a spiky dragon tree (Dracaena species), and Dypsis gronophyllum with leaves that look as if they have been chewed off by insects.
5. A Medicinal Wild Aubergine from East Africa…
Commonly known as ‘Osigawai’ in the local Masai language, Solanum phoxocarpum was discovered by Maria Vorontsova(3) on an expedition to Kenya’s Aberdare mountainous cloud forests. Having researched specimens of wild African aubergines in RBG, Kew’s vast Herbarium collections of dried plant specimens, Vorontsova, who was based at the Natural History Museum, London at the time, discovered some unusual unnamed specimens(4), some of which were unlike any she had seen before. Eager to discover more, Maria set out on an expedition with botanists and seed hunters from Kenya’s ‘Seeds for Life’ project team, partners in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.
Many of the old collection locations they visited had been stripped of native vegetation, but after four weeks, the team was successful. They spotted a wild aubergine shrub with distinctive unusual long, yellow, pointed fruits and deep mauve flowers that was indeed a new species. They collected its fruits and set out slicing them open to collect seed for banking. While spreading the fruit’s yellow sludge onto paper, so the seeds could dry for long term storage in Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank, one of the team noticed that the fruits began to emit a pungent odour and later that day they became ill. It is now believed that this species may be poisonous, and having consulted Kew’s historic specimens, it also proves to be used medicinally by local people.
6. Three New Bolivian Beauties — Wild Irises from the Andes…
This year three new Bolivian species from the genus Mastigostyla (Iris family/Iridaceae) were described from the dry mountains and valleys on the eastern edge of the Andes of Bolivia, an area rich in biodiversity. The team, comprising of Bolivian botanist Hibert Huaylla, Kew Research Associate John Wood (from the University of Oxford) and Kew botanist Paul Wilkin collected and named these three stunning irises.
For a short period at the end of the rainy season in March the rocky Torotoro National Park is a carpet of blue as one of its unique botanical jewels, Mastigostyla torotoroensis, opens its eye-catching flowers toward the sky. The second species, Mastigostyla woodii, is known from just two localities and has horizontally-facing bluish-purple flowers. It was named in honour of John Wood by Huaylla and Wilkin in recognition of his role in training young Bolivian botanists and his own important studies of the vast plant biodiversity of Bolivia. The third newly discovered member of the iris family, Mastigostyla chuquisacensis, can be found in dense colonies in sandy hollows between rocks on sandstone mountain ridges near Sucre and has attractively marked light blue flowers. Of the three new discoveries it has perhaps the greatest potential as an ornamental garden plant.
Species back from the brink include;
7. Ascension Island Parsley Fern…
On the tiny UK overseas territory of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, a fern long thought to be extinct was rediscovered and saved in a mammoth rescue effort. During a routine plant survey, a team from the Island’s Conservation Department (5) decided to explore the intimidating knife-edge ridge running down the wild southern slopes of Green Mountain, Ascension’s dominant volcano.
By chance botanist Dr Phil Lambdon (6) with local Conservation Officer, Stedson Stroud, noticed a tiny fern leaf poking out from an almost bare rock face. They instantly recognized it as the long-lost Ascension Island parsley fern, Anogramma ascensionis, which was once prevalent on the mountain, recorded by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1876, but had since been declared extinct. A detailed search soon revealed four minute plants, with delicate, yellow-green leaves, which resembled miniature sprigs of parsley clinging to a precarious existence in spite of harsh, dry conditions.
After their early elation, it was clear that the conservation team had to mount a last-ditch effort to save the unstable population. So Stedson and his colleague Olivia Renshaw pampered the plants twice a week, scrambling down the ridge with a safety rope to water and weed the patch. As Stedson says, “Finding it was difficult. Carrying water and hanging onto the safety rope was even harder. However, we will do whatever it takes to keep these ferns alive.” Thanks to this loving care, two of the original four plants survived long enough to produce spores which were sent to Kew’s Conservation Biotechnology Unit for propagation.
8. Batty Brazilian Bromeliad back from the dead…
Alcantarea hatschbachii, a handsome green-flowered member of the Bromeliaceae (pineapple family), was first described in 1975 from the highlands of Minas Gerais, the state with the largest plant diversity of Brazil. Collected only once in the 1970s, despite the persistent efforts of botanists and amateurs to find out more about this species over subsequent years, it was never seen again and was believed to be extinct.
During recent fieldwork as part of Kew’s ongoing Toucan Cipó conservation project, this curious bromeliad, possibly pollinated by bats, was found growing amongst rocks beside a stream. This exciting discovery was made at the furthest point of a strenuous 10 km hike over the mountains, whilst mapping and describing the vegetation types of the area for conservation management
Daniela Zappi says, “According to a recent study by Kew, one in 10 of Brazil’s plants are under threat (7). It is a race against time to document and conserve the county’s rich diversity, and it is thrilling to have rediscovered this species, just in time. Plans are now under way to revisit the site, and make collections of living plants for conservation at the Fundação Zoobotânica de Belo Horizonte.”
