Kew Science blog
Kew is a world-leading botanical and mycological research institution. The Kew Science blog aims to highlight the breadth and depth of the work carried out across our science directorate.
At Kew there are over 300 scientists, working on the latest scientific developments in plant and fungal research. Read our blog to explore some of the results and activities of our global science and conservation research program and keep up to date with current developments in Kew science and science policy.
The initial reaction of most visitors to the Herbarium at Kew is an audible gasp. The transition from the modern foyer into the extraordinary Victorian three-storey ‘vault’ known as Wing C, with its elaborate ox-blood ironwork, spiral staircases, floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboards, boxes and bundles of specimens wrapped in newspaper from the four corners of the globe, and the elusive odour of innumerable exotic dried plants, gives the sensation of walking back in time. It would be no great surprise to find Darwin bent over a microscope in one of the many window bays, quietly poring over a rare South American sedge.
Innumerable is about right, we’re still not exactly sure how many herbarium specimens are held at Kew. It’s somewhere in the region of seven million, with about thirty thousand new additions every year. Roughly every thirty years since its original construction in the 1870s, another wing has had to be built to house this expanding library of the world’s plant diversity. The latest is a state-of-the-art affair with temperature-controlled vaults and compactor shelving, designed for optimum storage conditions and minimum risk of pest damage.
The old and new sections of Kew's Herbarium
Maintaining this collection in good order is a huge and expensive task. This needs to be justified. Natural history collections were all the rage in the 19th century, when documenting and describing the natural world was seen as a justifiable end in itself. Nowadays, institutions such as Kew are expected to demonstrate how their collections, and the work of their scientists, are helping to solve global challenges. This is as it should be, and it isn’t hard to do. First and foremost these specimens, in the right hands, allow us to name plants accurately. An accurately named plant opens the doors to a wealth of information: its distribution, its uses and its ecology. Effective conservation, sustainable use of natural resources, climate change adaptation, ecosystem restoration – all are dependent on this ability.
'Why do you need so many of them though – isn’t it enough to have one example of everything?' The answer to this common question is a resounding 'no'.
Thanks to large-scale herbarium data analyses by the Sampled Red List Index project, we now have a vastly improved understanding of threats to plant species around the world.
Herbarium specimens are still prepared in much the same way that Sir Joseph Banks was using on the Endeavour, or Darwin on the Beagle. The plant, preferably with flowers and fruits, is arranged and pressed in a sheet of newspaper (Banks was using copies of a commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost), dried in the sun or over a stove, and ultimately mounted on a piece of card with a label. The label ideally includes a description of the plant, its geographical location (which we can now pinpoint to within a few metres on the Earth’s surface), its habitat, the date, the collector, and sometimes notes on common names and uses, or miscellaneous ecological observations.
Each specimen thus comprises a complex piece of data, and the more data we have access to the better able we are to address our most pressing issues. Each represents a point in time and space for a species (Kew’s oldest herbarium specimen dates back to 1699), allowing us to build up a picture of its global distribution and how this is changing. This in turn allows us to prioritise our research and conservation efforts, and to monitor the effects of global change and habitat loss.
Specimens also tell us at what time of the year plants are flowering and fruiting around the world, and how this may be shifting over time. Many tell us something about the relationship between species and habitats, allowing us to understand ecosystems better, or provide the keys that help us apply plants to human needs such as health and food security.
The challenges, now, are harvesting and interpreting this massive ‘database’, and making the information widely and easily accessible. Natural history collections around the world, Kew included, are feverishly ‘digitising’ their specimens for access via the Internet, making high-resolution images and comprehensive databases available for all. For collections the size of Kew’s this is a gigantic endeavour, but in the course of doing so we’re disinterring vital information that’s been lurking behind cupboard doors for decades or even centuries, while facilitating botanical research in countries without access to the specimens.
The Reflora programme digitised nearly 50,000 Brazilian specimens during 2013 and received 54 Brazilian visitors, many of whom are publishing new scientific discoveries based on the collection.
Interestingly, we’re also discovering new species in the Herbarium, some of which may already be extinct. Keeping a collection up-to-date with the latest concepts of names and relationships is like keeping the Forth Rail Bridge painted - as soon as you think you've caught up somebody has proposed a new arrangement. But without taxonomists and curators to do this, the collection soon begins to lose value. At Kew we’re approaching the end of complete reorganisation of the Herbarium, based on new understanding of plant families made possible by molecular systematics (genetic research). Kew scientists were instrumental in the development of the new system, which is based on the evolutionary relationships between plant families and is now in its third revision (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III, 2009; Chase & Reveal, 2009).
