Investigating the plants of the Caribbean... on the outskirts of London!
Andrew Budden, one of Kew's volunteer interns, describes how information from preserved specimens of Caribbean plants helps to assess the conservation status of plants native to the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.
After completing my degree in Environmental Biology I was lucky enough to be accepted on the Herbarium summer internship where I got the opportunity to get an insight into the work carried out at Kew. I was particularly inspired by a presentation on the UK Overseas Territories. Until then, apart from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, I had hardly heard of the UK Overseas Territories and their importance on a global scale. During the presentation, we also heard a lot about the problems caused by invasive species in the UKOTs, and I am particularly interested in this field. I was keen to learn more and so in August 2011, when my internship finished, I started volunteer work with the UKOTs team. My work has focussed on the Red Listing of UKOTs species from the Caribbean area. This project has followed on from the successful creation of the UKOTs Online Herbarium and aims to provide conservation status assessments of plant species native to each of the 16 territories.
Delving into the Herbarium
In order to complete a species assessment, a vast amount of groundwork has to be undertaken to ensure that appropriate information has been gathered for each individual species. I have been mostly involved in carrying out the preliminary work for Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. This entails searching the herbarium to find all the Caribbean specimens for a given species. The species that we are investigating have been prioritised for Red Listing either because they are Caribbean endemics (unique to the area) or because their geographic ranges are poorly understood.
Andrew with specimens of Solanum collected in the Caribbean
Filling in the gaps
Once the specimens have been collected, the information written on them has to be entered into the UKOTs Online Herbarium database, but this is a much harder process than it sounds. Many of the herbarium specimens were collected in the 19th century when modern collection protocols hadn’t been developed, meaning that they are often lacking important information such as date, collector and where exactly in the country the specimen was collected. Additionally, many labels are written by hand, often very badly, and deciphering them requires lots of detective work to establish who the collector was or where the specimen was collected from. Over time I have been able to interpret the handwriting better, but even now there are some old collectors who frustrate me with their talent for writing in a style resembling a young child’s scribbles! We also scan the specimens as high resolution images as part of the on-going efforts to make the herbarium specimens readily accessible from our website.
Andrew is developing a gazetteer of Cuba using a satellite image of the island from Google Earth
Now that the majority of the specimens from the Caribbean region have been collected, databased and digitised, the focus of my work is switching to creating gazetteers (geographical directories of places with accurate location data) for the non-UKOT nations. Creating these gazetteers requires the use of maps, internet resources and local knowledge to identify locations and ensure that they are correctly plotted. These will allow us to plot the locality data for each specimen onto a map, which is needed to calculate the conservation status of the species using GeoCAT, a tool created by the GIS unit at Kew. Inaccuracies can significantly affect the calculations of Area Of Occupancy and Extent Of Occurrence, two categories which are used in establishing the threat status of species. In the coming months, my fellow intern Alex and I will get the opportunity to see the process through to its conclusion by completing the assessment. We will each specialise in a particular family of plants with a significant presence in the region and flesh out the report by adding in descriptions, habitat information and other details about each species. It will be exciting to gain a better understanding of the taxonomy and characteristics of a given family and will hopefully help to enhance my botanical knowledge.
Native or invasive?
Two of the species that I am hoping to learn more about are Tabebuia heterophylla and T. pallida. They were familiar to me through personal work I had done and are listed on the CABI Invasive Species Compendium. They are native to the Caribbean region and are very similar in both appearance and range, which has led to confusion in telling them apart. There is a high degree of variation in form within these species and this has made it difficult to establish how many species belong to the genus Tabebuia, with anywhere from 25 to 100 species being described. As both species have aggressive, pioneering natures, they have the potential to become invasive if introduced to a new region. However there is uncertainty about their native ranges, with T. heterophylla being recorded as invasive in the Dominican Republic, which is within its native range. I hope that by completing the assessment process I will be able to understand more about the morphology and range of these species.
Herbarium specimen of Tabebuia heterophylla
It has been very enjoyable working with the UKOTs team and everybody has been extremely welcoming and friendly. The work has been hard, but it has been great to feel that I am contributing to plant conservation on a global scale and I have received a lot of advice and encouragement from the UKOTs team about getting employment in this area. I have learnt a vast amount about botany and developed my identification skills, and it has been fascinating delving into the lives and history of many of the collectors. I have discovered many interesting things about the Caribbean region and its geography - I will always remember my amazement when I discovered that Trinidad & Tobago was located just off of the coast of Venezuela, miles from the main Caribbean block of nations where I had always assumed it was! The project has also improved the curation of these specimens, showing up mistakes and issues with the classification of certain species. It has been reassuring to see that even the experts can struggle at times with some of the more confusing species. I believe that the skills that I have learnt while working with the UKOTs team will benefit me in my future career and will hopefully make it easier to get a job in botany.
- Andrew -
- The UK Overseas Territories
- Kew's work in the UK Overseas Territories
- Invasive species in the UK Overseas Territories