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.
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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Since January this year I have been working as an intern with the UK Overseas Territories Team based at the Herbarium here at Kew. The team is currently engaged in a major project to make conservation assessments of plants growing in the Territories. This objective links directly with Target 2 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which is to make 'an assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, as far as possible, to guide conservation action'. A conservation assessment enables the species to be assigned to one of the eight IUCN Red List categories, ranging from Least Concern to Extinct. Our project will focus on each of the 16 Territories in turn, and has started with two territories, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, both located in the Caribbean biodiversity hotspot.
Digitizing the specimens
Before conservation assessments can be made however, there is a lot of preliminary work for the team to do. Firstly, specimens of the plant species being assessed need to be collected from the Herbarium cupboards so that the information on the specimen labels can be added to the UKOTs Online Herbarium and the specimens themselves imaged using a digital scanner.
Alex Roberts with herbarium specimens
Labels on herbarium specimens often give detailed information, including who collected the specimen, where and when it was collected, and a description of the plant and its habitat. The geographical details accompanying each specimen allow us to determine more precisely where the species occurs or has occurred in the past. These data help us to build up a picture of the status of a particular species and contribute to the conservation assessment.
Once the information from the labels has been added to the UKOTs Online Herbarium, the specimens are ready to be imaged. Plants come in all shapes and sizes and although most specimens are fairly flat and easy to scan, some are not, and can sometimes be bulky or brittle and require careful handling. A further challenge is presented by any plant parts that have been placed in the packet or capsule which is sometimes attached to the herbarium sheet. The function of the packet is to keep safe parts of the specimen that may have become unstuck from the herbarium sheet or to store small and fragile parts that are important for species identification, such as flowers, fruits, and seeds. Ensuring that these key parts of the specimen don’t roll or blow away can be quite tricky.
Despite being a challenge to image, however, the contents of the packets are often visually interesting and occasionally may contain a surprise. When imaging some recent specimens, I discovered that sometimes a packet can contain more than just plant parts. Two specimens collected by American botanist W. H. Hodge contained black and white photographs in the packets. The first specimen was Miconia mirabilis, collected by Hodge in 1940 on the island of Dominica. The photograph shows Hodge in the field, standing next to this species of small tree. The information on this label will be added to the data obtained from all of the other labels on Miconia mirabilis specimens found in the Herbarium. The second specimen was Selaginella delicatula, a fern ally, also collected in 1940 on Dominica. This time the photograph shows numerous Selaginella delicatula plants growing in a shady and wet ravine.
Herbarium specimen of Miconia mirabilis
Herbarium specimen of Selaginella delicatula
Readers will have probably noticed that the two plant specimens referred to were not in fact collected in a UK Overseas Territory but in Dominica. The reason for this is that, while some of the plant species being assessed are endemic (only growing in a particular country or region), most species also grow in countries neighbouring the UKOTs. Miconia mirabilis, for example, is a native of Mexico, the majority of the Caribbean Islands and South America. This means that, to get a complete picture of the conservation status of plants native to the UKOTs, we also need to capture the data and images of herbarium specimens that were collected in countries outside the UKOTs. Another point to notice is that the names on the specimens are Miconia guianensis and Selaginella flabellata. These names are now considered to be synonyms (superseded names) of the names Miconia mirabilis and Selaginella delicatula, the names now accepted by botanists. In order to clarify species names The Plant Listis an invaluable online resource, and one that I have used constantly during this work.
Starting work on the Red List
Once all the work with the herbarium specimens has been completed, the second stage is to carry out a desk-top analysis in order to obtain additional data for the species, including species distribution, habitat information, existing conservation measures and, crucially, the nature and extent of any threats. Once the conservation assessment of a species has finally been completed, the species is allocated an IUCN Red List. category. Species that are categorized as threatened will need to be the focus of conservation efforts.
We have now finished databasing and imaging specimens from the Cayman and British Virgin Islands and are now ready to begin the desk-top analysis... so back to work!
- Alex -
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From previous posts, we have shown some of the range of plants and habitats that can be found in the Overseas Territories. We have also demonstrated how we make a difference with our conservation activities. However, what must not be forgotten is that all this conservation activity is underpinned by good quality data. It may be a surprise to some, but despite years of botanical exploration, many countries around the world don’t have a modern botanical inventory i.e. a list of all the species that occur there. The UKOTs team at Kew and our colleagues from the territories and other botanical institutions around the world are working together to gather this information for all the UKOTs into a single resource.
Let’s go virtual!
We are very proud to announce the launch of a virtual herbarium for the UKOTs, one of our big achievements for 2011. The UKOTs Online Herbarium is a digital version of the preserved plant specimens held in the Herbarium at Kew and in many of the UKOTs own herbaria. Its main aim is to unlock information that Kew holds in its plant collections and key botanical literature and to make it freely accessible to all, especially our partners in the territories.
Homepage of the UKOTs Online Herbarium
Building a virtual Herbarium
Since the beginning of the project in 2009 information and images of over 17,000 specimens have been added to the database. We included all of Kew’s historical specimens from the UKOTs as well as more recent collections made as part of our recent and on-going projects. Some of the specimens we digitised from Kew’s Herbarium are as old as 1808! All records have been comprehensively digitised: we added the data from the labels into the database; created high resolution images using a HerbScan; and we also assigned latitude and longitude to all specimens with the help of GoogleEarth and country specific gazetteers (geographical directories of places with accurate location data). This last process is known as geo-referencing and it is very important if, later on, we want to be able to use these data in a conservation context like making an assessment of threat for the species in the wild.
Oldest specimen in the UKOTs Online Herbarium. Commidendrum rotundifolium (Roxb.) DC. collected by William Burchell in 1808 on the remote island of St. Helena
Putting together specimen information for each territory helped us to compile lists of species for each territory, as we have evidence showing which species have been found there. This was then complemented with names of species from a number of sources including regional and local floras as well as published and unpublished checklists. All species names were checked against the most up-to-date sources, including The Plant List. Species level information, such as plant description, distribution and habitat are now being added.
Databasing and geo-referencing herbarium specimens
A complete species list for all the territories forms some of the key information for global conservation targets such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The UKOTs are now in an ideal position to be able to contribute to the achievement of target 1 of the GSPC - an online flora of all known plants.
With this baseline information we can now move our conservation work to the next level. We have set ourselves the ambitious target of finding out how threatened the UKOTs species are in the wild. Based on the information gathered from the plant specimens and looking at more data held in other Herbaria around the world, as well as our own experience in the field, we are aiming to assess all the UKOTs species following the red list categories and criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We are going to use exciting new tools such as GeoCAT, developed at Kew’s GIS unit to assign a Red List category. We will then use this to prioritise conservation action, making sure the most vulnerable species are protected for the future!
The UKOTs Online Herbarium was funded by the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), jointly managed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
- 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)
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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