Despite the new tools available for taxonomic work, many families and genera haven’t been revised by specialists for decades, and it’s not uncommon for a specimen to be filed away as ‘indetermined’ (unidentifiable) until somebody with a sufficient knowledge of the group recognises it as something previously unknown to science. In 2012 for example, a Centropogon specimen I collected during a student expedition to Venezuela thirty years ago was finally described as a new species.
Centropogon pataensis lay dormant in the Herbarium for nearly thirty years. In 2012, Rogier de Kok described a new species of Gmelina based on a specimen collected in New Guinea in 1887!
So it’s not just the specimens and data that are important in biological collections – it’s also the people who maintain and study them. And it’s not just the major collections that are important - smaller ones are vital sources of local information on biological diversity. Taxonomy is as important as it ever was, but increasingly hard to fund and there are ever fewer courses available to train the next generation of specialists. Raising funds for curation is harder still: biological collections around the world are struggling to keep themselves going and many have closed down. Yet we need them, and we need to keep investing in them for the future. However unfashionable they may seem right now, generations to come will wonder what on Earth got into us if we let them go.
- William -
- Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (2009). An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 105–121. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.00996.x Available online
- Chase, M. W. & Reveal, J. L. (2009). A phylogenetic classification of the land plants to accompany APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 122–127. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.01002.x Available online
- de Kok, R. (2012). A revision of the genus Gmelina (Lamiaceae). Kew Bulletin 37: 293-329. Available online
- Grande Allende, J.R. & Meier, M. (2012). Novedades taxonómicas en Campanulaceae neotropicales I: dos nuevas especies de Centropogon C. Presl de Venezuela. Candollea 67(2): 233-241. Available online
1 comment on 'What's in a collection? The Herbarium at Kew'
It was on the way to Nieuwoudtville, a small town about four hours drive north of Cape Town in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, that I first witnessed the elegance of long-proboscid fly pollination. The graceful fly I saw was hovering above a clump of cream-coloured flowers, with its long proboscid dangling straight beneath it, delicately inserting it down the equally long floral tube of a Lapeirousia species to reach the sweet nectar contained at the bottom of its flower. The wonder of this first encounter remained with me and has fuelled the particular interest I have for the evolution of pollination systems and their role in driving the formation of new plant species. Understanding the evolution of plant-pollinator associations is essential for their long-term conservation, particularly at a time when pollinator decline and its impact on biodiversity as a whole and ecosystem services is becoming increasingly critical.
Long-proboscid fly pollination is relatively common in the Cape and Namaqualand. Several species of fly are involved in this mutualism with a multitude of plant species, but many more weird and wonderful pollination modes are found in this biodiversity hotspot, which has been a focus of my research for many years. The Greater Cape Floristic Region of South Africa is a small area home to more than 9,000 species of vascular plants, of which about 70% are found nowhere else on Earth. The adaptation to different pollinators and the presence of a large number of specialised pollination systems has been hypothesised as one of the main factors promoting the formation of new species in this region.
Lapeirousia dolomitica, pollinated by long-proboscid flies from the family Nemestrinideae
Many scientists have considered pollinators as potentially playing an important role in the diversification of flowering plants, including Charles Darwin who came to this conclusion after studying pollination in orchids. Considering the diversity of pollination syndromes and the incredible diversity of floral forms and colours observed in some plant groups, it becomes difficult to ignore the fact that pollinators may play a fundamental role in the speciation process in several of these plant assemblages.
To explore the role of pollinators in speciation, my colleagues and I turned our attention to the iris family (Iridaceae). This group of plants is well-known, due to its ubiquitous presence in our gardens and in the cut-flower displays in shops and supermarkets. Iris, Gladiolus, Freesia, Crocosmia, and Crocus are probably the best-known genera in horticulture, but many more have made their niche in the gardener’s world. The family is particularly well represented in sub-Saharan Africa, with no less than 1,200 of the 2,000 species the group comprises found in this region. What makes this family even more attractive for those interested in the evolution of pollination systems is that no fewer than 17 different pollination systems have been reported in this group, including pollination by bees, birds, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and of course long-proboscid flies.
