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Unexpected photos from the field

Alex Roberts
19 June 2012
Blog team: 
Whilst studying herbarium specimens collected from the Caribbean Islands, UKOTs intern Alex Roberts was thrilled to discover photographs taken during a plant collecting expedition to Dominica in 1940, tucked away alongside the plant specimens they portray.

Conservation assessments

Since January this year I have been working as an intern with the UK Overseas Territories Team based at the Herbarium here at Kew. The team is currently engaged in a major project to make conservation assessments of plants growing in the Territories. This objective links directly with Target 2 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which is to make 'an assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, as far as possible, to guide conservation action'. A conservation assessment enables the species to be assigned to one of the eight IUCN Red List categories, ranging from Least Concern to Extinct. Our project will focus on each of the 16 Territories in turn, and has started with two territories, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, both located in the Caribbean biodiversity hotspot.

Digitizing the specimens

Before conservation assessments can be made however, there is a lot of preliminary work for the team to do. Firstly, specimens of the plant species being assessed need to be collected from the Herbarium cupboards so that the information on the specimen labels can be added to the UKOTs Online Herbarium and the specimens themselves imaged using a digital scanner.

Alex Roberts with herbarium specimens 

Labels on herbarium specimens often give detailed information, including who collected the specimen, where and when it was collected, and a description of the plant and its habitat. The geographical details accompanying each specimen allow us to determine more precisely where the species occurs or has occurred in the past. These data help us to build up a picture of the status of a particular species and contribute to the conservation assessment.

Once the information from the labels has been added to the UKOTs Online Herbarium, the specimens are ready to be imaged. Plants come in all shapes and sizes and although most specimens are fairly flat and easy to scan, some are not, and can sometimes be bulky or brittle and require careful handling. A further challenge is presented by any plant parts that have been placed in the packet or capsule which is sometimes attached to the herbarium sheet. The function of the packet is to keep safe parts of the specimen that may have become unstuck from the herbarium sheet or to store small and fragile parts that are important for species identification, such as flowers, fruits, and seeds. Ensuring that these key parts of the specimen don’t roll or blow away can be quite tricky.

Surprise packets

Despite being a challenge to image, however, the contents of the packets are often visually interesting and occasionally may contain a surprise. When imaging some recent specimens, I discovered that sometimes a packet can contain more than just plant parts. Two specimens collected by American botanist W. H. Hodge contained black and white photographs in the packets. The first specimen was Miconia mirabilis, collected by Hodge in 1940 on the island of Dominica. The photograph shows Hodge in the field, standing next to this species of small tree. The information on this label will be added to the data obtained from all of the other labels on Miconia mirabilis specimens found in the Herbarium. The second specimen was Selaginella delicatula, a fern ally, also collected in 1940 on Dominica. This time the photograph shows numerous Selaginella delicatula plants growing in a shady and wet ravine.

Herbarium specimen of Miconia mirabilis

Herbarium specimen of Selaginella delicatula

Readers will have probably noticed that the two plant specimens referred to were not in fact collected in a UK Overseas Territory but in Dominica. The reason for this is that, while some of the plant species being assessed are endemic (only growing in a particular country or region), most species also grow in countries neighbouring the UKOTs. Miconia mirabilis, for example, is a native of Mexico, the majority of the Caribbean Islands and South America. This means that, to get a complete picture of the conservation status of plants native to the UKOTs, we also need to capture the data and images of herbarium specimens that were collected in countries outside the UKOTs.  Another point to notice is that the names on the specimens are Miconia guianensis and Selaginella flabellata. These names are now considered to be synonyms (superseded names) of the names Miconia mirabilis and Selaginella delicatula, the names now accepted by  botanists. In order to clarify species names The Plant Listis an invaluable online resource, and one that I have used constantly during this work.

Starting work on the Red List

Once all the work with the herbarium specimens has been completed, the second stage is to carry out a desk-top analysis in order to obtain additional data for the species, including species distribution, habitat information, existing conservation measures and, crucially, the nature and extent of any threats. Once the conservation assessment of a species has finally been completed, the species is allocated an IUCN Red List. category. Species that are categorized as threatened will need to be the focus of conservation efforts.

We have now finished databasing and imaging specimens from the Cayman and British Virgin Islands and are now ready to begin the desk-top analysis... so back to work!

- Alex -

Related links


15 August 2012
Dear Alex I'm looking for information/advice on a plant called Pisonia grandis. The reason for this is my involvement with seabird islands in the Seychelles which are the only islands in the archipelago where the plant appears to thrive. Certain seabirds (lesser noddies) appear to chose the tree above all other species as one to nest in. However, the plant's sticky seeds are the downfall of many seabirds, not just noddies, as they cannot preen the seeds out. This means that many people want to remove the trees! I'm trying to persuade the owner of the (seabird) island I'm still involved in that the tree is VERY important ecologically. I'm therefore looking for information about it's distribution and importance elsewhere in the world. Can you help at all, or suggest someone else who can? Thanks very much Stella Hitchins

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