Kew’s Herbarium is a power-house of international botanical research and conservation. The building houses teams of scientists specialising in diverse geographical regions and important plant groups. With over eight million dried plant specimens and counting, it is among the world’s most important scientific collections.
Teams of curators keep the specimens in good condition and order, providing a vital resource for biologists around the world. This blog allows you the chance to learn more about what goes on behind-the-scenes.
In many parts of Madagascar and elsewhere, yams (from the genus Dioscorea) are eaten when staple crops, such as rice, fail or supplies have been exhausted. All the native species of yam in Madagascar occur only on that island and as most are edible, collection of yams from the wild can become a threat which could lead to their extinction.
Yams being cooked and sold in the Ambositra-Vondrozo corridor forest
While some countries have a long history of cultivating yam species that grow easily, there has been little historic yam cultivation in Madagascar. The charity Feedback Madagascar, through its local NGO, Ny Tanintsika, with whom Kew is working closely, has been introducing yam cultivation to areas where it has not been practiced previously, particularly the Ikongo region.
The Feedback Madagascar-led project is very effective in producing large quantities of yam. The introduced yam species used in cultivation is Dioscorea alata which is native to Myanmar and has been cultivated in many countries around the world for centuries. It produces high yields. However, it is important both to the success of this project and the conservation efforts directed at the native, forest yams, that local villagers will enjoy eating the introduced alternative.
Scientists from Kew and botanists at the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre in Antananarivo have been analysing the results of a survey carried out last year. Villagers consistently favoured the introduced, cultivated yam species over the wild ones offered in the survey.
Famato Andriamampihatona and Tim Harris ask a farmer from the Ikongo district about different yam species
While the survey showed this strong preference of villagers in the region for the cultivated yam species, it was also clear that the quantities of yams extracted from the wild exceeded the quantities of yams currently cultivated. There is evidence that yams are exchanged between villages involved in the cultivation project and those which did not grow yams. There appears to be scope to expand the project to villages not growing yams at the moment. Feedback Madagascar has plans to expand the yam cultivation project to more villages, and Kew will be supporting these efforts to conserve the rare species of yams that are found in Madagascar.
- Tim -
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Unique and endangered species of grasses (Poaceae) can be documented only if local scientists have access to specialist knowledge and powerful microscopes.
The flowers of grasses are tiny and hidden inside multiple bracts (modified leaves). The arrangement of the flowers and bracts into aggregate inflorescences define the grass species and genera. Unique terminology is used to distinguish the different kinds of bract and scientific literature on Poaceae taxonomy uses this terminology in identification keys and structure diagrams. It is difficult to identify grasses without familiarity with this terminology, so it is difficult to learn grass species without specialist training. Access to a good microscope is also needed. Recent biodiversity assessments and conservation policy decisions in Madagascar have not included any information on the grass species because it has not been possible to identify the grasses.
Brachiaria subrostrata is endemic to the high plateau regions of Madagascar. A line of long white hairs on the upper glume and lower lemma is only found on two species, both of them restricted to Madagascar.
Maria Vorontsova and Steve Renvoize, botanists from Kew's Herbarium, travelled to Madagascar in February 2012 to teach a two week course on grass identification to 12 local scientists from nine different institutions. Everyone made and processed collections together on the field trips and this material was used in the workshops. The workshop sessions covered evolution of the grasses, terminology, and spikelet structure of different subfamilies. Everyone dissected spikelets under a microscope and made drawings of the different spikelet parts.
Franck Rakotonasolo and Jacky Andriatiana working at the Tsimbazaza Zoological and Botanical Park dissecting and drawing Panicum maximum.
Grass Identification Course participants with Steve Renvoize (second left) at the California Academy of Sciences Centre, Tsimbazaza, Antananarivo.
We hope this course has encouraged local botanists to collect grasses. More collections will enable us to define the endemic species and their distributions, and this information will allow the endemic species to be protected. This work is part of Maria Vorontsova’s research on Madagascar grasses and will contribute towards a taxonomic treatment of all Madagascar Poaceae.
