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.
If there was just one message to take home from this post, it would be that it takes a lot of work to prepare botanical records prior to their use in spatial modelling. This is certainly not something that is always appreciated and yet certainly is something for which adequate time must be allowed in the planning of similar projects. I for one know that many were perplexed by my repetition of the answer 'I’m organising the data' several months into the current project.
Plants like the endemic Falkland Nassauvia (Nassauvia falklandica), that are adapted to upland sites such as this, may be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. (Photo: Margaret Carr)
Surely once you have a file of GPS coordinates and species names you are ready to go? Not so... there is invariably a huge amount of data processing that needs to take place before you can start to unlock the ecological trends held in your records.
Get to know your data
In our case we are using a dataset of botanical records (largely gathered by staff and volunteers at Falklands Conservation) for the Falkland Islands to develop species distribution models. These models are being developed in order to investigate the possible impacts, through temperature increases, that climate change may have on plant diversity across the archipelago.
Species distribution modelling depends on access to reliable and accurate records so it is vital to take the time to go through and cross-check the data you have available. No small task when you have over 50,000 records! We are fortunate in that we can still contact data collectors from the last major surveying effort in the Falkland Islands to the present day (I am one of them). This and our own familiarity with the flora of the Islands have helped to solve a range of data issues, from plant and place name typos to erroneous GPS coordinates.
Know your plant names
Up-to-date knowledge of the taxonomy of the flora is also vital to ensure that all records of the same taxon are referred to by the same name. The name used for a plant can sometimes change, often as a result of advances in our knowledge of plant diversity, such as when a very variable species becomes recognised as two or more separate species, or is found to belong to a different genus.
For example, the scarce coral fern has historically been referred to by the Latin name Gleichenia cryptocarpus but is now classified within the closely related genus Sticherus - so I need to make sure that all records for this can be located under a single search term. In other cases a single species can mistakenly be referred to by more than one name, when only one correct name is allowed.
The scarce native coral-fern (Sticherus cryptocarpus) growing on a sheltered slope on West Falkland.
Know your study area
The British Isles are extremely intensively surveyed, to the point that it is possible for separate time snaps to be taken of the distributions of different plant species across particular years. In the Falklands we do not have this luxury and must treat our dataset as one single ‘snapshot’. It is therefore important to use our current knowledge of the Islands and their ecology to inform which historical records we accept and which we exclude from our analyses.
For example, recent survey work on an island out in the far west of the archipelago indicates that a historical record of the endemic snake plant Nassauvia serpens from the American botanist G.H.Snyder in 1853 should no longer be included in studies. This species is both vulnerable to grazing and drought and it is likely that a combination of these factors is responsible for its absence at the site today.
The endemic snakeplant (Nassauvia serpens) growing out from a stone run in the Hill Cove Mountain.
Know your place names
Many historical records are not associated with an accurate latitude and longitude but may rather be associated solely with a place name. Another major task was therefore to go through the dataset and assign a ‘resolution’ to each record. By this I mean it was necessary to indicate what the maximum diameter is of the area within which the record could have been made. The place name may be a hill which may place the record within several square kilometres or the summit of that hill may have been explicitly named, therefore narrowing down the possible location to perhaps several 100 square meters.
Many records are associated with the tallest peak in the Falkland Islands, Mount Usborne (705 m a.s.l.). However, this covers an extremely large area with plants possibly recorded anywhere within an area with a maximum diameter of 4 km. In contrast other records have more specific information, pinpointing the location of plants to an outcrop on the south side of Mount Usborne known as ‘Ceritos Rocks’. When I don’t know a specific area myself and can’t use the Falkland Islands official gazetteer to find it, then I have often contacted local Falkland Islanders – I am very grateful for all their help on this!
Make sure your records are at the same resolution or higher than your environmental variables
Our climate data is on a scale of 1 km grid squares, which means that each 1 km grid square covering the Falkland Islands has a particular set of climate data associated with it. So to study relationships between the distribution of a species and these climatic gradients we need, as a minimum, to know for sure that any given record could only have come from one 1 km grid cell rather than, say, any of the surrounding grid squares.
We also have data that relates to local environmental conditions such as water availability and surface temperature – these data are mapped at a finer scale so that any given 100 m square has a particular value associated with it. These data allow us to investigate the relationship between the distribution of a species and a range of habitat features that influence the resources available at any given site. This work is being carried out in collaboration with the GIS team at Kew. We have now classified our records according to their resolution, leaving us with three sets of data, two of which are at a high enough resolution for use in distribution modelling:
|Resolution||Number of vascular plant records|
|≤ 100 m||32,111|
|≤ 1 km||57,628|
|> 1 km||4,108|
Some of the Falkland’s most widespread and common plant species have over 1,000 records – for example, the dominant heathland shrub, Empetrum rubrum, has 2,045 records – whereas 27 of the 180 native vascular plants have fewer than 20 records. This is largely because they are genuinely rare, but is also because there are still areas of the Falkland Islands that have not been surveyed.
