UK Overseas Territories team blog
Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team helps to conserve the unique biodiversity of the 16 far-flung island groups and peninsulas which make up the UKOTs.
We work with partners in-Territory and from other UK biodiversity organisations to develop and implement practical conservation projects which support the UKOTs in implementing the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. This blog follows the conservation activities of the UKOTs team at Kew and overseas. Our welcome blog post gives an overview of the UKOTs Programme.
Cacti and other distinctive plants grow in the species-rich, dry scrubland of several Caribbean UKOTs (Image: Martin Hamilton)
In October 2011, the UKOTs team at RBG Kew embarked on a project to determine the conservation status of UKOTs' plant species. Put simply, we want to be able to find out which of the plants that occur in the UKOTs are the most threatened and, therefore, closer to extinction. It is an ambitious project but essential to help us and our colleagues from these territories to prioritise conservation action. Also, these assessments will be submitted to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which covers plants, animals and fungi. We want to raise awareness of the uniqueness of UKOTs plant species and that, unless we actively protect them, we might lose them in the near future!
How can we decide if a species is threatened or not?
We use the data we’ve previously put together on the UKOTs Online Herbarium for plants native to the UKOTs. This includes important information such as geographical distribution of species. We start by digitising specimens held at Kew of those plants collected from neighbouring islands. Andrew Budden described this work in his post "Investigating the plants of the Caribbean... on the outskirts of London!" Then we look for more herbarium specimens held in other botanical institutions, using online databases such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and for all information available online, in books and journals. Kew’s Library, Art & Archives is a great resource to have in the same building! Finally, we put all the information together and decide on a Red List category following the IUCN rules for Red Listing. Sounds an easy task but the entire process can take quite some time!
As scientists we like to use methods which help us to standardise data analysis and make it more comparable. We are using a tool called GeoCAT (geospatial conservation assessment tool). This web-based tool uses specimen or observation data to calculate the area and extent of occurrence of our species, and to provide a preliminary assessment based on geographic measures used in the Red List criteria. In order to track all the specimens and information used to assign a Red List category, we are helping to develop a new module of BRAHMS (Botanical Research and Herbarium Management System), which we already use to hold the data for the UKOTs Online Herbarium. This module is called the Conservation Assessment Module (CAM) and it will soon be fully functional.
Conservation Assessment Module
A task as big as this cannot be achieved alone. Even taking into consideration all information that we hold in Kew’s Herbarium, collaboration with our colleagues from the Overseas Territories is essential.
Jean Linsky and Alex Roberts, both UKOTs Red Listing Interns, working on conservation assessments with Brian Naqqi Manco
A couple of weeks ago, our colleague from the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), Brian Naqqi Manco, joined us for a week in order to review the assessments that Alex, Jean and myself had prepared. He added more points to the species maps and also pointed out threats that we hadn’t figured out through literature research. It was an intense week but we managed to complete IUCN assessments for 14 plant species native to TCI, some of which we classified as Endangered.
For example, we assessed one of the species that we found when we travelled to TCI in 2010. Spermacoce capillaris is a small shrub from the coffee family which is threatened by habitat modification. According to our assessment it is an Endangered species. These assessments are now ready for submission to IUCN. We will continue with our project and keep you updated.
The UKOTs Red List Project is being funded by the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), jointly managed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
- Sara Bárrios -
- UKOTs Online Herbarium
- Launching the UKOTs Online Herbarium
- Kew Herbarium
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
- Plants at Risk
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Workshop day 3
We’ve now completed two days of the workshop and it feels like we are building good teamwork and making progress in developing the plant collections. Everyone attending the workshop is involved with Ascension Island Government (AIG) Conservation work of some kind (not all are 'plant people’, but all are willing to learn and help).
Although I’ve given presentations on germination and cultivation protocols, seed collecting and composting, most of our time has been spent on practical activities in the nursery on Green Mountain. We’ve managed to repair the shade houses, started composting areas, and collected plant specimens to press as herbarium vouchers and as samples for DNA extraction. We've also made some seed collections which will be used for germination trials tomorrow. Cynthia Williams from the Falkland Islands and Vanessa Thomas from St Helena have been great, contributing their wealth of experience of native plant propagation.
Transferring fern plantlets to compost
Working in the nursery on Green Mountain
While I’ve been here, it’s been nice and warm and I am not missing the UK weather at all!!! Green turtles are nesting too which is very exciting! Over 100 turtles make their way onto the beach to lay eggs every night. If I am lucky some of the early eggs will hatch and young turtles will emerge before I leave!
Workshop day 5
Yesterday was the last day of the formal workshop. It all went well; everyone reported back that it was good and mentioned the parts that were the most useful and relevant to them. The Ascension Conservation team have set their priorities and there were many good outcomes which they have decided to implement, including data collection in the field, labelling and accessioning systems for cultivated plants, and several display gardens of endemics and native species for tourists and other visitors.
