Using Kew's historic botanical specimens, Shayla Ellick has spent a undergraduate sandwich-placement year finding out about the 600 plant species found on the UK Overseas Territory(UKOT) of Bermuda. Combining digital high resolution images of the preserved plant specimens with information about the plants gathered from Kew's libraries and online botanical databases, she has added over 700 specimens to the UKOTs' Online Herbarium, to provide an invaluable conservation resource for the island.
I'm originally from the UK Overseas Territory (UKOT) of St Helena Island in the South Atlantic and I’m studying BSc (Hons) Environmental Management at the University of Hertfordshire. My course offered the chance to undertake a sandwich placement year which allows students to gain valuable skills and work experience. My placement was with Kew’s UKOTs team (perfect for me!) working on the Online Herbarium project.
Shayla scanning a herbarium specimen
The majority of the 16 UKOTs lack a complete inventory of plant species, which hinders conservation activities as, in order to conserve a Territory's species effectively, we have to know what grows there. Additionally, the baseline taxonomic information used is outdated; for instance, some plants are known by more than one name. One of these names for each species is now officially accepted by botanists, but other names (known as synonyms) are sometimes still incorrectly used as accepted names in Territory. To resolve these problems, Kew's UKOTs team, under Targets 1 and 2 of the 2010 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, is developing a UKOTs' Online Herbarium. This will allow conservationists within Territories to access a virtual herbarium comprising high quality images of geo-referenced and digitised Herbarium specimens from the collection at Kew along with associated data from labels and collector's field notes. Crucially, this herbarium provides up-to-date information on taxonomy and conservation status of plant species.
My project was specifically focussed on researching, compiling and providing the data for the Territory of Bermuda. The majority of the project has entailed digitising all Bermudian specimens held at Kew (for publication on the UKOTs Online Herbarium). This has included:
- Compiling a gazetteer in BRAHMS of Bermudian place names and equivalent co-ordinates using maps to generate place names and Google Earth for the co-ordinates. The completed gazetteer has more than 500 entries.
Gazetteer map of Bermuda, showing place names
- Checking taxonomy of a supplied list of over 600 known plant species that occur in Bermuda (including synonyms) using The Plant List and other botanical databases, the names were checked for validity and synonymy etc. The list now has 701 entries, including synonyms.
Finding herbarium specimens collected in Bermuda
- Searching for each species on the list (including the synonyms) within the Herbarium cupboards and collecting any Bermudian specimens, these specimens were then given barcodes and UKOTs labels.
- All information on the specimens was databased in BRAHMS and the specimens were geo-referenced using the gazetteer I created. Finally each specimen was scanned using Adobe PhotoShop™ and HerbScan™ (a scanning system developed at Kew) to produce high resolution images for the Online Herbarium. In all, I digitised almost 700 specimens!
After I completed digitising the specimens, I then populated the Bermuda species list with relevant information such as species distribution (global and local), description and uses, from relevant journals, floras, field guides, checklists, botanical databases and internet botanical databases, floras and field guides. All of this information will also be uploaded to the Bermuda section of the Online Herbarium. I also researched and compiled a history of botanical collecting in Bermuda using JSTOR Plant Science, the Harvard Index of Botanists and a wide range of printed literature.
In addition the placement offered fantastic benefits such as:
- training opportunities in a range of areas e.g. IUCN Redlisting; collecting specimens in the field to make herbarium vouchers,
Preparing herbarium specimens for pressing
- access to incredibly interesting lectures and seminars by experts from Kew and other organisations,
- learning and improving upon valuable skills particularly relevant for the conservation field, and also improving and gaining personal and transferrable skills,
- improving my knowledge about international conservation policies and conventions and how they work and many more!
I’ve really enjoyed my placement year at Kew; it’s such a relaxed atmosphere to work in which makes it really easy to learn! The people are amazing, everyone’s always willing to help out and answer any question you have no matter how silly it might seem to you. It’s very encouraging when a specialist/expert will take time out of their extremely busy schedule to talk to you! I’ve learned so much during my time here which will be invaluable in the future, both for my final year at university and future employment. I’ve also made some lifelong friends, and gained many valuable contacts that will be extremely useful in the coming years! In addition I also got the opportunity to contribute to a real and important conservation project, which has given me a great sense of pride and satisfaction. Working at Kew has helped me find perspective on the area I’d like to work in, and I would come back here to work at any time if they would have me (or maybe just for extra training experience to take back to St Helena with me)!
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