Lapeirousia silenoides, pollinated by long-proboscid flies from the family Nemestrinideae
In our recently published study, we focussed on the genus Lapeirousia, a small group comprising 27 species, mostly confined to the south western part of the African continent, and commonly known as painted petal irises. Despite its small size, no less than seven different pollination systems have been observed in this group, including two different guilds of long-proboscid fly pollination from families Nemestrinidae (tangled-veined flies) and Tabanidae (horse flies). In spite of this large diversity of pollinators, a previous study had concluded that the diversification of species in this group was driven by the diversity of soils on which these species occur and that pollinator shifts (changes in pollinators during evolutionary history) played only a secondary role in the speciation process. We re-examined the conclusions of this study by constructing a molecular phylogenetic tree of the group, a diagram depicting the relationships between Lapeirousia species based on DNA sequence data.
Reconstruction of pollinator syndromes onto the phylogenetic tree of the genus Lapeirousia. Colours on internal nodes indicate the probability of each pollinator systems (adapted from Forest et al. 2014). Download a high resolution version of this image.
Based on this phylogenetic tree, we found evidence for 17 different pollinator shifts and only ten changes in soil types in the evolutionary history of Lapeirousia. We also observed differences in pollinator and soil types in nine pairs of closely related species (sister species) in our phylogenetic tree. This evidence alone indicates that pollinators would have had a greater influence on speciation in Lapeirousia than soil types, contradicting previous studies.
Interestingly, we also found that pollination by long-proboscid flies was the ancestral condition in the genus, which is unusual as other studies of groups with varied pollination systems generally show that long-proboscid fly pollination has evolved from bee or generalist syndromes. This corroborates the assessment of biogeographical patterns that we also performed in this study in that most species of Lapeirousia (24 out of 27) are found along the west coast and near interior of southern Africa. The distribution of Lapeirousia essentially overlaps with the distribution of the long-proboscid flies involved in the pollination of many of its species.
Distribution of long-proboscid fly families in South Africa, mapped over the distribution of Lapeirousia species richness. Taken from Forest et al. (2014).
Comparing our phylogenetic tree with the current geographical distribution of the species, suggests that the genus Lapeirousia evolved first in the Cape region of South Africa. In other words, the evolution of long-proboscid fly pollination in Lapeirousia coincides with the origin of the group in the Cape region, where the long-proboscid flies that pollinate many of them are mostly restricted.
There are several ongoing studies at Kew on the evolution of pollination systems in Iridaceae, but also in other plant groups. One of these studies is focusing on the Iridaceae genus Tritoniopsis, a group similar to Lapeirousia in size and diversity of pollinators, and which is particularly interesting due to the presence of bimodal pollination systems in many species. These species possess morphological features allowing the use of two different pollinator groups. How these evolved is a mystery but, hopefully, not for long.
An increasing number of studies are investigating the evolution of pollination syndromes at the population level (with particular pollination syndromes or with trait adaptations to different pollinators), and at the species level. Despite all these efforts, there are many aspects of the intimate relationships between plants and their pollinators that remain to be explored, and more questions are arising than answers, but it is a very exciting field of research with many amazing stories still to tell.
- Félix -
- Forest, F., Goldblatt, P., Manning, J. C., Baker, D., Colville, J. F., Devey, D.S., Jose, S., Kaye, M. & Buerki, S. (2014). Pollinator shifts as triggers of speciation in painted petal irises (Lapeirousia: Iridaceae). Annals of Botany 113: 357-371. Available online
- Goldblatt P. & Manning, J.C. (1996). Phylogeny and speciation in Lapeirousia subgenus Lapeirousia (Iridaceae: Ixioideae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 83: 346-361. Available online
- Goldblatt P. & Manning, J.C. (2000). The long-proboscid fly pollination system in southern Africa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 87: 146-170. Available online
- Goldblatt P. & Manning, J.C. (2006). Radiation of pollination systems in the Iridaceae of sub-Saharan Africa. Annals of Botany 97: 317-344. Available online
- Johnson, S.D. (2010). The pollination niche and its role in the diversification and maintenance of the southern African flora. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 365: 499-516. Available online
- Manning J.C. & Goldblatt, P. (1997). The Moegistorhynchus longirostris (Diptera: Nemestrinidae) pollination guild: Long-tubed flowers and a specialized long-proboscid fly pollination system in southern Africa. Plant Systematics and Evolution 206: 51-69. Available online
Images of long-proboscid flies:
- The long-proboscid fly (Moegistorhynchus longirostris) and the long-tubed iris (Lapeirousia anceps) in the Cape Floristic Region
- The long-proboscid fly (Moegistorhynchus longirostris) pollinating a flower of Lapeirousia anceps in late spring at Rondeberg on the Cape West Coast, South Africa
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To discover a spectacular new orchid species that only inhabits remote, jungle-clad islands, it is not always necessary to actually go to a remote, jungle-clad island. Sometimes a short ride on the London Underground is enough, which is how I discovered Dendrobium azureum.