Maria and Steve would like to thank the Bentham-Moxon Trust for financial support of this project.
- Maria -
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Concealed within Kew’s collections is a wealth of knowledge about the world’s plant diversity, including important clues to the changing fate of different species over time. My name is Sally King and I am currently studying for a BSc in Biology at the University of Bath. During a year’s placement at Kew, I have been helping to pilot a ‘crowd-sourcing’ approach to specimen digitisation, which may hold the key to a step-change in access to Kew’s data.
During this pilot project we have focused on the digitisation of herbarium specimens of UK plants. Digitisation is helping to turn Kew’s vast collection of dried plant specimens into a 21st century online resource accessible to scientists, historians and plant-lovers across the world.
Working with the Herbaria@Home initiative of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), my project uses the help of volunteers to digitise a selection of Kew’s preserved plant specimens collected in the UK and Ireland. Whether you are an academic, a keen gardener or just somebody with some time on their hands and a willingness to help, this is an opportunity for you to join in and support Kew’s valuable work. Read on to find out more.
Kew’s Herbarium collection
It has been estimated that Kew’s Herbarium houses around 400,000 plant specimens collected within the British Isles, including many collections by reputed Kew botanists such as Charles E. Hubbard and William B. Turrill. From this dauntingly large collection, we needed to select a group of species that could be digitally imaged within a year. With this in mind, and looking to support the plant conservation community, we decided to focus on 50 species selected by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) for their Threatened Plants Project. These 50 species - as the name of the project suggests - were identified as threatened in The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain or else little was known at the time about their current distribution and status. The BSBI project aims to increase our understanding of these species, helping us to conserve them for future generations.
Kew's Herbarium specimens are carefully catalogued and stored for reference
For further details of three of the chosen plant species, take a look at the species pages that I have created during my placement (click on the green links below). These pages illustrate the varied and fascinating nature of our native threatened plant species, and highlight some of the ways that Kew is working to help protect them for the future:
A group of Neotinea ustulata photographed by D.M. Turner Ettlinger on Salisbury Plain
Detail of a herbarium specimen of Cuscuta epithymum (clover dodder)
A photograph of Hordeum marinum taken in Lagos, Portugal by Júlio Reis
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Why are herbarium specimens important for conservation?
The information written on herbarium specimen sheets could be vital to the creation of effective conservation plans for these species. Digitisation of specimens involves imaging and recording written data from herbarium specimens, ensuring that the vital information locked up in these collections is made available to conservation researchers worldwide.
How does the information on specimens help with conservation?
Details recorded on plant specimen sheets can provide valuable information about past locations of a species; information which can then be compared to current distributions to see if any changes have occurred, such as a decline in numbers. The information on the specimen labels may also provide clues to help explain these changes. For example, an accurate description of where a plant was collected in 1870 might allow a botanist to visit the exact same spot today, over 140 years later, to see if that particular species can still be found nearby. If the species seems to have disappeared from the area, any notes the original collector made about the habitat in 1870 can be compared with the current use of the land, and these comparisons may help explain a decrease in number of a species.
Left: Herbarium specimen of a green-winged orchid
Right: Enlarged image of the specimen label
Herbaria@Home promises exciting new discoveries about UK flora
As an interactive resource Herbaria@Home allows registered users to leave comments about individual specimens. For example among the specimens imaged during my year at Kew is one of Blysmus compressus collected in the Outer Hebrides in 1935. To date, there is no published record of this species occurring in the Hebridean Islands, so Kew botanists are currently investigating whether this is a simple case of misidentification or a genuinely new record. As part of this one-year pilot we have uploaded digital specimen images to Herbaria@Home.
Placing a specimen to be imaged with the Digital Collection Unit’s camera set-up
Checking the resulting specimen image to ensure that it is focused correctly
Why not get involved?
