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.
Hi! I started my 12 month sandwich placement almost a year ago now, having studied the first two years of my BSc in Biology at York University, returning there this October to complete my degree. My placement has been based in Kew's Conservation Biotechnology (CB) team.
Ed Jones holding a culture jar of Anogramma ascensionis
Since 1974 the CB team has developed plant tissue culture techniques for over 3000 different plant species. The main objective of my project has been the development of a protocol for the cryopreservation of four endangered Ascension Island ferns. The word 'cryopreservation' comes from the Greek word 'cryos' meaning 'icy cold', and thus cryopreservation means freezing living material to keep it safe. We cryopreserve our plants in liquid nitrogen at -196°C! Ascension is one of the UK's Overseas Territories (UKOTs) that was used by sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries as a staging post during long voyages. It lost much of its native vegetation as trees were felled for ship repairs and as land was cleared to grow crops.
There are many reasons why we want to do this. In the CB lab we have about 300 species growing in glass jars on specially selected media containing nutrients. By keeping these plants, many of which are near extinction or critically endangered, they can be preserved for future generations to enjoy and benefit from. When the conditions are right, they can be reintroduced into the wild.
Jars of plants growing on culture media
Hundreds of tiny plant cuttings are stored in Dewars of liquid nitrogen
A whole species can be stored by taking tiny cuttings of plants, which are then transferred to Dewars filled with liquid nitrogen. Thus, plants in liquid nitrogen take up a lot less space than the same number in jars. The CB team has already successfully cryopreserved about 100 species, and has room for many more. Being relatively inexpensive, liquid nitrogen storage can be used to reduce many costs:
- Staff time is saved since plants no longer need to be transferred when they grow too large for their jars.
- Plant food costs are eliminated since you don’t need to feed a plant when it is frozen.
- Energy savings, since no artificial lighting or air conditioning is required.
Equally important is the maintenance of genetic fidelity. Many plants have been grown continuously for many months or even years in our growth room; over time there is a risk of changes in their genetic make-up due to variation in culture. Plant material can be stored in liquid nitrogen as soon as it is received; thus the risk of variation is greatly reduced.
So, what plants have I been working on?
About 2 years ago, Anogramma ascensionis was rediscovered after being thought to be extinct for about 50 years! A small section of frond was sent over from Ascension Island. With this, my predecessor, Katie Baker, managed to culture A. ascensionis spores, and built up an admirable stock of plants. I have been using material from these stocks to develop a species-specific cryopreservation protocol. This has been in addition to experiments with three other fern species, also from Ascension Island.
Freezing a plant!
Developing a protocol for cryopreservation is very species specific; one technique may result in high survival for one species, but no survival for another species. This means a lot of trial and error (and crossing your fingers!) is required as you begin to work out what works best.
Tests confirm that plantlets survive the freezing and thawing processes and grow normally
All in all it has been a great year! The team in the CB have given me a great grounding in science. I have had extensive training and, throughout my project, there have always been friendly faces to help when required. At University, it was stressed to make sure everything in an experiment is planned extensively and recorded in great detail; my placement at Kew has emphasised this in a real-life work environment. Kew is a great place to learn. Not only are you surrounded by fascinating experienced people, but there are also an array of lunchtime seminars and evening lectures, on a diverse range of topics, that are presented by leaders-in-their-field. These have given me further direction as to where I want to go after graduating in a year's time. The project has been extremely rewarding, and knowing that you are helping to conserve plants for future generations to enjoy is a great motivator. After graduation I hope to continue with the botanical research that I have begun in Kew.
Lastly, there are many perks to working at Kew Gardens, an obvious one being the beautiful setting. However, being a lover of sweet things, I should mention that the apple and cinnamon muffin and the carrot cake in Kew’s restaurants have made this year that bit tastier!
- Ed -
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With many plant species in these places threatened by building developments, the spread of alien species and climate change, banking seeds in ‘ex situ’ collections is a valuable complement to ‘in situ’ approaches to conservation, such as protecting habitats and controlling invasive plants. As part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), we have been helping our colleagues across the UKOTs to collect and store seeds of native plants to help secure their survival. As the person responsible for coordinating seed conservation programmes in the UKOTs, I have had the great pleasure of working with conservationists across many of the islands that make up most of the Territories, providing training and equipment, and so enabling our partners to collect seeds for long-term storage at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), based at Wakehurst.
