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.
Comb fern (Image: Rebecca Upson, Falklands Conservation)
In 1820, the botanist Charles Gaudichaud-Beaupre discovered a tiny fern – the comb fern Schizaea fistulosa - growing near sand-dunes in the Falkland Islands. For over 180 years, he was the only person to have seen the comb fern on this UK Overseas Territory, a group of islands lying to the east of the southern tip of South America.
Botanists from Falklands Conservation spotted the comb fern growing in the Hornby Mountains (Image: Richard Lewis, Falklands Conservation and RBG Kew)
In December 2009, to their great excitement, a team of botanists from Falklands Conservation rediscovered the fern in the Hornby Mountains on West Falkland. This was quite an achievement because the fern grows to no more than a few centimetres tall, with wiry stems and tiny fronds and, at first sight, might be mistaken for a grass. When preserved specimens of the fern were sent back to Kew's Herbarium, one of our fern specialists was able to confirm its identity as the comb fern.
Herbarium specimen of comb fern (Image: RBG Kew)
Over the past five years, botanists from Falklands Conservation have worked alongside conservationists from Kew’s UK Overseas Territories Team on botanical surveys of the islands, designed to assess the richness of the islands’ plant life and to evaluate any threats it faces. During these surveys, they have rediscovered several plant species and identified others which had never previously been seen on the islands. Among these was Banks’ sedge (Carex banksii), which bears the name of Sir Joseph Banks, who acted as Kew’s first director at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
- Pat -
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As we approach the end of 2010 and reflect on the successes of International Year of Biodiversity, the story of Anogramma ascensionis reminds me why I work in conservation. With all the gloom and depression surrounding many aspects of our efforts to save our planet, the regenerative effects of a species success story like this are much more potent than any of the seasonal brews we’re enjoying at our office parties.
The type herbarium specimen of Anogramma ascensionis showing Joseph Hooker's collections at the top of the page and A.B. Curror's below (Image: RBG Kew)
My reflections started when pulling out the original type specimen from the storage cupboards in the Herbarium at Kew. Like many of the older specimens in Kew's Herbarium, this sheet contains several specimens of the fern collected at different times. There was A.B. Curror’s collection – the first record of this species in 1842. On the same sheet are Joseph Hooker’s specimens collected a year later when he visited Ascension in 1843. It was Hooker who described this as a new species to science and gave it the name Anogramma ascensionis, its specific epithet revealing that it is only found on Ascension Island.
This herbarium sheet has been scanned and digitised along with all of our other specimens from UK Overseas Territories and will soon be freely accessible on the UKOTs On-Line Herbarium, a really exciting project that is a key focus of the UKOTs team under the watchful gaze of project officer, Sara Barrios.
Cultivation in the CBU at Kew
Sara and I then went down to the Conservation Biotechnology Unit (CBU) where Unit head, Viswambharan Sarasan, and sandwich student, Ed Jones showed us how well the plants growing in culture are doing. It was an inspirational visit. There are dozens of jars with very healthy plants growing in them at many different stages. Sarasan and his previous sandwich student, Katie Baker, have been cultivating the ferns since they received the first tiny fertile frond less than the size of a finger nail on 23 September 2009, less than 24hours after it had been collected from the re-discovered wild plant on Ascension’s Green Mountain.
Sandwich student, Ed Jones, checking the growth of Anogramma ascensionis in the Conservation Biotechnology Unit. All the jars and petri dishes behind him contain the parsley fern at various stages of its life history (Image: RBG Kew)
The re-discovery of Anogramma ascensionis is itself a story out of the boy’s own adventures that I used to read as a youngster, dreaming of exotic travel and exploration. The re-discovery in July 2009 attracted a lot of publicity and can be reviewed on the BBC online.
Hooker had written in his journal that A. ascensionis was relatively widespread when he visited in 1843. There are only sporadic records of it through to 1958 when we have our last verified record and specimen collected by the biologist Eric Duffy who later published his classic paper on the Terrestrial Ecology of Ascension Island in 1964. In 2003 A. ascensionis was officially classified as extinct and entered onto the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. We mourned the loss of a unique species.
The re-discovery of the Ascension Island parsley fern
I vividly remember getting Stedson’s email from Ascension with the message that the Ascension team had found 4 plants of a tiny fern that Stedson and Phil were convinced was A. ascensionis. And so it proved - the parsley fern was back from the dead, but in very small numbers and in an extremely precarious habitat. The species could still be lost at any time. Indeed two of these plants died quite quickly.
For the next two months Stedson and Olivia tended the remaining plants, watering and nurturing them until the fronds started to produce spores and they were able to collect a fertile frond to send to the CBU at Kew. With the help of Island Administrator, Ross Denny, the frond was collected into a sterile jar that we had sent down to Ascension from Kew and this was rushed to the waiting flight from Ascension to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire where UKOTs team member, Marcella Corcoran was waiting in a car to drive the precious cargo back to Sarasan, who was waiting patiently in the lab.
Within 24 hours of being collected on Green Mountain the spores from the fertile frond had been extracted and were being incubated in sterile medium in the lab at Kew. Phase one of the recovery was successfully complete. In the tender care of the CBU team the fern has flourished. The spores have germinated to form the leafy gametophyte structure which itself has produced the spore-bearing sporophyte generation. These sporophytes have flourished and have produced spores to complete the cycle. It is the sporophyte that is the plant we recognise as the parsley fern, only in culture they are bigger and healthier than any we’ve so far seen in the wild on Ascension. Early results from the lab have also indicated that the spores survive well in liquid nitrogen and that long-term cryopreservation is a viable option for this species. And in Ascension a few more plants have been found in the wild and it’s growing in the nursery on Green Mountain.