Workshop participants included staff from the Ascension Island Government conservation team and representatives from various conservation projects
They’ve also decided to create two areas for composting and to use this compost in the nursery, reducing their reliance on imported materials. The herbarium specimens we made will become part of a reference library at the conservation office (once a cabinet with suitable conditions is available).
Cynthia has just flown out this morning to go back to the Falkland Islands. She was of great value to the team sharing her experience. I know that she will be keeping in touch exchanging ideas and knowledge. Cynthia felt she benefited a lot from the sessions on fern propagation techniques, as she has a couple of ferns in the Falklands nursery which she has not been able to grow from spores yet.
I’ll be spending the rest of my time here assisting the team in implementing the workshop outcomes. Vanessa will also be working with the team; she has lots of experience in running the endemic plant nursery on St Helena. On my last day, Stedson Stroud (the AIG Conservation Officer), Jolene Sim and I are planning to collect living plant specimens for me to take back to Kew for further cultivation trials.
On Saturday afternoon, we’ll be encouraging the public to get involved with gardening and find out about Kew and the conservation projects. There will be seed-sowing activities for children while adults can build compost bins and learn how to grow healthy plants.
I’m also hoping to spend some more time at night watching the turtles coming onto the beach to lay eggs. I’ve never seen this before and it's a truly amazing experience!
Green turtle returning to the sea after nesting
- Marcella -
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Erosion is one of the major threats to habitats in the Falklands. You only need to hop on one of the frequent local flights between islands to get a clear view of the extent of the problem. Large areas of bare ground, whether sand, clay or peat, extend beneath you and even overlap the recently assigned Important Plant Areas. Falklands Conservation (FC) has been awarded a Darwin Initiative Challenge Fund with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as a project partner, to try to tackle this problem.
Alicky discussing pasture restoration with Ben Berntsen at Elephant Beach Farm (Image: Tom Heller)
Previous restoration work has principally focused on planting shoots of the charismatic tussac grass (Poa flabellata) or blue grass (Poa alopecurus) with some success. The current Challenge Fund will lay the foundations for a three year Darwin Plus project investigating the use of native seeds to re-vegetate a wider range of eroded substrates, with a more diverse array of native species and needing less planting effort.
The project offers an interesting and positive opportunity to marry biodiversity conservation with agriculture. Currently landowners and farmers are feeling the cost of erosion through the loss of productive pasture for sheep, and from dust contamination of the sheep’s fleeces. However, the only seed available for purchase in the Falklands is from non-native species which are often ill-adapted to the harsh growing conditions of the Falklands and have poor long-term survival. A number of farmers have already expressed an interest in using a native seed mix on their land if it could be shown to be successful.
Seed mixes for recolonisation and pasture
As the project officer I am tasked with making sizeable seed collections of 15 target species. The aim is to create two seed mixes, one that contains good coloniser species which rapidly provide ground cover and another containing a wider range of pasture species. The pasture mix is aimed at less degraded areas, for example following a fire, mine clearance, or the removal of invasive species. The species in the pasture mix have been chosen in consultation with the Department of Agriculture to include plants which are valuable for grazing.
Seed heads of native woodrush (Luzula alopecurus) (Image: Alicky Davey)
So far my experience of working in the Falklands has been very positive! Besides the beauty of the landscapes and the flora, I have benefitted hugely from the positive relationships FC fosters with the local community, landowners and military personnel.
Tom and Alicky in the field with volunteers (Image: Tim Carr)
I have been overwhelmed by the number of willing and energetic volunteers and I am very grateful for all the tireless hours of seed collection they have contributed so far. For the past two weeks I have been visited by Tom Heller from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (read his experiences on the project below). It has been invaluable to have his expert advice on seed collection and handling. The end of his visit saw the shipment of collections to the Millennium Seed Bank and I am sure that there will be many more to follow before the end of the season. Watch this space!
High quality seed collections
This is my third visit to the Falkland Islands. I’m here to help Alicky with the task of collecting seed for planned trials of seed mixes, applying the methodologies used by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership to ensure collections are of a high quality. Important considerations are the timing of the collection (the seed needs to be ripe), that populations are well sampled (capturing as much genetic diversity as possible, whilst being careful not to harm the wild population), and that the seed is handled carefully after collection to maintain its viability.
Alicky and a volunteer collecting seed of the grass Festuca magellanica (Image: Tom Heller)
Collecting seed can be a fiddly process at the best of times, and conditions in the Falklands often make it even more of a challenge. The frequent strong winds mean that all too often grass seed is blown off the plants as soon as it is ripe, making it difficult to get the timing right. It also makes it rather difficult to get the seed heads into a collecting bag without them blowing away!