While scanning through dried material of unidentified Dendrobium species from New Guinea, in the herbarium of London’s Natural History Museum, I came across two sheets on which were mounted some unremarkable-looking specimens. But when I read their type-written labels they turned out to be worth a closer look. 'Orchid growing on trees; flowers deep sky blue'. Deep sky blue flowers? Orchids come in all colours of the rainbow, but very few species have really blue flowers and most of these are Australian terrestrial species, such as Thelymitra crinita.
Epiphytic orchids (those that grow on trees or other plants) with pure blue flowers are extremely rare. Only a handful are known among some 17,000 epiphytic orchid species. No close relatives of the Dendrobium I had in front of me had blue flowers and this at once suggested that it might be an undescribed species, assuming that the colour information on the label was accurate. Looking again at the specimen I then noticed that the dried flowers had a strange bluish grey tint, rather than one of the many shades of brown usually seen in old dried orchid specimens. This seemed to confirm that the flowers really had been blue.
The labels also revealed that the specimens had been collected by one L.E. Cheesman on 17 June 1938 on the summit of Mt. Nok, an extinct volcano on the, indeed remote and jungle-clad, island of Waigeo, off the western tip of New Guinea.
Waigeo Island, with Mt. Nok in the centre of this image. (Photo: S. Schmidt).
Following my visit, I sent out a loan request to the loans officer at the Natural History Museum, to enable me to examine the two Cheesman specimens in more detail. It is common practice among the world’s major herbaria to send specimens on loan to each other, so that the relevant taxonomic experts can take their time to study them in detail. After a thorough examination, and comparison with the large collection of Dendrobium specimens in Kew’s herbarium, I reached the conclusion that Cheesman’s Dendrobium was indeed an undescribed species, although it is probably closely related to D. oreodoxa, a species from New Guinea with bright orange-scarlet flowers. I described it in 2013, naming it D. azureum (Schuiteman, 2013).
Line drawing of Dendrobium azureum published with the first description. (Drawing: J. Stone).
Dendrobium oreodoxa, widespread in the mountains of New Guinea, is probably closely related to D. azureum. (Photo: N.E.G. Cruttwell in slide collection RBG Kew).
But who was L.E. Cheesman? He or she was of course the actual discoverer of this beauty, not me. I turned to an excellent resource on plant collectors in the Flora Malesiana region (which includes New Guinea), the Cyclopaedia of Collectors, and learned that Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (1889 - 1969) was a British entomologist. The first female curator at London Zoo, she went on to become a freelance explorer and by all accounts must have been an intrepid and remarkable woman.
Evelyn Cheesman made several expeditions to New Guinea and surrounding islands in the 1930s and has written sixteen books, many about her travels. One of those, quaintly titled Six-legged Snakes in New Guinea (Cheesman, 1949), describes her trip to Waigeo (‘Waigeu’) Island of 1938 as well as her work in New Guinea afterwards.
The twin peaks of Mt. Nok. According to local legend, as recounted by Evelyn Cheesman, it is haunted by a monstrous six-legged snake (Photo C. Webb).
On p. 72 she describes herself scrambling to the summit of Mt. Nok:
'Pushing through the scrub, beautiful sprays of orchids forced themselves on your attention by brushing your face. The next few steps would have to be tunnelled through climbing fern, and then more orchids on trees with moisture continuously dripping off fringes of moss. Large clusters of a leguminous bloom like white acacia drooped from small trees. There were cream, pale lemon, and brilliant blue orchids, but the colours orange and scarlet predominated, flaming out of the green.'
