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.
Marcelo Sellaro, a bromeliad specialist from Kew's Horticulture Department, and Anna Haigh, a botanist with a special interest in aroids, recently returned from a field trip to Montserrat, one of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Although Kew's UKOT's team have been involved in botanical assessments of parts of the island during the last decade, there is always more to learn about Monserrat's plants, both native and introduced. During this visit, Marcello and Anna were able to add several plants to the list of species found on the island.
Marcelo collecting seed
Montserrat's plant diversity
The Caribbean region has been identified as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots due to its plant-species richness as well as high levels of endemism (plants unique to the area). A recent inventory of plant species on Montserrat, carried out by Kew's UKOTs team, listed as many as 800 native species, including many species of limited global distribution and several which are globally threatened. Its botanical riches are paralleled in the diversity of its fauna.
Approximately 5000 people currently live on Montserrat, and although the island has a total area of 102 km², the distribution of both people and wildlife is severely limited by volcanic activity in the south of the island. In 1995 there was an eruption of the previously dormant Soufriere Hills volcano, and it is still active today but on a much reduced scale. A great deal of vegetation in the south of Montserrat has been destroyed by volcanic activity, resulting in the loss of 60% of the island’s forest cover. Montserrat has very interesting areas where secondary forests show how nature can create new environments after devastation caused by human activity and natural events, such as volcanoes and hurricanes. There are trails in the Centre Hills which provide access through the forest, enabling residents and visitors to explore the area. The Centre Hills are recognised as one the most valuable sources of income for the island, primarily through tourism, but also as a source of ash for the concrete industry.
Montserrat has a humid tropical climate with a wet season from July to December. Annual rainfall varies from 1100 mm at the coast to 2100 mm at higher elevations. In lowland areas that receive little rain, the vegetation is dominated by dry scrub, which may be replaced by littoral forest in coastal areas affected by sea spray. Mesic Forest is a forest type between Dry Forest and Wet Forest where water availability allows for the development of denser vegetation than at lower elevations. It contains a wide range of species and a well developed forest structure. It also supports a wide range of epiphytes (plants which rely on host trees for support) and climbing plants, such as bromeliads (members of the pineapple family - Bromeliaceae) and aroids (belonging to the Araceae family which includes the British plant lords-and-ladies - Arum maculatum). As altitude increases, the Wet Forest gives way to Elfin Woodland, a densely shrubby vegetation with a canopy 0.5–3 m in height. This habitat is restricted to the highest peaks of the Centre Hills.
Anna descending through wet forest in the Centre Hills
Finding out about Montserrat's plants
The Centre Hills Biodiversity Assessment was published in 2008. Kew's UKOTs team was responsible for the checklist of plants - they also made herbarium specimens - and this data helped us as a guide to find the bromeliads and aroids. This checklist contained eight species of Araceae, and Herbarium specimens collected prior to 2008 contained 11 species of Bromeliaceae from Montserrat. Most of the information available from Kew's Herbarium dates from 1907 and 1966 and is not very precise regarding localities and plant descriptions. It is interesting to note that many bromeliads and aroids were previously found on Chance’s Mountain. Today this area is completely covered by ash from the volcano in the Soufriere Hills. The most similar environment on the island, disturbed by agriculture in the past, is the Centre Hills, which are today protected by the government as a reserve.
There are several reasons why aroids are often overlooked during collecting. Some species flower only rarely and we were looking for these fertile specimens as these are usually required for accurate identifications. Aroids often have large leaves and are awkward to make good specimens from. They are very slow to dry, losing much information in the process, thus requiring very good field notes! And quite often aroids are found high up in trees out of reach.
Aroid leaves are big and bulky to collect and dry. In the distance the land surface is covered with volcanic ash.
What we found
During 12 days of field work with colleagues from the Montserrat National Trust (MNT) and the Environmental and Forestry Department, covering five different trails on the island, seven specimens of bromeliads plus nine aroids were found on this trip. This enabled us to add to the national checklist, living collections at the MNT, and to duplicate collections for ex situ conservation by seeds and cuttings at Kew. We first saw Pitcairnia angustifolia at sea level, growing on rocks. Later on, grassy clumps of this species with huge inflorescences full of red hooded flowers were found everywhere on the island. The spines on the leaf margins, the type of inflorescence, number of flowers and colour are important characters for identification in Bromeliaceae and the variations we observed lead us to believe that this species has natural hybrids or varieties which have never before been described by botanists. Tillandsia utriculata, found from sea level to 1200 m altitude, is widely distributed and mostly grows as an epiphyte. Being a truly monocarpic species (which dies after flowering), it depends completely on seeds for survival and we were surprised to find a plant with a secondary inflorescence growing on the side. Epiphytic and sometimes terrestrial in dry habitats, we found Tillandsia recurvata in the Dry Forest where there is little or no rainfall. It also occurred close to the sea where plants need to tolerate winds and salt spray.