However, with the help of dedicated volunteers, it is possible to make sizeable collections. Once the collection has been made, the seeds are put into an airtight plastic drum with a lining of silica gel at the bottom to help the seeds dry out, a process which greatly extends the lifespan of the seed. The seeds will be shipped to my colleagues at the Millennium Seed Bank where they will be cleaned and stored at -20°C until required for the trials back in the Falklands.
It’s great to come back to the Islands: the landscapes are breathtaking, the people welcoming, the wildlife charismatic, and of course the flora beautiful and unique.
- Alicky and Tom -
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Kew’s first flowers of Epidendrum montserratense
Orchid under threat
Epidendrum montserratense occurs only on the volcanic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Montserrat is one of the UK’s Overseas Territories (UKOTs) and forms part of the Caribbean biodiversity hotspot, recognised for its large number of endemic plants and animals that live nowhere else in the world. Like other mountainous islands within this biodiversity hotspot, Montserrat supports many different habitat types, due to its wide variety of soils, temperatures and rainfall. It has nearly 800 native plant species, three of them endemic. One of these is Epidendrum montserratense, which is threatened in the wild, as a result of the devastating volcanic eruptions suffered by the island in the late 1990s.
Rescuing Epidendrum montserratense
The epiphytic orchid Epidendrum montserratense lives high above the ground, on tree trunks and branches. Many of the old mango trees that hosted the orchid have been damaged by volcanic ash or were threatened by flash floods. Some Epidendrum plants were carefully transplanted to the newly established Montserrat Botanic Garden, whilst seed pods collected from others were dispatched to the Conservation Biotechnology Section (CBS) at Kew.
Tiny seedlings of Epidendrum montserratense germinated on a nutrient-rich substrate
Photo: Jonathan Kendon
The CBS team germinated the minute seeds on sterile nutrient medium. Seeds were first surface-sterilised to remove any fungal or bacterial contaminants. After germination, the seedlings were transferred to culture jars where plantlets were bulked up under artificial light. After they had grown substantial roots, plants were weaned from the humid conditions of the jars and were acclimatised to glasshouse conditions in the Tropical Nursery. There are now over 30 specimens of E. montserratense at Kew and many seedlings still in culture.
Seedlings in jar ready for transfer to the Tropical Nursery
A first for Kew
Kew’s horticulturists and conservationists were thrilled when the Epidendrum montserratense plants showed the first signs of coming into flower, just four years after the seeds had gone into culture in the CBS. This was the first time that this species had been cultivated at Kew and the delicate yellow flowers had never before been seen in the UK. Several of these flowers were collected and preserved for Kew’s Herbarium as a record of the successful flowering and for confirmation of the plants’ identity. When they flower again, plants will be isolated and hand-pollinated in the hope of producing seed for future conservation activities, such as reintroduction to their original habitats.
Examining a flowering specimen of Epidendrum montserratense in Kew’s Tropical Nursery
Kew’s UK Overseas Territories team is testing different sets of cultivation conditions to find which are the best for a range of Montserrat’s threatened native species. Once these plants can be routinely cultivated they can be grown in larger numbers for re-introduction trials.
- Marcella -
- Developing Ex Situ Conservation Collections of UKOTs Species In-Territory and at Kew
- Enabling the People of Montserrat to Conserve the Centre Hills
- A Biodiversity Assessment of the Centre Hills, Montserrat (Durrell Conservation Monograph No 1, 2008)
- In Vitro Methods for the Conservation of Endemic Species
- UKOTs Online Herbarium
- Montserrat National Trust
With thanks to colleagues in Conservation Biotechnology and the Tropical Nursery: Jonathan Kendon, Chris Ryan and Bala Kompalli.
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Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team worked with the International Institute of Tropical Forestry and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez to organise the first Puerto Rican Bank plant conservation workshop in more than two decades. The workshop brought together participants from Federal and Government Agencies, NGOs, academia and conservation organisations from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as interested parties from the wider Region - Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and the USA (Miami, New York and Washington). The British Virgin Islands are one of the 14 UK Overseas Territories.
Participants at the Puerto Rican Bank Plant Conservation Workshop (Image: Jose R. Almodovar)
More than 70 people attended the one-week workshop that comprised a first day of invited keynote and overview talks on West Indian plant diversity, global plant conservation activities, and the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), as well as reviews of plant conservation in the Puerto Rican Bank – Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. The second day comprised a one-day Red Listing Training Workshop given by Kew’s UKOTs team. The training reviewed the need for conservation assessments in the light of the challenges of achieving Target 2 of the GSPC, the principles and practice of the IUCN Red Listing process, and a practical overview of some of the tools being developed to facilitate red listing, including GeoCAT, an open source, browser based tool developed by Kew and partners that performs rapid geospatial analyses to semi-automate the process of red listing taxa.