The 'brilliant blue orchids' mentioned here undoubtedly refer to D. azureum, while among the 'orange and scarlet' orchids are Mediocalcar uniflorum and other species of Dendrobium that have yet to be identified.
Mossy forest on Mt. Nok, with numerous orchids and Nepenthes. (Photo: S. Schmidt).
As far as I can ascertain, D. azureum has never been collected again. Three researchers who have visited Waigeo Island in the past decade (Campbell Webb, Iwein Mauro and Sebastian Schmidt) informed me that they had not seen it. There are only a few peaks as high as Mt. Nok, which itself is about 880 m high, and it is possible that the orchid is restricted to this higher mountain habitat. If D. azureum really is endemic to the frequently cloud-capped summit zone of Mt. Nok, and possibly a few similar mountains on the island, collecting seeds and bringing the species into cultivation may be advised, to safeguard its existence in the long term.
The continued occurrence of D. azureum on Mt Nok will depend on its habitat and its ecological relationships, such as those with its pollinators, remaining intact. Its habitat may come under pressure from deforestation and forest fires, and may also be sensitive to climate change. Since Waigeo Island is situated in the most diverse marine ecoregion of the world, and is itself home to some conspicuous endemic wildlife, such as the Red Bird-of-Paradise, strict protection of its remaining forests seems urgently needed.
Nothing is known about the pollinators of D. azureum. Closely related species (D. oreodoxa, D. lawesii, D. subclausum etc.; see Schuiteman, 2013) are probably all pollinated by birds, in particular honeyeaters (Meliphagidae), but observations are scarce.
The flower of D. oreodoxa, with its hood-shaped, teeth-fringed lip, is similar to that of D. azureum. (Photo: A. Schuiteman).
It is likely that D. azureum is bird-pollinated too, as the size and structure of the flowers are only slightly different from those of D. oreodoxa. Let’s hope that there is still a chance to find out.
- André -
- Cheesman, E. (1949). Six-legged Snakes in New Guinea. George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd., London, Sydney, Toronto and Bombay. 281 pp.
- Schuiteman, A. (2013). A Guide to Dendrobium of New Guinea. Natural History Publications (Borneo), Kota Kinabalu. 122 pp.
- Schuiteman, A. (2013). A new, blue-flowered Dendrobium from Waigeo Island, Indonesia. Malesian Orchid Journal 12: 19-21.
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This week saw the gathering of global leaders at the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014. Tackling illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has generally concentrated on charismatic mega fauna such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. However, IWT policy and practice also address the illegal harvesting and trade in many plant species and their parts and derivatives. IWT is a serious criminal industry worth billions of US dollars every year. Proceeds of transnational crime in timber alone in the developing world have been estimated to be worth US$ 7bn (Haken, 2011). Plant groups affected by IWT include tree, orchid, cacti and cycad species and plant species used for medicinal purposes.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments and entered into force in 1975. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and it is one tool available to tackle IWT. Kew is the designated UK Scientific Authority for plants under CITES and, as such, provides independent scientific advice, develops and disseminates CITES capacity building tools and training.
Guy Clarke (UK Border Force, CITES Team, Heathrow Airport) and Sara Redstone (Kew’s Plant Health Officer) examine a shipment of seized material in Kew’s Quarantine House.
I have been working on wildlife trade issues since graduating from the Kew Diploma in 1991, specialising in the trade in tree species and carnivorous plants while leading at Kew on the training of enforcement officers and agencies on CITES-listed plant species. Working as part of the team in the Conventions and Policy Section (CAPS) at Kew, my role is to provide independent, science-based advice on CITES policy and implementation to Defra and other policy and enforcement agencies.
This work commonly requires scientific input on the identification or authentication of CITES-listed species and their products. Given that CITES regulates five times as many plant species as animal species, due to large family listings such as all orchids and cacti, Kew is in a unique position to to assist with the day to day implementation of these listings by utilising the scientific expertise across all of our science departments.
Two examples from a series of CITES User Guides produced by CAPS in partnership with other CITES authorities and partners that assists enforcement and policy makers in implementing CITES for different plant groups.
Over the last ten years the number of tree species regulated under CITES has risen dramatically. To inform our advice on existing and future timber listings, associated policy and enforcement, and to support new EU legislation to combat illegal timber trade (FLEGT and the EU Timber Regulation), Kew, often in partnership with other UK or international partners, agencies and institutes, is working to develop or test methods to identify tree species in trade. These include Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian rosewood), Gonystylus species (ramin) and Dalbergia and Diospyros species from Madagascar.