In my next post I'll be presenting a case study of two Falkland species with very different distributions across the Islands.
- Rebecca -
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The holly and the ivy
In the UK, holly, ivy and mistletoe are gathered in abundance to create Christmas decorations. These native plants, with their evergreen leaves, traditionally symbolised the hope of new life in the depths of winter. In the UKOTs, which are spread around the world from the edge of Antarctica to the middle of the tropics, many different plants have become linked to Christmas as they flower or fruit at this time of year.
The Christmas bush of the Falkland Islands (Baccharis magellanica) comes into flower around Christmas time and is used locally in the way that mistletoe is in the UK. It bears a mass of tiny white flowers, creating an impression of a snowy scene in the islands’ dwarf shrub heath. The feathery seeds of this Falklands’ native have been collected for storage in the cold, dry conditions of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.
A Christmas bush in flower in the Falkland Islands (Photo: Mike Morrison)
Far to the north of the Falkland Islands, in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), December sees the flowering of the Christmas orchid, Epidendrum ciliare. Its fragrant white flowers have a distinctive fringed lip and long, narrow, radiating petals, giving rise to the plant's other common name of fringed star orchid. In BVI, large clumps of the Christmas orchid grow on granite outcrops in the lowland forest on Gorda Peak on Virgin Gorda.
Christmas orchid in Gorda Peak National Park (Photo:Colin Clubbe, RBG Kew)
On Montserrat, the Christmas blossom (Senna bacillaris) and Christmas candle (Senna alata) bear their glorious yellow flowers in December, but the islanders describe another species as the Christmas tree.
This is Pimenta racemosa, also known as the bay rum tree due to its highly aromatic leaves.
A small tree native to Montserrat’s forests, Pimenta racemosa's range has been reduced by the volcanic activity on the island. The tree is related to allspice (Pimenta dioica) which produces fruits combining the fragrance of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, and is often used as an ingredient in mulled wine. The dried, pressed specimen pictured below is held in Kew's Herbarium but can be viewed online through the UKOTs Online Herbarium which has been developed as a research resource for botanists and conservationists throughout the UKOTs.
Montserrat's Christmas tree (Pimenta racemosa)
With its sprays of bright red fruits, borne over the festive period, the Christmas palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii) brightens up the landscape of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), where it grows on limestone ridges between cracks in the dry rocks.
The tree has been wild harvested on a grand scale for ornamental plantings, and has nearly disappeared from many parts of its original range. Kew’s horticulturists worked with the TC National Trust to collect seed from the Christmas palm, and managed to develop reliable techniques to induce germination.
Collecting fruits of Christmas palm on TCI (Photo: Marcella Corcoran, RBG Kew)
Some of the seedlings were kept at Kew for future display in the public glasshouses but most were returned to TCI for further cultivation in the native plants nursery and eventual reintroduction to the natural landscape.
Christmas palm seedlings returned from Kew to TCI's native plants nursery
Diversity and conservation
The varied Christmas plants of the UKOTs highlight the diversity of plant species growing across the 16 Territories. Through increased understanding of the islands' plant communities, Kew's UKOTs team and their in-territory partners seek to instigate practical conservation measures to combat the threats posed by human activity and environmental change.
- Pat -
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Capacity building is an important part of Kew’s work and is vital to help realise successful and lasting plant conservation in places where it is needed most.
October saw another example of the diverse ways in which Kew works to help the UK Overseas Territories secure the future of their great plant diversity. Partners from all five of the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories (Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands) gathered at the Turks and Caicos Islands’ National Environment Centre (NEC) for a workshop on seed conservation.
Seed conservation workshop
The meeting was generously hosted by TCI’s Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, as part of a project to establish local seed banks in the UKOTs. The project, funded through Darwin Plus, the Darwin Initiative’s Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund, is enabling our partners to target their highest conservation priority plants for collecting and banking in-country, where they will be available for use in propagation and conservation work. Duplicate collections will also be stored at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, for additional long-term security.
As well as providing an opportunity to cover the most important principles behind seed conservation, the meeting also allowed my MSB colleague Janet Terry and me to give participants practical experience of many of the skills required to make and process high quality collections of seeds. This included heading out into the Turks and Caicos Islands bush to put into practice all of the seed quality and sampling considerations you need when collecting.
We were even able to make a collection of one of the Caicos Islands’ inconspicuous yet alluring endemics, Stenandrium carolinae.
