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.
This week 16 participants from seven different countries arrived at Kew’s Herbarium for the annual Tropical Plant Identification course. Organised by myself and Tim Utteridge, the course is aimed at people such as botanists, ecologists and conservation workers, who need to identify tropical plants either in a herbarium or during fieldwork. This year we are teaching colleagues from other botanic gardens in Singapore and Canada, botanists from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar and Namibia, as well as an ecologist and museum curators from the UK, and Kew staff.
Learning from specimens during the ID course
Over an intensive two weeks of lectures and practical sessions, 21 of Kew’s botanists will teach the key combinations of characters that will enable the course participants to identify c. 60 tropical plant families. That’s a lot of information to remember! We will use the dried specimens from Kew’s herbarium to practise spotting key characters, and arrange special ‘family sorts’ focused on plant families from different tropical regions of the world. And we will escape into the gardens where we will see whether what we have learnt using dried specimens works with living plants!
Looking for key characters for Annonaceae, Myristicaceae and Lauraceae using herbarium specimens
At the end of each week there will be an identification test – we’ll hide the name of each specimen, and each participant will have to name the plant family the specimen belongs to. This might sound mean, but this ‘botanical challenge’ is an informal way to make sure we know how well we have been teaching identification skills. Fingers crossed everyone gets 100% this year!
The Tropical Plant ID course is just one of many courses taught by Kew staff, for more information see the ‘Learn’ section of the website.
- Gemma -
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NB - This is a silent film.
[Incorporating footage by W. Milliken and Alex Forte]
- William -
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Forest destruction around the world is estimated to account for almost 20% of all carbon emissions into the atmosphere: a major contributor to global warming. Kew’s science programme in Latin America aims to help slow this process by supporting conservation and sustainable use of the region’s forests.
Burning forest in the Amazon (Image: W. Milliken)
Our Amazon research programme, for example, is primarily focused on the north of Mato Grosso state in Brazil in the ‘arc of deforestation’ where cattle ranching and soya farming are pushing northwards into the Amazon basin. Aiming primarily at supporting the establishment and management of protected areas, this work also provides important understanding of the vegetation in an area which, according to the latest predictions, will become increasingly dry over the coming decades. What this means for the biodiversity of the region, or for the people who inhabit it, remains unclear. Targeted research of this kind will help us to improve our predictions, and to take remedial or adaptive action.
On the south coast of Peru, an area of almost zero rainfall and high vulnerability to climate change and desertification, we are working with local communities to restore and conserve the last vestiges of dry forest vegetation. An ongoing tree planting programme now has support from a voluntary carbon offset programme, helping to sequester greenhouse gases whilst contributing to biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods.
And in the dry caatinga vegetation in northeast Brazil, where firewood still provides the main source of fuel for rural communities, Kew has a long-running collaborative project researching and communicating the most efficient ways of managing the local trees in order to maximise fuel yield and sustainability. Fuelwood is a sustainable energy source, but only if it can be extracted without destroying the natural vegetation.
Fieldwork during the rainy season can be challenging (Image: W. Milliken)
In theory, controlling deforestation is the quickest way that we can address global greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s only one of a number of vital areas in the fight against climate change. Reducing our ‘carbon footprints’ and developing renewable energy sources are, in the long run, equally important. From Kew’s perspective, however it’s of particular relevance. Protect the forest and you don’t just reduce the emissions: you also protect the biodiversity in it. And that, after all, is our mission.
- William -
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The southeast Asia family sort
It’s Friday, and for any Kew botanist with an interest in the flora of southeast Asia, that means the afternoon will be spent at the weekly ‘family sort’. At this sort, a group of about eight botanists work through any dried plant specimens collected in southeast Asia that are newly arrived to Kew from other herbaria around the world. Since the opening of the new Herbarium and Library extension, we have a purpose built sorting room to work in. This week, the bundle is from the Sarawak herbarium (Malaysian Borneo), and includes specimens I collected with colleagues from Kew and Sarawak on an expedition in 2007.