These methods complement existing processes used in timber identification, such as the examination of macroscopic features using Kew’s 120,000 microscope reference slides, of which a third are wood slides (Gasson, 2011).
Pete Gasson, Kew’s Research Micromorphologist, identifying a suspected CITES timber in trade by examining the macroscopic characteristics under a hand lens.
Kew, in partnership with TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, has collaborated on a feasibility study addressing each step required to develop a genetic identification assay for processed Gonystylus spp. (ramin) in trade that was robust, cost-effective and used transferable methods (Ogden, et al., 2008). In response to enforcement difficulties in identifying Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian rosewood) in trade, a team at Kew isolated a new neoflavonoid derivative, dalnigrin, absent in another rosewood species (D.spruceana) commonly used to make the same type of products. This research demonstrates that chemical analysis, in combination with anatomical investigation, can provide persuasive evidence to support the positive identification of untreated heartwood of D. nigra (Kite, et al., 2010).
At the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP16 - Thailand, March 2013) Madagascar listed its populations of Dalbergia and Diospyros on Appendix II of CITES, with an accompanying Action Plan that recognised the need for improved identification to aid implementation. Kew is working with Madagascar and international organisations and experts to help implement this listing. A number of Kew departments are supporting the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in a proof of concept project to verify the declared origin of such timber using Stable Isotope and Trace Element (SITE) fingerprinting. RBG Kew and FERA will develop SITE fingerprint maps for Madagascar using a variety of Geographic Information System (GIS) tools, Maxent for niche modelling, and data on geology, topology, climate and other variables.
If triangulation of isotopes gives reasonable resolution, SITE fingerprint maps will be made available to authorities and researchers in Madagascar. The latest on this project is that (two wood corers later!) Kew’s Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) in collaboration with Madagascar’s National Parks has collected about 120 samples in total and analysis is underway on the first batch.
Dr Franck Rakotonosolo (in red shirt) from the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre in collaboration with Marojejy National Park in North East Madagascar taking core samples from an Diospyros (ebony) species. (Photo: Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC))
The importance placed on tackling IWT issues in the UK is demonstrated in the award of New Year and Birthday Honours to three Kew staff members (Monique Simmonds, Chris Leon and myself) and Guy Clarke (Border Force) for our contributions to addressing illegal plant trade.
Kew is also a long standing member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW). PAW is a UK umbrella group and members include Border Force, Police, NGOs, the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), user groups and scientific institutions. Kew hosts the PAW Open Seminar each year (the next one is on Wednesday 12 March 2014) where PAW members discuss IWT issues, research developments and collaborative work. This partnership approach also extends through to our CITES capacity building work and the development of CITES tools and training modules for UK, EU and international enforcement officers and agencies, as well as aiding CITES compliance by trade and industry (Garrett, et al., 2010; Sajeva, et al., 2012).
London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014
On 13 February 2014 the UK Government hosted the London Conference on IWT aimed at tackling three interlinked aspects of the Illegal Wildlife Trade:
- improving law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system
- reducing demand for wildlife products
- supporting the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by IWT
The conference was attended by 40 governments and the EU. As a stakeholder in pre-conference discussions with Defra and other government agencies Kew staff members also attended the conference reception at the Natural History Museum on 12 February where many seized plant products were on display along with illegally traded animal parts and derivatives. I note that among the commitments contained in the London Declaration arising from the conference, the 'importance of CITES' and the need to 'invest in capacity building to strengthen law enforcement to protect key populations of species threatened by poaching' were highlighted, reinforcing the important role the collections and expertise at Kew can make in tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
- Kite G., Green P., Veitch N., Groves M., Gasson P., Simmonds M. (2010). Dalnigrin, a neoflavonoid marker for the identification of Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) in CITES enforcement. Phytochemistry 71(10):1122-31
- Garrett, L., McGough, N., Groves, M. & Guy Clarke (2010). CITES and Ramin: A User’s Guide. RBG Kew
- Sajeva, M., McGough, N., Garrett, L., Luthy, J., Tse-Laurence, M., Rutherford, C. & Sajeva, M. (2012). CITES and Cacti: A User’s Guide. RBG Kew
- Rutherford, C., Donaldson, J., Hudson, A., McGough, N., Sajeva, M., Schippmann, U., Tse-Laurence, M. (2013). CITES and Cycads: A User’s Guide. RBG, Kew
- Gasson, P. (2011). How precise can wood identification be? Wood Anatomy’s role in support of the legal timber trade, especially CITES. IAWA Journal 32 (2): 137-154
- Gasson, P, Baas, P. and Wheeler, E. (2011). Wood anatomy of CITES-listed tree species. IAWA Journal 32 (2): 155-198
- Haken, J. (2011). Transnational crime in the Developing World. Global Financial Integrity In: UNODC 'Estimating illicit financial flows resulting from drug trafficking and other transnational organized crimes'
- Ogden, R., McGough, N.,Cowan, R.S., Chua, L., Groves, M. & McEwing R. (2008). SNP-based method for the genetic identification of ramin Gonystylus spp. timber and products: applied research meeting CITES enforcement needs. Endangered Species Research Vol. 9: 255–261.