Stenandrium carolinae, found only in the Caicos Islands (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Back at the NEC, participants were able to have a go at cleaning various fruit types, from dry grass seed heads to fleshy berries, using sieves and rubber matting.
Participants learn how to clean seed collections with Janet Terry (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs’ native plant nursery
We also visited the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs’ native plant nursery on North Caicos, itself developed through support from the Overseas Territories Environment Programme, a predecessor of Darwin Plus. Here, essential propagation work on the threatened native Caicos pine is underway, as well as propagation of other important native species. It was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities offered by the capacity to store seed locally in supporting such valuable conservation work.
The Turks and Caicos Native Plants Nursery (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Our partners have now returned home, equipped with the skills needed to save the seeds of their most important plant species, as well as having forged new links with colleagues across the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.
Project partners from Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands and RBG Kew (Image: C.A.Samuel, Anguilla Department of Environment)
- Tom -
- The project is funded by the Darwin Initiative’s Darwin Plus Fund
Our project partners
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Working with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, the UKOTs team visited several islands over the course of three weeks to record the locations of some of the rare plants that are under threat in their native habitats.
Collecting fruits from a spiny Mammillaria nivosa on Tortola (Photo: Sara Barrios)
As well as collecting preserved specimens and DNA samples for formal identification back at Kew, the team harvested seeds and/or cuttings to be propagated either at the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden on Tortola (the largest island in BVI) or in Kew’s plant nurseries. Martin, Sara and Marcella recorded the highlights (and some of the hazards they faced) during their expedition.
Day 6 – Tortola
For the first time, we located several trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a very rare plant from the same family as clove trees and eucalyptus (Myrtaceae), which occurs only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Some of the trees were in flower and fruit so we were able to collect seeds as well as shoot cuttings for growing on at the gardens.
The propagating team with Eugenia sessiliflora and Rondeletia pilosa (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 7 – Fallen Jerusalem
Today we visited the small island of Fallen Jerusalem, a BVI National Park. A previously unknown population of poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) was found here a couple of years ago by our colleague, Colin. We managed to survey part of the island, where we found the remaining trees of A. anegadensis and recorded these locations with a GPS (global positioning system) device. DNA samples were taken for further research.
Preparing plant specimens for pressing and drying on Fallen Jerusalem (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 8 – Virgin Gorda
An exciting discovery today! We collected a plant very similar to wirewist (Metastelma anegadense) in flower and fruit growing on Virgin Gorda. When we get the specimen back to the Herbarium at Kew, we will be able to confirm its identity. Wirewist was previously described as endemic to the flat limestone island of Anegada. Virgin Gorda has volcanic terrain, very different from Anegada’s flat dry landscape. Although it has now been found on two islands, wirewist is still unique to the British Virgin Islands.
Metastelma anegadense in flower and fruit (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 11 – Tortola
Although we’re all passionate about plants, there are some which we’re less enthusiastic about – today we encountered a very dense patch of a liana known locally as ‘catch and keep’. This is Acacia retusa with seriously sharp, backward-pointing thorns, which do just what the name implies. Once you’ve been caught by the thorns, they really keep hold of you!
Day 12 - Anegada
Today’s sad news was finding some of BVI's most endangered species just bulldozed down on Anegada. We found a large poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) tree by the side of the road and mad dog shrubs (Malpighia woodburyana) had been cleared. These species, which are already considered threatened with extinction, due to their very restricted distribution, are being cleared to make way for wider, paved roads.
Day 13 – Beef Island
Despite the hoards of mosquitoes which harassed us during our fieldwork on Beef Island, we were all thrilled to come across more trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a new record for this island. More herbarium specimens were collected together with extra cuttings to take to Kew and JR O’Neal Botanic Garden’s plant nurseries.
Day 18 – JR O’Neal Botanic Garden
Following our fieldwork we’re based in the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden, helping out with the propagation of some of the BVI’s native plants to get them ready for a new display. The Governor of the Islands, Boyd McCleary, paid the Garden a visit to find out more about the work Kew has been doing in collaboration with the National Parks Trust.
Governor's visit to J R O'Neal Botanic Garden
Having completed all the paperwork relating to the Convention on Biological Diversity, plant export and plant health regulations, we shipped our specimens to Kew today. In total: 27 DNA samples, 264 herbarium specimens, 22 spirit samples, seeds from 9 species and cuttings from 5 native species. These will all be of enormous value in helping us to understand the vegetation of BVI and in trying to develop reliable methods of cultivating plants that have never before been grown outside the islands. It will also help to inform the conservation status of the species we encountered and will guide future conservation action.