Sorting specimens in Kew's new Herbarium and Library extension
Before the extension was complete: sorting in the Kew Guild room
Each year we get 30-40,000 specimens sent to the Herbarium. Plants are only incorporated into Kew's collection if they have been collected and brought into the UK according to a set of strict procedures established by international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Every specimen must be named so that we can incorporate it into the Herbarium collections. The first step is to identify which plant family the specimen belongs to, and that’s what we do in the family sort. We all have a chance to look at the specimen; from its physical appearance we can spot features, or characters, that are associated with particular plant families. This is a great way for us to become familiar with the features of plant families that are important for identification, and it really whets our appetites for getting out and seeing the plants in the field.
What happens next?
Once we have agreed on which family the specimen belongs to we have to label the specimen - it now goes back to our Collections Management Unit for distribution to the teams responsible for further identification. We don’t write the family names on; each family has a number. Until 1 January 2011 these were based on a modified version of the original sequence that George Bentham and Joseph Hooker outlined in their Genera Plantarum (1862-1883). But now it is all change: we have started rearranging our collections to the latest accepted classification (APGIII), which involves learning and using a whole new set of family numbers. The Herbarium rearrangement will see all eight million specimens reorganised, certainly no mean feat - but that’s another story…watch the blog for updates.
- Gemma -
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If you looked at the Kew website over Christmas you may have seen a story about a new mistletoe, Helixanthera schizocalyx. I was on the trip to Mt Mabu in 2008 during which this plant was found, and was also involved in writing the scientific paper in which the new species has been formally described. The scientific paper will be published in the next few months.
The events that lead up to this new species being described involved a large number of different people. While some species are only identified as new and different years after their pressed specimens enter a Herbarium, the number of specialists that looked at the pressed specimens from the trip to Mt Mabu in Mozambique meant that this mistletoe was described soon after returning from the expedition.
Mozambican botanists pressing plants in woodland on Mt Mabu (Image: RBG Kew)
On the trip to Mt Mabu, local guides living around the mountain were essential for navigating to its remotest parts. The project was lead by Jonathan Timberlake. Five Mozambican botanists worked alongside experts from three other countries. One such expert was Colin Congdon whose work specialises in butterfly-plant herbivory and pollination relationships. It was Colin who first realised that the mistletoe we were seeing could be a new species.
Back at the Herbarium
Once the pressed plants reached the Herbarium at Kew, Colin's immediate excitement was justified as longstanding mistletoe expert Roger Polhill agreed that certain plant specimens were sufficiently different from anything seen before to be judged a new species. Botanists may wonder whether they are dealing with a new species when the identification keys written for a particular group of plants do not match up with the particular combination of structures seen on a plant specimen, but in practice deciding that a group of specimens represent a new species usually depends on an expert knowledge of that group of plants. Despite this reliance on expertise, on average 2000 species are described each year by scientists around the world.
Having decided that the mistletoe material did represent a new species, work then began on taking the measurements and observations of the specimen necessary to write a formal description of the plant covering everything visible from general form to vegetative parts and detailed flower structures. I worked with Iain Darbyshire on this descriptive work, who like me is within the Drylands Africa Team in the Herbarium.
Naming the species
Perhaps surprisingly, deciding on a name for the new species did not take much time. Whilst new species are occasionally named after people (as was Mastigostyla woodii,) there is more often a tendency to name new species after the locality in which they are found or, as is the case for this mistletoe, after a relatively obvious feature of the plant that distinguishes it from species thought to be closely related. The name of this mistletoe relates to its calyx (the calyx is the outermost parts of the flower that protect the other parts when in bud). Whereas other Helixanthera species have a calyx shaped like a cup without any full-length splits, in this case the epithet 'schizocalyx' refers to the way this species has a split top to bottom.
Publishing a scientific paper in hardcopy is necessary for a new species to be validly publised. As well as a publishing company being involved, publishing a new species often requires us to ask one of Kew's talented botanical artists to make an illustration showing the novel features of the plant. So from the initial planning to go to a geographical area whose plants are poorly known to producing the glossy scientific paper giving all the evidence behind the decision to call it a new species, plenty of people have been involved.
This year starts with the task of identifying material from the expedition to southern Ethiopia. I will be using the recently completed Flora of Ethiopia to identify the newly collected material, and for the rarer groups the same process of looking a newly collected specimens alongside numerous specialists is just about to begin...
- Tim -
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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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