The Herbaria@Home website has been developed as part of an initiative by the BSBI and enables volunteers to view specimen images and capture details written on the original specimen label, and any other annotations that might be present. The hope is that if many people like you take part, we can speed up the process of digitisation significantly, ensuring that vital information for plant conservation is made available rapidly to those that need it. While this project is currently only at the pilot stage, if we can demonstrate that this volunteer-aided approach is successful, it has the potential to play a significant role in future digitisation projects at Kew.
You can help capture the information from the specimens I have imaged by registering with Herbaria@Home. You don’t need to be a plant expert to help; the website provides a quick video guide to take you through the process and a more detailed written guide is also available.
- Sally -
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Yams in Madagascar
I have recently become involved in Kew’s long-running project studying Yams in Madagascar.
Yams are important to many rural communities in Madagascar. Collecting wild yams from the forest provides a food source during the months when rice is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. At least 30 of the 40 yam species found on Madagascar are edible. From a conservation perspective, Madagascar’s 40 species of yams are especially precious as they only grow naturally in Madagascar and some species are particularly rare. Many of Madagascar’s yam species are narrow endemics, being restricted to a small area, and 12 of them are provisionally considered threatened. All the yam species shown to be threatened are edible. For example, bako (Dioscorea bako) has been classified as Endangered and may be suffering from over-utilisation.
An inhabitant of the village of Beroboka in western Madagascar carrying Dioscorea bako tubers (Image: A. & M. Hladik)
Kew's work in rural communities
Kew is working with a charity based in Madagascar called Feedback Madagascar. Amongst other projects, Feedback Madagascar and Kew are collaborating to promote yam cultivation in rural villages. By increasing the numbers of cultivated yams, the aim is to reduce the pressure on wild yam populations from over-extraction and associated habitat destruction. Such cultivation of yams could also improve food security in these rural communities.
I will be travelling to Madagascar in May 2012 to visit some of the villages that have started to cultivate yams. I will be collaborating with Feedback Madagascar to survey villagers and see if they prefer cultivated yams over those that can be collected from the wild. This work is supported by both the Bentham-Moxon Trust and Kew Guild. I have been trying out parts of the survey in advance on colleagues at Kew!
A Madagascan yam tuber from the species Dioscorea arcutinervis
We hope that the survey in May will show which wild or cultivated yams are most favoured as foods in a group of rural villages and what scope there may be for cultivated yams becoming a locally tradeable food. An estimation of the value to a rural community of wild yams collected from a thriving forest may also be useful to local decision makers when deciding whether forest should be converted into fields or not.
- Tim -
- Explore the e-monocot pages for Dioscoreaceae
- Explore Dioscoreaceae on The Plant List
- Innocent Foundation support for Madagascan yam cultivation project
- Find out more about the yam Dioscorea bako
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Botany, fungi, algae and nomenclature are sometimes seen as the dull and conservative corner of the biological sciences. But botanists were anything but boring this summer in Melbourne, where some revolutionary decisions were made by the ca. 200 people attending the Nomenclature Section of the Eighteenth International Botanical Congress, 18-22 July 2011.
Rules governing names are modernised
Getting your plant names right is a complicated business. In order for Rosa canina L. to be a correct Latin binomial, fit for use in your garden, the name must be effectively published, validly published, legitimate, and the earliest name to be published for this species (terms in the Zoological Code are a bit different, but the idea is the same). In finding the right name, all relevant literature published since 1753 must be considered - often a lengthy piece of detective work in the archives. The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) is a set of rules and recommendations recognised since the “Vienna Rules” of 1905, and amended every six years by the Nomenclature Section, a five day meeting organised by the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) and held a week before the much larger International Botanical Congress (www.ibc2011.com). Institutional representatives carry institutional votes and each person present carries a personal vote. Proposals to amend the code are compiled by the Rapporteurs after publication in the journal Taxon, sent out to all IAPT members in a mail vote, then discussed and voted on in the Nomenclature Section following approval by the mail vote; propositions from the floor can also be discussed.