Tillandsia recurvata growing on trees close to the seashore
Support for native plant conservation
Both aroids and bromeliads are attractive plants for horticulture. The Botanic Gardens on Montserrat is interested in promoting knowledge about native plants and also needs to provide an attractive garden. It contains an area that mimics the ghauts (steep-sided valleys) where water flows in the rainy season. In the arboretum, trees have created shady areas for recreation and could be used as support for native epiphytes and climbers. We gave a workshop at the Botanic Garden at the end of our trip, which was very successful. About 20 people from the MNT, Environmental and Forestry Department and the local community participated in the workshop, which was divided into three topics. We started by giving a talk about the botanical families, bromeliads and aroids, followed by activities involving identification and classification (taxonomy) and then practical cultivation, finishing with a discussion of cultivation practices.
- Anna and Marcelo -
A biodiversity assessment of the Centre Hills, Montserrat(Durrell Conservation Monograph, 2008)
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At the end of August 2010, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the Caribbean faced the force of Hurricane Earl, with wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Among the many places in BVI suffering damage was the J.R.O’Neal Botanic Garden, located on the island of Tortola. To support the redevelopment of the Garden, Martin Hamilton from Kew's UK Overseas Territories Team (UKOTs) and Michele Sanchez from the Horticulture Department spent a fortnight working with colleagues from the BVI National Parks Trust (BVINPT), assisting in planning and in collecting new plants for display and conservation.
Kew’s UKOTs team has a long-standing working relationship with the BVINPT, having carried out botanical surveys for conservation projects on Virgin Gorda and Anegada. On a previous visit to BVI in 2005, Martin and Michele helped to establish some of the islands’ unique and threatened plant species in cultivation, and to develop suitable facilities for plant propagation. On this visit, they were saddened to find that the shade house, where plants can be grown with some protection from the fierce sun, had been one of the casualties of the hurricane.
Collecting cuttings for propagation
One of the priorities of this trip was to survey the garden and plant collections to find out which trees needed felling as a result of hurricane damage or disease, and to create a map showing the location of specimens. This map provided a basis for discussion with staff from BVINPT about future developments in the Garden, to maximise its potential for native species conservation and as a tourist attraction.
Another goal was to augment the Garden’s collection of native plants, by collecting wild plant material from various islands and propagating it. Together with Marcus Garvey, Head Gardener at the J.R.O’Neal Botanic Garden, and other members of BVINPT staff, Martin and Michele visited areas of natural vegetation on Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Anegada. In some places, where road-building was underway, they were able to rescue seedlings and epiphytes (plants that rely on host trees for support) which had been displaced. They also collected seeds and cuttings from several of the islands’ unique species. Some species, including Pisonia subcordata and Cordia rupicola, had been particularly fruitful in 2011, possibly due to the heavy rainfall associated with the 2010 hurricane or to the resulting vegetation disturbance which suited their growth patterns.
Sowing dust-like orchid seeds onto coconut fibre
Back at the Garden, Michele worked with Marcus and, amongst other members of the horticultural staff, the nursery supervisor Arona DeWindt, sowing seeds, preparing cuttings, planting seedlings and arranging epiphytes on bark. She demonstrated various techniques used in Kew’s nurseries to maximise the plants’ chances of germinating or rooting. For orchid seeds, which sometimes need specialised germination conditions, she initiated a trial using strips of coconut fibre and other readily available local materials. Seeds and some of the cuttings, which were carefully prepared for air-travel, were sent back to Kew, so do keep an eye on this blog for news of these plants!
Watch the video that Martin produced showing some of the areas they visited and their plant collecting and propagation activities.
- Martin -
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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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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)
Seed conservation in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories: An excellent project bringing together UKOTs partners from across the Caribbean. I am working in BVI ... by: Martin
Investigating the plants of the Caribbean... on the outskirts of London!: Dear Andrew, I was very interested in reading your blog. As part of a project I am working on I ... by: eva
Tackling a spiny threat in the Falkland Islands: Really great to see the community involved in the invasive species control work. Keep up the battle!. by: Martin
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