Tom Heller collecting seeds in the Falkland Islands, with Dr Rebecca Upson of Falklands Conservation.
The vaults in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank now hold seed from 380 different kinds of plants from thirteen of the UKOTs, in safe storage. These include the entire seed-bearing flora of the Antarctic continent (two species, collected from the British Antarctic Territory!), to many collections made from tropical islands of the Caribbean.
Collecting seeds of tea plant (Frankenia portulacifolia) on St Helena.
The extraordinary island of St Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean is home to relatively few species of native plants. However, most of these (an incredible 45 different kinds) are unique to the island (endemic), and are in great danger of becoming extinct, having endured several centuries of habitat loss through grazing, clearance and the spread of introduced plant species. With the dedication of teams of intrepid volunteers, the staff of St Helena’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department and the National Trust, have been out scouring the difficult terrain of the island to collect seeds from these endemic plants, many of which are only to be found clinging to the island’s precipitous cliffs. As well as being the source of material for use in local propagation and restoration projects, it has been possible to bank seed of 27 of St Helena’s endemics at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, including the St Helena neglected tuft sedge (Bulbostylis neglecta). This diminutive grass-like plant was only rediscovered on the island in 2008, having not been seen there since its original discovery in 1806.
Neglected tuft sedge (Bulbostylis neglecta), a plant unique to St Helena.
Almost 5000 miles away, in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos Islands form part of the Bahamas Archipelago. Although the islands are very different from St Helena in climate and topography, their native plants face similar threats from invading alien species, and tourist and residential developments also threaten many habitats on the islands. Working with the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources and the Turks and Caicos National Trust, it has been possible to bank 156 plant species, including five of the nine species unique to the islands. One such plant is the Turks and Caicos Island heather (Limonium bahamense), an endemic species of sea lavender, also the islands’ national flower.
Turks and Caicos Islands heather (Limonium bahamense).
As well as storing seed as a long term insurance against extinction in the wild, seed kept at Kew's MSB is being used in conservation and research projects around the world. Collections from the UKOTs are no exception. For example, seed collected from the Falkland Islands has been returning home for propagating in a native plant nursery in Stanley, where the resulting plants are being used to encourage Islanders to grow native plants in their gardens, rather than potentially invasive alien species. Seed from Kew's MSB has also been used in trial plots in the restoration of the vegetation in cleared minefields.
Although among the collections safely banked in Kew's MSB are 70 plant species unique to the UKOTs, there are still more than 100 endemics, and many more other native plants yet to be included, so we clearly have much more work to be getting on with!
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One of the goals of the expedition was to assess effects of the pine scale insect (Tourmeyella parvicornis), which has all but wiped out the national tree of TCI, Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis.
Pine scale insect is killing the pine trees on TCI
This tree grows in both TCI and the Bahamas; however, in the Bahamas the scale insect does not cause major problems at present. Martin Hamilton and Paul Green (RBG, Kew) began by visiting the islands of Abaco and New Providence in the Bahamas to collect pine chemical extractions and pine insect pest samples for identification.
Collecting pine samples in the Bahamas
Martin and Paul then travelled to TCI to meet Marcella Corcoran (RBG, Kew), Sara Green, and Alexandra Davey (Imperial College Conservation Science MSc students).
In the Bahamas the team worked in collaboration with staff from Bahamas National Trust (BNT) in the field and provided practical experience and hands-on training for relevant staff. In TCI, the team continued with its collaboration with the Department for Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) to record, monitor and conserve the flora of TCI, and continue activities related to the Caicos Pine Recovery Project (CPRP).
We know that from previous chemical analyses of dried pine-needle samples that there are different chemicals in extracts of healthy and insect-infested pine. It became clear that extracts of fresh material would be needed for comparison. In the Bahamas samples were collected from healthy trees, and from trees stressed by salt-water flooding and fire. TCI samples were collected from trees with very varied levels of pine scale insect infestations. These will enable us to look for differences in chemistry resulting from various stresses and insect infestation. We can speculate that there is a link between the level of stress to which the trees are exposed and their susceptibility to insect attack.