- Martin, Sara and Marcella -
- Read about our discovery and conservation of plants in the British Virgin Islands on Storify
- Assessing the coastal biodiversity of Anegada to support the development of a Biodiversity Action Plan for the island
- Developing Ex Situ Conservation Collections of UK Overseas Territories Plant Species In-Territory and at Kew
- Integrating National Parks, Education and Community Development for the British Virgin Islands
- UKOTs Online Herbarium
- Blog post: Collecting and growing native plants of the British Virgin Islands
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Thistles are vigorous, spiny plants which thrive in a range of habitats. In the Falklands they typically spread from core populations in moist, neutral grassland (locally called ‘greens’) or disturbed areas into coastal and heathland habitats.
Richard Lewis applying weed killer to calafate (Berberis microphylla), one of the most serious spiny invasive weeds in the Falkland Islands
These invasive plants come from the UK, accidentally introduced as weed seeds on people or goods arriving in the islands. They are taller than most native and pasture plants and aren’t eaten by livestock or local insects, so they out-compete some of the islands’ rarest plants. They are also bad news for local sheep farmers, displacing nutritious pasture grasses and helping spread disease amongst sheep. In addition any spines that get caught in fleeces injure shearers and lower the market value of wool.
Working together to stop the thistles spreading
Co-operation has been vital to the success of this work. Not only are we working with Falklands Conservation (FC) and Falkland Islands Government (FIG), but many local farmers and landowners, local conservation workers and volunteers, the Falklands Department of Agriculture (DoA), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Ministry of Defence (MoD), Interserve Defence Ltd and the Mount Pleasant Airbase (MPA) conservation group have all contributed significantly to research, practical action and funding. Additional funds have come from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), European Union and Kew’s Bentham-Moxon Trust.
Thanks to all their work over several years, old plant records have been followed up, areas surveyed, baseline data collected and an Invasive Species Action Plan has been drawn up and control measures including weedkillers and ‘chisel hoes’ have been successfully trialled. The examples below illustrate the different biology and histories of the three known species in the Falklands. However, there are several more thistle species in the UK which could be accidentally imported and the biosecurity work of the DoA will be of increasing importance to stop even more of these spiny weeds arriving.
The main culprits
Slender thistles (Carduus tenuiflorus) were first seen at a farm on West Falkland in the early 1980s. This biennial species was successfully controlled by the local farmer for several years and never spread far or increased in numbers. It is now believed extirpated from the islands. This highlights the value in taking action as early as possible, before a species becomes well established.
Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is more widely established in several locations across the Falklands. In early 2012 a single, large patch was reported from Philimore Island, which is managed as a nature reserve. The MPA conservation group arranged a helicopter trip and volunteers to undertake initial control in December 2012, with follow-up control planned for future years. This species spreads by creeping rhizomes to form large patches, but has male and female flowers on separate plants. With just one patch on Philimore Island, arising from one individual plant, no seeds have been produced, and it is likely that this island can be declared thistle-free after a few years control and follow-up monitoring.
School children helping to control creeping thistle (Photo: Richard Lewis)
Unfortunately, spear thistles (Cirsium vulgare) are much harder to control. Although individual plants only live for two years, each plant sets hundreds or thousands of seeds, which can survive in the soil for decades. Fortunately, they are currently limited to only a handful of locations.
Volunteers controlling spear thistle on Saunders Island (Photo: Richard Lewis)
Saunders Island has one of the largest populations of this species, a particular concern owing to the status of the Island as an Important Plant Area (IPA). Home to several rare and threatened species, including the endemic, globally threatened hairy daisy (Erigeron incertus) and Antarctic cudweed (Gamochaeta antarctica), control of spreading invasives is urgent at this site. Several nearby islands, including further IPAs, are also at risk from wind-blown seeds. Control here is a high priority, but is logistically difficult and expensive as the plants are spread over several square kilometres in a remote part of the island.
To prevent seeding, control is needed at least twice a year, potentially for several decades. Previous control has been effective in the densest parts of the population, close to the coast, but has been less effective higher up the hills, where the population appears to be expanding. Ongoing monitoring will allow reassessment of the thistle population. Although it will be a long time before success can be declared, we are in a strong position to continue this control programme and safeguard the plants and habitats not only of this IPA, but other islands nearby.
- Richard -
- Invasive Species in the UK Overseas Teritories
- Falkland Islands Native Plants Project
- Falkland Islands Plant Conservation
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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)
Modelling the distributions of Falkland Island plants, part one - disentangling datasets: well structured to aid understanding. by: Anon
Modelling the distributions of Falkland Island plants, part one - disentangling datasets: Fascinating, readable and informative resume.. by: Margaret Carr
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
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