9. Smut and moon carrots — the rediscovery of extinct British fungi…
The long-lost British fungus, bird’s-eye primrose smut (Urocystis primulicola), recognised as a species of “principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity” (BAP review 2007) had not been seen for 106 years until it was rediscovered by Kew and Natural England mycologist, Martyn Ainsworth(8), during a two hour ‘ovary squeezing’ session.
Smuts are species of inconspicuous, microscopic fungi that are found inside living host plants, in this case the red-listed wild pink flowered bird’s-eye primrose (Primula farinosa) found in the North Pennines. The bird’s-eye primrose smut has co-evolved with the plant and hijacks its ovaries, replacing its seeds with a black powdery mass of smut spores. Concealed in the ovaries, it is only when the bird’s-eye primrose seed-pods are squeezed in the late summer, when the seeds are ripe, that this rare smut can be found.
In a similar story, the moon carrot rust (Puccinia libanotidis) was rediscovered in England after it was believed lost for 63 years. Rust fungi are so called because their spores are often produced in brownish orange powdery masses on the leaves and stems of host plants. The moon carrot (Seseli libanotis), the plant that hosts this rust, is a red-listed wild plant confined in Britain to the chalky soils of the Chilterns, Gog Magog Hills and the South Downs.
Martyn Ainsworth, Senior Researcher in Fungal Conservation says, “It is always exciting to rediscover species thought to be extinct but to find one that has been lost for over 100 years, while carrying out a quick survey in a likely spot during a journey between England and Scotland, was an exhilarating ‘Eureka’ moment. To wipe these rare British fungi off the extinct list is a joy, and we hope that with further field surveying we can now provide a clearer picture of these species’ current British distribution.
“Both these fungal species have been re-discovered on rare British plants, and therefore their conservation is dependent on that of their host plants and their habitats. I’d encourage all field naturalists to get out and start looking for so-called extinct fungi and find out about their relationships with other fungi, plants and animals so we can understand their habitat and conservation requirements better. There are so few of us doing this work, we need all the help we can get.”
And finally the biggest new discovery of them all…
10. The biggest genome in a living species -bigger than Big Ben!
Scientists in Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory, as part of their ongoing research into the causes and consequences of genome size diversity in plants, discovered the largest genome of all living species so far — found in Paris japonica, a subalpine plant endemic to Honshu, Japan.
With a genome size of 152.23 picograms(9), its genome is 50 times the size of the human genome, and 15% larger than any other found so far — it’s so large that when stretched out it would be taller than the tower of Big Ben! However, having such a large genome may have direct biological consequences, as plants with large genomes may be more sensitive to habitat disturbances and environmental changes and be at greater risk of extinction.
Dying for Discovery
By RICHARD CONNIFF
January 16, 2011
Almost 20 years ago now, in western Ecuador, I traveled with a team of extraordinary biologists studying a remnant of forest as it was being hacked down around us. Al Gentry, a gangling figure in a grimy T-shirt and jeans frayed from chronic tree climbing, was a botanist whose strategy toward all hazards was to pretend that they didn’t exist. At one point, a tree came crashing down beside him after he lost his footing on a slope. Still on his back, he reached out for an orchid growing on the trunk and said, “Oh, that’s Gongora,” as casually as if he had just spotted an old friend on a city street.
The team’s birder, Ted Parker, specialized in identifying bird species by sound alone. He started his work day before dawn, standing in the rain under a faded umbrella, his sneakers sunk to their high-tops in mud, whispering into a microcassette recorder about what he was hearing: “Scarlet-rumped cacique … a fasciated antshrike … two more pairs of Myrmeciza immaculata counter-singing. Dysithamnus puncticeps chorus, male and female …”
Gentry and Parker come to mind just now because I’ve been thinking about how often naturalists have died in the pursuit of new species. A couple of years after that trip, the two of them were back in the same region making an overflight when their pilot became disoriented in the clouds and flew into a mountaintop forest. They lingered there overnight, trapped in the wreckage, and died in the morning. “It was beautiful forest,” a survivor, Parker’s fiancée, later told a reporter, “and they were very happy. Lots of birds.”
In truth, the history of biological discovery is a chronicle of such hazards faced not just willingly, but with a kind of joy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, young naturalists routinely shipped out for destinations that must have seemed almost as remote as the moon is to us now, often traveling not for days, but for months or years. They went of course without G.P.S. devices, or anti-malarial drugs, or any of the other safety measures we now consider routine.
