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.
The Cerrado savannas of central Brazil, sometimes known as the ‘Amazon’s forgotten cousin’, are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Tremendously important for their biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide, these fragile habitats are being cleared wholesale for agriculture – particularly for soya production.
Kew is collaborating with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and WWF in a programme designed to raise the profile of the Cerrado, increase public awareness of the importance of its conservation, and inform consumers of the potential impact of their food consumption.
The video footage of the Cerrado shown in this film by the Forgotten Forests project, run by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, was shot by Kew's Tropical America Team during a recent expedition to Brazil.
- Kew's Tropical America Research Programme
- WWF Save the Cerrado
- Conservation and management of the Cerrado
- Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's Forgotten Forests page
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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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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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