Latin is no longer required to describe new species
Plant habitats are disappearing every day but it is estimated that around 20% of plant species have not even been described yet. Undiscovered biodiversity is mostly in understudied places, like the tropics, and understudied groups, such as large genera, many of which are already available in our herbaria but not yet assessed by taxonomists. Describing new species needs careful evaluation of taxon boundaries. Many people do not realise that in order to describe a new plant species in 2011 one must also write a short description in Latin.
As a graduate student I spent hours surrounded by ancient dictionaries trying to get the ablative plural adjectival endings correct, in agreement with the nouns and also in agreement with the botanical Latin tradition, not always the same as classical Latin. It was challenging for me, but what about all the people who do not have access to botanical libraries? And people who do not speak a Romance language? Latin was the international scholar’s language made compulsory to make descriptions understandable to people who did not speak the publication language. Proposals to drop the requirement for Latin have been considered in almost every Nomenclature Section meeting to date, and to many people’s surprise, this time the result was “yes”. From 1 January 2012 English will be accepted as an alternative to Latin. It has been pointed out that the Church of England permitted an English language Bible almost 500 years ago in 1539. But do not throw away your copy of William Stearn’s Botanical Latin just yet. This change only applies to describing new taxa. The name Rosa canina is still in Latin and follows Latin language rules: the gender of the adjectival epithet has to agree with the gender of the generic name. And much of the accumulated literature will remain in Latin.
New plant names can be published online
It is not always easy to connect a plant to its name. When a new species is described the name enters the pool of available names. The name is recorded by an indexing service: the International Plant Name Index (IPNI) for vascular plants, Tropicos (http://www.tropicos.org/Home.aspx) for bryophytes, AlgaeBase and Index Nominum Algarum for algae, and Index Fungorum for fungi. This description will likely be consulted by each future taxonomist revising the group. Many people are worried about the possible loss of species descriptions and until now at least two copies of the publication have been required to be deposited in libraries. Following many years of discussion on digital formats, secure storage media, and data accessibility, a vote was taken and paper copies are no longer required. From 1 January 2012 a new plant name may be published online as a PDF (or successor format), as long as the online publication has an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) or an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Preliminary versions or later corrections are not accepted.
Register your mushrooms
New names of fungi must now be registered in a recognised name repository such as MycoBank and a unique identifier will be issued by the repository and included in the publication. This ensures that the international community is aware of all newly published names, and that information on the new taxa is made available. Such a system of name registration has also been proposed for animal names (via ZooBank), and may eventually be introduced for plants, although there are worries that this limits the freedom of independent researchers. Following an additional amendment widely used names of fungi will also be fixed and protected from change.
One name to cover all life stages of a fungus
Sexual and asexual forms of a fungus can look very different to each other and it is not possible to establish that they are the same organism without using molecular technology. These different forms have been described under different names, meaning that one species of fungus could have one name for its sexual state, and one name for its asexual state. Now that the molecular technology is more broadly available this awkward situation is no longer permitted, and one species of fungus can only have one correct name, the name that was published first.
More flexibility and fewer kinds of names for plant fossils
The situation with the names of fossils is even more complex than with fungi because individual parts of an organism are often preserved separately in the fossil record. One organ of one species can look different depending on its life stage and history of preservation. Researchers build hypotheses as to which fossils belong to one original organism, but unlike the situation with fungi the hypotheses remain uncertain due to lack of information, and there is insufficient confidence to synonymise all the separate names (fossil plant names and the discussion are explained by Cleal & Thomas in Taxon). Individual parts of theoretical assemblages were called “morphotaxa” and these have now been disallowed to give greater flexibility. It is hoped that these changes will make it easier for the palaeobotanists to correctly follow the naming rules.
When is an acacia not Acacia?