- London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014
- Declaration from the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife trade 2014
- Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW)
- TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network
- UK National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU)
- Defra/Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA)
- Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication Centre (CMPAC)
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Sugarcane and maize are humanity’s most productive crops in total weight produced globally per year (FAO 2014). What makes these two species more useful and more successful than others? The early evolutionary history of the grass family (Poaceae) is poorly understood because of insufficient information preserved in the DNA sequences, and because many ancient grass lineages are thought to have become extinct. Understanding this history could help us improve crops and develop new crops, to address food security and to adapt to climate change.
Grasses are the most thoroughly studied family of flowering plants. However, our knowledge of the species in Madagascar is still poor. Lecomtella madagascariensis, an endemic Madagascan grass, was recently collected and sequenced for the first time using Next Generation Sequencing, where DNA is broken into tiny fragments and specialist algorithms are used to reassemble the sequences of those fragments. When the full chloroplast sequence of Lecomtella madagascariensis was reassembled it proved to be unlike any other grass chloroplast sequenced to date. Analysis of the chloroplast together with the nuclear regions phyB, ppc-aL1, and ppc-aR suggests that Lecomtella represents an ancient lineage that diverged from the ancestors of sugar and maize around 20 million years ago (Besnard et al. 2013).
A simplified evolutionary tree of the main radiation of the grass family (Poaceae). The size of subfamilies and tribes is proportional to the number of species they contain. Blue represents lineages with C3 photosynthesis; red represents C4 photosynthesis; orange lineages contain both systems. Classification of the grasses is from Kellogg (in press). (Diagram drawn by M.S.Vorontsova).
Many grass lineages in dry and arid areas have a C4 photosynthetic system: a set of anatomical, physiological, and biochemical adaptations to fix carbon dioxide more efficiently than the standard C3 photosynthetic system. C4 has evolved at least 22 times in the grass family (e.g. Christin et al. 2013). Sugarcane and maize are both C4 species, which allows them to be more productive when it is hot and dry. Lecomtella madagascariensis is a C3 species and comparing its unique DNA with that of the C4 crops therefore provides an opportunity for valuable insights into how C4 evolves and how the photosynthetic efficiency of C3 plants could be improved.
Lecomtella madagascariensis has unusual morphology as well as unusual DNA. It is the only species in its genus and tribe, and it occurs on a single mountain range in southern Madagascar, near streams on granite outcrops of the Andringitra Mountains. Lecomtella spreads by long underground rhizomes and forms dense patches of vegetative growth with blue-green leaves. Its local name is fatakamanga, meaning 'blue bamboo'.
For many years scientists and park rangers in the Andringitra National Park could not identify this plant because it only flowers occasionally, and when flowering does occur the majority of the spikelets are male. The rare hermaphrodite florets are subtended by unusual fleshy appendages, but seed dispersal has never been observed and the mechanism of seed dispersal is not known.
This traditional line drawing plate of Lecomtella madagascariensis by Lucy T. Smith was awarded second prize at the Margaret Flockton Awards for botanical art in 2012. In spite of modern digital imaging technologies dissections and drawings like these remain the most efficient way of presenting the scientifically important aspects of plant morphology on a single page. (Drawing: Lucy T. Smith).