Preparing extracts of pine needles
The extracts prepared during this trip will be analysed in the laboratories of the Sustainable Uses of Plants Group (Jodrell Laboratory, RBG, Kew). These analyses will allow us to look at differences in the compounds present in the healthy, healthy and fire damaged, and stressed trees. With additional pine-needle extracts prepared in TCI, we will be able to compare the extracts of Bahaman pines with TCI pines suffering from severe insect infestation. Chemical differences could explain why the TCI pines are severely infested with insects, while it is difficult to find insects in significant number on the pines on Abaco. The pines on New Providence are exposed to environmental stress and they also show frequent insect damage which does not appear to significantly affect the health of the trees at the moment.
Getting to grips with Casuarina invading the beaches
In addition to this work the two students from Imperial College MSc carried out research for their MSc dissertations. Sara Green collected data for the second year of a project recording a series of permanent monitoring plots in the TCI pine forests to assist the CPRP. She also monitored other species growing within the pine yards. Alexandra Davey started her project to map the invasive plant Casuarina equisetifolia and recommend areas for control of the species and assess its potential use as a charcoal source.
- Martin -
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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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Colin experiences the cold autumn weather in the Falkland Islands (Image: RBG Kew)
Although my prime reason for being here is to facilitate next week’s workshop to review the Falkland Islands Biodiversity Strategy , I’m spending this week reviewing some of the plant conservation activity currently underway.
Yesterday I accompanied Falklands Conservation Plants Officer, Rebecca Upson, on a monitoring trip to Surf Bay a few kilometres east of Stanley, Falkland’s capital. The UK has ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, often referred to as the ‘Ottawa Convention’. Article 5 of the Convention commits Parties to mine clearance on their sovereign territory and in response to this commitment the UK Government has undertaken clearance at four pilot sites in the Falkland Islands. One of these is the Surf Bay site.
Minefield on the Falkland Islands (Image: RBG Kew)
Mine clearance of the Surf Bay site was completed in June 2010. The Environmental Planning Department and Falklands Conservation co-ordinated a trial re-planting of the site, supported by lots of volunteers who turned out for two planting sessions, one in June and the second in October 2010. Tillers of tussac grass (Poa flabellata) were used in one area. Coastal tussac is a hugely important habitat for wildlife and one that has suffered very badly in the past from over-grazing by sheep. Restoration of coastal tussac is a major conservation priority for the Falkland Islands. This restoration site is looking really healthy and all the signs are that tussac responds very well to this type of restoration.
Tussac grassland restoration site (Image: RBG Kew)
A second coastal area has been planted up with the native blue grass (Poa alopecurus) and many of the tillers have more than doubled in size since the June plantings which is very encouraging.
Rebecca Upson measuring bluegrass tillers (Image: RBG Kew)
Bluegrass Dune Grassland is also a priority habitat in the Falkland Islands. Although its status is not fully known, current evidence suggests that it has also declined significantly due to grazing pressure.
The inland part of the site that was originally Diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum) dominated dwarf shrub heath has been divided into experimental blocks to investigate the success of seed broadcast as a restoration technique. The seed broadcast mix comprised three key native species - buttonwood (Leptinella scariosa), pig vine (Gunnera magellanica) and native rush (Juncus scheuchzerioides) - together with sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), an introduced species which helps to stabilise exposed peat. In some blocks this seed mix was broadcast directly onto the exposed sandy soil, in others the plant material removed during mine-clearance was replaced and the seed mix broadcast over this. Some control blocks were included where no seed was broadcast to see what would happen naturally without any conservation intervention. Although too early to see any real differences between these treatments, there are good signs of growth and establishment of native species which provides great encouragement that this type of restoration approach can be successful. Seed broadcasting as a technique is much less labour intensive than planting individual plants and, when resources are in short supply, any technique which is less resource-intensive has huge advantages. I think that a key need is to start the replanting as soon after mine clearance as possible; with the high frequency of strong winds in the Falkland Islands, it is vital to try and stabilise the substrate as quickly as possible to prevent erosion.
Minefield clearance offers opportunities for restoration of vanishing habitats (Image: RBG Kew)
The team in the Falkland Islands is really dedicated and with continued support not only can the UK meet its landmine clearance commitments in the next ten years, but this pilot gives every indication that these sites can be reclaimed for native habitats – successful conservation practice in action – inspirational.
- Colin -
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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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