Erythrina eggersii (featured on the workshop banner) is a Puerto Rican Bank endemic which was Red Listed as Endangered during the workshop
Studying Puerto Rico's plant diversity
Puerto Rico lies towards the middle of the Caribbean Biodiversity Hotspot and is an important centre for plant diversity, supporting a wide range of habitats and plant species including 292 seed plants considered endemic to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. To appreciate some of this diversity our hosts organised an exciting field trip for the middle day of the workshop, the highlight of which was a visit to the Guánica State Forest, an area of subtropical dry forest in the south west of Puerto Rico. Designated a UN Biosphere Reserve in 1981, many consider Guánica to be one of the best surviving examples of subtropical dry forest in the Caribbean. It is a haven for many rare and endemic species, including Cordia rupicola, a threatened plant known only from Guánica and the island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. C. rupicola is the subject of intensive study at Kew where a full horticultural protocol has been completed and seeds have been banked in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank.
Omar Monsegur highlights Cordia rupicola in the Guánica forest, with C. rupicola in flower
Threats facing Puerto Rico's plant diversity
Plant diversity is under threat worldwide from a variety of human-induced activities with habitat loss and the spread of invasive species being of particular concern on most islands globally. During the field trip workshop participants were introduced to a frightening exotic pest that is devastating the cacti on Puerto Rico. The cactus mealy bug (Hypogeococcus pungens) arrived in Puerto Rico around 1998 and is spreading across the island with devastating effect, impacting individual cactus species to differing degrees. The mealy bug prevents flowering and fruiting and eventually leads to the death of individual plants. It threatens widespread species such as Pilosocereus royenii, as well as species with more restricted ranges such as Leptocereus quadricostatus, already listed as critically endangered and under severe threat in Guánica – its only location in Puerto Rico. The only other known population of L. quadricostatus is on Anegada and there was lots of discussion in the field on the need to prevent spread of the cactus mealy bug to the Virgin Islands and the importance of heightened biosecurity.
Pilosocereus royenii heavily infested with cactus mealy bug
A new plant conservation task force for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
The final two days of the Workshop focused on discussing the need for greater collaboration and communication across the region, and the need for a regional plant conservation strategy. We also began the process of red listing endemic plants of the Puerto Rican Bank, and identified this as a key priority activity. These discussions, spearheaded by a smaller invited group of botanists from the region resulted in the formal establishment of a Task Force for Plant Conservation for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Full details of the Task Force objectives and key activities are being developed, but there was an initial consensus that the primary goal of the Task Force is Protecting and sustaining the native plant diversity of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. A web portal is being developed which will be made more widely available once established. A key priority of the Task Force is to red list the endemic flora of the region as the first step in producing a complete Red List for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
- Bachman, S., Moat, J., Hill, A., de la Torre, J. & Scott, B. (2011). Supporting Red List threat assessments with GeoCAT: Geospatial Conservation Assessment Tool. Zookeys150: 117-126.
- Developing Ex Situ Conservation Collections of UK Overseas Territories Plant Species In-Territory and at Kew
- IUCN Red List pages for Leptocereus quadricostatus and Cordia rupicola
- Cactus mealy bug (Hypogeococcus pungens)
- Catalogue of Seed Plants of the West Indies
- United Nations Man and the Biosphere Programme
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Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
UKOTs bloggers (left to right): Sara Bárrios, Pat Griggs, Colin Clubbe, Marcella Corcoran, Tom Heller, Martin Hamilton.
Using modern plant specimens collected in the field and historic specimens held in Kew’s Herbarium, together with detailed habitat descriptions and other field information, we are documenting the plant diversity of the UKOTs. We are making this information accessible via the UKOTs Online Herbarium. This resource, together with the field research, enables us to undertake conservation assessments, produce Red Lists of threatened species, and rank potentially invasive species – all of which underpin the development of management plans to protect the UKOTs’ plant heritage.
The UKOTs bloggers are:
- Colin Clubbe (Head of UKOTs and Conservation Training)
- Martin Hamilton (UKOTs Programme Co-ordinator)
- Marcella Corcoran (UKOTs Programme Officer – Horticultural Liaison)
- Sara Bárrios (UKOTs Programme Officer – GSPC Targets 1&2 OTEP Project)
- Pat Griggs (UKOTs Public Engagement Officer)
- Tom Heller (UKOTs Millennium Seed Bank Officer)
Working together to cultivate and protect Ascension's unique plants: It’s certainly an amazing place. We use John Packer’s survey as the basic reference for much of our ... by: The UKOTs team
Working together to cultivate and protect Ascension's unique plants: lived on Ascension in the mid eighties on a RAF posting. Loved every moment. Do you have a copy of J ... by: jan duffin
Restoring habitats in the Falkland Islands, one seed at a time: Hi Ben, Thanks for your nice comment. Indeed it was great to spend time collecting seed on your far ... by: Tom Heller
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