Disease was the unrelenting killer. But death also came by drowning, shipwreck, gun accidents, snakebites, animal attacks, arsenic poisoning, ritual beheading, or almost any other means you care to name. In California on his honeymoon, one birder rigged a safety rope and climbed a tall pine tree to reach a nest. But the rope slipped when he fell and he choked to death as his bride looked on. On expeditions for the Dutch Natural History Commission to what is now Indonesia, 11 naturalists died over a period of 30 years. To see a slide show of this group’s discoveries and sacrifices, go to: <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/01/17/opinion/Specimens_Dutch.html“>http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/01/17/opinion/Specimens_Dutch.html
Survival had its own perils: Rumphius, a 17th-century naturalist in the East Indies, was struck blind at 42, lost his wife and daughter to an earthquake, saw his collections destroyed by fire, sent off the first half of his magnum opus on a ship that sank, and finally, after re-doing his work, found that his employer meant to keep it proprietary. (Happily, Rumphius’s “Ambonese Herbal” will be published in English for the first time this spring, only 300 years too late.)
National Natural History Museum, Leiden, The Netherlands Gecko (Platyderma monorchis). Drawing by Pieter van Oort from an expedition in 1828.
No doubt the species seekers undertook such risks partly for the adventure. (“Hunted by a tiger when moth-catching,” one wrote. “Hunt tigers myself.”) They also clearly loved the natural world. “I trembled with excitement as I saw it coming majestically toward me,” Alfred Russel Wallace wrote, of a spectacular butterfly in the East Indies, “& could hardly believe I had really obtained it till I had taken it out my net and gazed upon its gorgeous wings of velvet black & brilliant green, its golden body & crimson breast … I have certainly never seen a more gorgeous insect.” Naturalists were also caught up body and soul in the great intellectual enterprise of collecting, classifying and coming to terms with the diversity of life on Earth.
It would be difficult to overstate how profoundly they changed the world along the way. Many of us are alive today, for instance, because naturalists identified obscure species that later turned out to cause malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and other epidemic diseases. And a month after capturing that butterfly, Wallace pulled together the ideas that had been piling up during his years of field work and, trembling with malarial fever, wrote Darwin the proposal that would become their joint theory of evolution by natural selection.
This brings me to a small proposal: We go to great lengths commemorating soldiers who have died fighting wars for their countries. Why not do the same for the naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life? (Neither would diminish the sacrifice of the other. In fact, many early naturalists were also soldiers, or, like Darwin aboard H.M.S. Beagle, were embedded with military expeditions.) With that in mind, I constructed a very preliminary Naturalists’ Wall of the Dead for my book, “The Species Seekers,” to at least assemble the names in one place. (A version of it can be viewed here.)
But it also occurs to me that they might prefer to be remembered some other way than on a stone monument, or on paper. So here is another idea: On their first trip as part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, Gentry and Parker helped bring international attention to an Amazonian region of incredible, and unsuspected, diversity. (Parker found 16 parrot species there and projected that it might be home to 11 percent of all bird species on Earth.) As a result in 1995, Bolivia created the Madidi National Park, protecting 4.5 million acres, an area the size of New Jersey, and all the species within it. Peru soon designated the adjacent slope of the Andes as the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, protecting an additional 802,750 acres.
Like many species seekers, Gentry and Parker did not live to see their discoveries bear fruit. But I am pretty sure that this would be their idea of a fitting memorial.
Honoring the dead is good. We can do it by protecting the living.
Brazil to repatriate its botanical data
María Elena Hurtado
12 January 2011
[SANTIAGO] Brazil’s initiative to collect and bring back its botanical data, scattered across institutions around the world, has kicked off through a series of projects totalling nearly US$13 million.
Several institutions signed up to the initiative — the Virtual Herbarium for Knowledge and Conservation of Brazilian Flora (REFLORA) — last month (December).
In Brazil, these included the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, Brazilian federal development and research agencies, the National Corporation of Higher Education and companies Natura and Vale S.A..
Internationally, two major contributing institutions, which hold the majority of the samples, are UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in France — which, together, house an estimated 600,000 Brazilian species. Both agreed to provide samples and help digitalising the data.
Other samples to be repatriated will come from the MNHN’s Virtual Herbarium Saint-Hilaire, and in the United States, the New York and Missouri botanical gardens and the Smithsonian Institution’s botany department.
REFLORA aims to make data on some one million Brazilian plant samples, kept in foreign botanical collections, freely available online in three years time.
José Oswaldo Siqueira, director of agronomical, biological and botanical sciences at Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, which is coordinating the project, told SciDev.Net that another component of REFLORA will be research projects related to the repatriation of species and the development of botanical science experts.
He added that the project “is very significant for Brazil and other countries because it will help identify new plant species, do a new inventory of Brazilian flora and revise the list of endangered species.
“With the virtual herbarium, Brazilian researchers and students will not have to travel abroad to check referenced species deposited in foreign collections.”
Myriam Nechad from MNHN told SciDev.Net that REFLORA is of “utmost importance for botanical research and knowledge of Brazilian flora worldwide and for conservation everywhere”.
She added that the project will also foster European–Brazilian cooperation in training, data enhancement and research.
Besides contributing Brazilian specimens conserved in Paris, MNHN will fund the production of digital images and provide the database — Sonnerat — and the computer interface that will enable the capture of data from the digital images’ labels.