Research has demonstrated that the trees and shrubs traditionally known by the generic name Acacia are in fact two separate evolutionary lineages. Australian Wattles are not the closest relatives of the iconic African (and Central and South American) acacia trees, so the two groups need to have different Latin generic names. Changing Latin names is confusing, expensive, and generally undesirable but the naming system exists to reflect evolutionary history as well as providing useful unique identifiers. Only one group can retain the Latin generic name “Acacia”. But which group? Australian acacias have a larger number of species, but African acacias have a great ecological significance in African savanna. According to the rules, each genus has one type species, in this case the African Acacia nilotica, and the generic name stays with the type species. The type species was changed to the Australian Acacia penninervis at the 2005 International Botanical Congress, held in Vienna, in order to decrease the total number of name changes. The debate continued long after the Vienna Congress and several compromise proposals were made to the Nomenclature Section in Melbourne, including a proposal to allow the name Acacia to be used for both groups, and a proposal to change the names of both groups. The Nomenclature Section voted to uphold the decisions taken in Vienna in 2005 and the Latin generic name Acacia will be applied only to the Australian plants (further explanation here). Of course this only concerns the formal Latin names and the use of the vernacular name acacia is not controlled by the Code.
ICBN transforms into ICNAFP - the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants
This may have been the most revolutionary Nomenclature Section ever held, a fact also reflected in a change of title. An unexpected proposal from the floor suggested amending the title of the Code, and it is hoped that this change will clarify which groups are governed by the Code, and help keep the rules for algae, fungi, and plants united under the same Code – recent understanding of higher level eukaryote relationships has shown that fungi and most algae are not closely related to plants. The word “organism” instead of “plant” will be used throughout to reflect the inclusion of algae, fungi, and plant fossils. The fact that fungal and algal names are regulated by the botanical code is a historic anomaly dating back to the days when fungi and algae were considered to be plants, but moving across to another set of rules is not really possible because the naming system needs to remain stable. It has been suggested that decisions on fungal names could be made at the International Mycological Congress (IMC) but this may prove difficult due to the lack of an established representation and voting system like the one at the Botanical Congresses. A Special Committee concerned with governance has been set up to explore these and other issues and report to the next Congress. Other decisions will also have an appreciable effect on the daily work of a taxonomic botanist. A new Appendix will be added to the Code to list decisions on which names are considered sufficiently different to be unambiguously distinguishable (if two generic names or two species in the same genus differ only by a minor spelling variation, one of them must be changed). The Editorial Committee may decide to publish the Appendices (including lists of approved and rejected names) separately from the Code itself, putting an end to the traditional thick volume, printed after every Congress, which has been getting thicker and thicker.
What about non-plants?
Separate communities of specialists have traditionally made decisions about different groups of organisms (explained by Knapp et al. in this article). The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN, or the Zoological Code) looks after Latin binomial names of animals, with some historic exceptions among problematic metazoans and Protists (binomial means having two names, a generic name and a species epithet). The International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (the Bacteriological Code) looks after Latin binominal names of bacteria. Other sets of rules govern names that are not binomial (The International Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature; International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants; International Standards for Naming Pathovars of Phytopathogenic Bacteria). Cross disciplinary work by the International Committee on Bionomenclature (ICB) has produced the Draft Biocode 2011, bringing together the different sets of rules for binomial names and drawing up guidelines to apply across the Codes. Some people support the development of an overarching Biocode, but others do not like the idea of another set of rules on top of the special Codes already in use. Nomenclature is a historic discipline rich in local idiosyncrasies. Democratic independence of the separate communities is important to maintain. Would the Biocode just add complexity to what is already a confusing specialist discipline? Or should we all work together to make one united system? Join the discussion!
- Maria -
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About this blog
There are a number of us from the Herbarium who contribute to this blog. We provide updates on a variety of diverse activities that our roles cover, including scientific discoveries, research expeditions, specimen management, geographical information systems (GIS), publications and more.
Big changes for names of algae, fungi, plants and plant fossils: Is this just at Kew or world wide? Presumably discoveries made in/by other countries will not be na ... by: Pam
Kew's latest field expedition to the Brazilian Amazon: Fascinating film - perhaps some sound would add to the experience. Beautifully filmed and put togeth ... by: Judy Garland
Big changes for names of algae, fungi, plants and plant fossils: i like the idea of change but not agree, for many reasons, Changing Latin names is confusing,difficu ... by: riham
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