The analysis of Lecomtella is part of an ongoing Kew project on the grasses of Madagascar, with the aim of providing an inventory of the species and their distributions. The only published treatment of Malagasy Poaceae (Bosser 1969) includes just half of the estimated 600 species found on the island. The species not included are impossible to identify in Madagascar as there are no identification keys and the only comprehensive herbarium collection is held at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, with the virtual herbarium (Sonnerat 2014) unfortunately not accessible from Madagascar due to poor internet speed.
A significant number of species have not been described at all, and recent collections indicate the presence of at least one undescribed genus. Our task at Kew therefore involves describing new species, producing taxonomic revisions of groups with the greatest numbers of endemic species, and developing methodology to define grassland communities and research their history.
Dr Franck Rakotonasolo from the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre is sitting behind a population of Lecomtella madagascariensis he has just discovered above the Riambavy waterfall, Andringitra National Park, Madagascar
Lecomtella madagascariensis is one of the species now cultivated in the new Grass Garden at the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza in Antananarivo, designed by Michelle Cleave from RBG Kew and supported by the Royal Horticultural Society. Bringing rare species into cultivation and creating inspiring gardens increases our knowledge and helps contribute to the body of scientific research data on economically important plant groups.
The new Grass Garden at the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza in Antananarivo: planting the first grasses with Michelle Cleave in November 2013.
The origin of grasslands in Madagascar is an area of debate (Bond et al. 2008; Willis et al. 2008) and completing the taxonomic delimitation of the grasses will provide a platform for an improved understanding of landscape history. Revision of the genus Andropogon (Vorontsova et al. 2013) and work on Aristida (Vorontsova 2013) has already demonstrated the presence of numerous endemic open habitat species with a C4 photosynthetic system that are restricted to the central highlands, areas previously thought to be deforested within the last two thousand years.
Building our knowledge of rare grasses builds our understanding of grass evolution. Our discovery that the Lecomtella lineage is likely to have played a part in the evolution of panicoid grasses, giving rise to maize and sugarcane, has opened up new avenues of research and has many potential applications. Improving our understanding of grass evolution helps us understand how productive crops evolved and this information can then be used to improve crop breeding. As food security becomes a global issue it will be more important than ever for crop breeding to be informed and underpinned by evolutionary science. Understudied ancient and isolated tropical species are therefore far more important than they seem.
- Maria -
This work is part of Maria Vorontsova’s ongoing project on the grasses of Madagascar, collaborating with the Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre and with Guillaume Besnard at CNRS-Toulouse.
- Besnard, G., Christin, P. A., Malé, P. J. G., Coissac, E., Ralimanana, H., & Vorontsova, M. S. (2013). Phylogenomics and taxonomy of Lecomtelleae (Poaceae), an isolated panicoid lineage from Madagascar. Annals of Botany 112: 1057–1066.
- Bond, W. J., Silander, J. A., Ranaivonasy, J. & Ratsirarson, J. (2008). The antiquity of Madagascar's grasslands and the rise of C4 grassy biomes. Journal of Biogeography 35: 1743-1758. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2008.01923.x.
- Bosser, J. (1969). Graminées des pâturages et des cultures à Madagascar. Mémoire ORSTOM 35: 1-440.
- Christin PA, Osborne CP, Chatelet DS, et al. (2013). Anatomical enablers and the evolution of C4 photosynthesis in grasses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 110: 1381–1386.
- FAO (2014). Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx
- Kellogg EA (in press) Poaceae. In: The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, ed. K. Kubitzki.
- Sonnerat (2014). Spécimens d'herbier - Formulaire de recherché. Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. http://coldb.mnhn.fr/colweb/form.do?model=SONNERAT.wwwsonnerat.wwwsonnerat.wwwsonnerat
- Vorontsova, M.S. (2013). Variable morphology of the Madagascar endemic Aristida tenuissima (Poaceae: Aristidoideae) and the absence of Stipa (Poaceae: Pooideae, Stipeae) from Madagascar. Phytotaxa 92: 55-58.
- Vorontsova, M.S., Ratovonirina, G. & Randriamboavonjy, T. (2013). Revision of Andropogon and Diectomis (Poaceae: Sacchareae) in Madagascar and the new Andropogon itremoensis from the Itremo Massif. Kew Bulletin 68: 1-15.
- Willis, K. J., Virah-Swamy, M. & Gillson, L. (2008). Nature or nurture: the ambiguity of C4 grasslands in Madagascar. Journal of Biogeography 35: 1741-1742.
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