For the image below I’ve assembled Hooker’s specimen and three jars from CBU to show the key stages in the life cycle of the parsley fern. The leafy gametophyte generation in the jar on the left, the young sporophytes emerging from the gametophytes in the jar in the centre and a very healthy cluster of mature ferns in the jar on the right.
The key stages in the life cycle of the parsley fern (Image: RBG Kew)
It still gives me goose bumps to look at this image and to think that because of the work of an extremely dedicated, collaborative team of people this species is now secure. I recall sitting on Green Mountain with Stedson several years ago talking about the challenges for conservation on Ascension and the possibility of ever seeing any of Ascension's extinct species again. And now one has turned up - perhaps others will too, so long as we are able to conserve habitats long enough for thorough exploration or for dormant seeds and spores to re-appear when the conditions are right.
I feel privileged to be part of this team and happy to be working in conservation. Anogramma’s story has certainly been a highlight of the UK Overseas Territories Programme’s year and is one of Kew’s top 10 stories to end International Year of Biodiversity on a high.
- Colin -
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This month the team surpassed the 10,000th scan of herbarium specimens! This is a major achievement for all staff and volunteers involved and makes a significant contribution to Kew's aims.
One of the major tasks that our volunteers have undertaken is the scanning of historic herbarium specimens held at Kew from the UK Overseas Territories. These plant specimens are scanned so the images can be made available electronically along with the data from the specimen labels (collectively known as specimen digitisation). Once digitised, the specimen data is added to the UKOTs Online Herbarium. This archive allows UKOTs partners and other conservation scientists around the world to access Kew's historical reference collections.
Left: UKOTs volunteers scanning herbarium specimens; Right: detail of a herbarium specimen. (Image: RBG Kew)
The UKOTs Programme Volunteers started in August 2005 with a few dedicated people coming to volunteer on Wednesday evenings after finishing work in the Gardens. This small group consisted of members of horticulture staff and students that wanted to assist the UKOTs Programme and learn about the Herbarium in the process. Over the past 5 years, volunteering has expanded from that original weekly meeting of staff, to a group that includes many daytime volunteers – some of them giving 3 days per week!
UKOTs team and volunteers visiting Wakehurst (Image: RBG Kew)
We would like to extend our thanks to everyone who has been involved in the UKOTs Programme over the past 5 years, in particular for all their hard work and commitment.
- Martin -
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The UKOTs Programme offers internships annually. The successful 2010 candidates were Ji Luo Francis, Natalia de la Torre and Luc Clerveaux (a Turks and Caicos Islander - one of the UKOTs - currently studying in the UK).
One of the major tasks that the interns undertook was specimen digitisation. This involves scanning historic herbarium specimens and recording specimen label data into the Plants of UK Overseas Territories Database. The specimen data are being added to the UKOTs on-line Herbariumto enable access to the Kew collections from the UK Overseas Territories. Interns also undertake research on key species from the Overseas Territories.
Ji Luo Francis and Natalia de la Torre working on herbarium specimens (Image: RBG Kew)
Natalia tells us about her experience:
“This internship has been a fantastic experience. Working in one of the most important and biggest botanical gardens in the world and being surrounded by millions of plant specimens every day has made me realise how important it is to try to protect and preserve habitats and ecosystems. After six months here I now have clear that this is what I want to keep doing.”
Sara Barrios from the UKOTs team at Kew adds:
" Ji, Natalia and Luc gave a great contribution to our team this year. All specimens from the Pitcairn Islands, Gibraltar and the Turks and Caicos Islands are now almost fully digitised."
The 2011 UKOTs internships will be advertised in the early new year. Details will be posted on the Kew website.
- Martin -
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As part of a three week field trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), Martin, Marcella, Tom and I, together with local partners from the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources in TCI, had the opportunity to visit the island of East Caicos.
East Caicos is situated in the Caicos bank between Middle and South Caicos. Most of the island was converted into a sisal plantation, but has been uninhabited since the beginning of the 20th century. Access to the island can only be made by sea, so we had to pack all our field equipment in waterproof bags before jumping out of Mr. Arthur’s boat and walking to reach dry land.
Landing on East Caicos island (Image: RBG Kew)
The effort was well compensated! Cutting through the abandoned donkey railway line, we found three of the endemic plants of TCI, which had never been recorded on the island of East Caicos. Limonium bahamense, Spermacoce capillaris, and Stenandrium carolinae are three of the plants that can only be found in TCI and nowhere else on earth.
Collecting and pressing Limonium bahamense (Image: RBG Kew)
These plants grow in very specific places. Limonium bahamense is locally known as island heather and is the national flower of TCI. This species is found growing in the often barren salt flats of TCI. Spermacoce capillaris appears in between the limestone, also with poor availability of water and exposed to high temperatures. And the small Stenandrium carolinae, grows on the edges of ridges, in between rocks that catch some soil.
Spermacoce capillaris and Stenandrium carolinae (Image: RBG Kew)
The plant specimens and seeds collected in East Caicos have now arrived at Kew. Now it’s time to confirm their names, using our herbarium collection as a reference. Soon, the plants will be glued onto archive quality paper. Then we will add barcodes and the specimens will be scanned before being incorporated into Kew’s herbarium collection and made available to everyone through the UK Overseas Territories Online Herbarium.
- Sara -
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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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