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.
Three members of Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team are on their way to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the Caribbean. Over the next three weeks they will be working with staff from the BVI National Parks Trust as they plan to visit seven of the 40 islands that make up this UKOT in order to collect plant specimens and assess the botanical diversity of some of the different sub-tropical habitats present in BVI.
BVI lies in the eastern Caribbean, nearly 100 km east of Puerto Rico. Most of the islands arose from the sea as a result of volcanic activity, which produced steeply hilly landscapes. The islands were originally covered with dry evergreen forest, with areas of rainforest on some of the highest slopes. Botanists estimate that there are over 700 plant species native to BVI, which is situated within the Caribbean global biodiversity hotspot.
View from Jost van Dyke to Tortola (Image: RBG Kew)
During this expedition, the team (Colin, Sara and Martin) will visit the two islands with the largest human populations – Tortola and Virgin Gorda - and Jost van Dyke, which has just 300 inhabitants. They will also be carrying out botanical surveys on Prickly Pear and Fallen Jerusalem islands, which are protected National Parks and, hopefully, on some of the privately owned islands in the Territory. Visiting such a wide range of islands will allow the team to assess the vegetation in different habitats and under different levels of protection and to see plants found only on individual islands (endemics). Local partners, including the BVI National Parks Trust, will be fully involved in all the field activities.
This expedition follows up a project on the integration of national parks, education and community development (completed in 2003), which led to the publication of a Red List status report on the islands’ threatened plants. Data and specimens the team collects will be used to update this status report and to ensure that Kew’s collection of BVI pressed and dried plant specimens is as representative as possible of the islands’ vegetation to support future research and conservation assessments. The information will be added to the BVI section of the UKOTs’ Online Herbarium.
Looking towards Prickly Pear Island (to right of centre) from Virgin Gorda (Image: RBG Kew)
Sara is especially interested in plants associated with Walter Fishlock, a Kew gardener who joined the Agricultural Station on Tortola in the early twentieth century. She’ll be keeping an eye out for Croton fishlockii, a rare member of the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. Colin is looking forward to visiting Fallen Jerusalem where he spotted a previously undiscovered population of Acacia anegadensis on an expedition in 2008. Before that trip, this spiny tree had only ever been found on the limestone island of Anegada, another of the BVI. For Martin, the opportunity to investigate the plants growing on Prickly Pear island is particularly exciting, as this island has never been explored by Kew botanists.
Acacia anegadensis in flower (Image: RBG Kew)
The challenges that global climate change will pose to conservation in BVI will be uppermost in the team’s mind as they discuss future activities with local project partners.
- Pat -
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Introducing the Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are one of the UK Overseas Territories, located in the South Atlantic Ocean, almost 500 km to the east of South America. They have about 170 different species of native plants, 13 of them found nowhere else in the world. The native plant propagation initiative will encourage gardeners and horticulturists on the island to grow their own unique plants rather than relying on exotic ornamental species. In the past, introduced garden plants have sometimes become invasive, threatening the islands’ natural vegetation. Kew’s UK Overseas Territories team works with Falklands Conservation and other partners, studying the vegetation and investigating the threats it faces, particularly from invasive plants and from grazing animals.
Conserving plant life
Kit Strange, who works within Kew’s Hardy Display Section, has recently returned from the Falkland Islands, where she worked with partners from Falklands Conservation on the continuing development of a collection of native plants. These will then be available for sale to island gardeners via the Stanley Growers Garden Centre. Here are some excerpts from the programme of activities whilst she was there:
"Today I worked with Cynthia Williams at Stanley Growers Nursery to prick out some seedlings that have germinated since she sowed the last batch of seed from the Millennium Seed Bank. These included Falkland woolly ragwort (Senecio littoralis), button weed (Leptinella scariosa), wild celery (Apium australe), marsh daisy (Symphiotrichum vahlii), Falkland rock cress (Phlebolobium maclovianum), Moore’s plantain (Plantago moorei) and prickly burr (Acaena magellanica). They were all quite big plants already.
Falklands woolly ragwort seedlings (Image: RBG Kew)
"Yesterday, Cynthia and I looked at some of the plants which are more difficult to germinate. We sowed some primula seed (Primula magellanica), which needs light to germinate, so we put a piece of glass on the top of the tray to let light through whilst keeping the seeds moist. For the fern spores, we used pine-needles to increase the soil acidity and keep the roots cool.
After sowing, tall fern (Blechnum magellanicum) spores are covered with pine needles (front right). The round pot contains seeds of Viola maculata which is already much in demand from island gardeners. (Image: RBG Kew)
"We also collected seed from emerald bog (Colobanthus subulatus). This is a particularly difficult seed to collect – we had to use tweezers. Last week, we potted up 100 cuttings of fachine (Chiliotrichum diffusum) and a hundred of Christmas bush (Baccharis magellanica).
The painstaking process of collecting seed of Colobanthus subulatus (Image: RBG Kew)
"While I’m here, I am giving a science lesson at the school and a talk to the Falklands’ Horticultural Society about growing the native and endemic species. Rebecca Upson from Falklands Conservation is also taking me to Mount Challenger to get some shield fern (Polystichum mohrioides) so that we can try growing this from spores. This shield fern is only found on the Falkland Islands and South Georgia (another UK Overseas Territory)."
- Pat -
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Seeds of the orchid Epidendrum montserratense and the shrub Rondeletia buxifolia (a member of the coffee family) arrived at Kew from Montserrat in 2006, collected during research there by members of the UK Overseas Territories team. Since then, Kew staff have been carefully propagating the plants and finding out about the conditions they need to thrive. Visit the Volunteer Guides’ hands-on sessions in the Secluded Garden Conservatory during Tropical Extravaganza to get a glimpse of these rare plants - still in the preliminary stages of cultivation - and find out more about Kew’s conservation activities on Montserrat.
Elfin woodland covers the tops of Montserrat's highest peaks (Image: Carole McCauley, Centre Hills Project)
The West Indian island of Montserrat is one of the UK’s Overseas Territories (UKOTs). It is part of the Caribbean biodiversity hotspot, recognised for the large number of endemic plants and animals that live nowhere else in the world. Like other mountainous islands within the biodiversity hotspot, Montserrat supports many different habitat types, due to the wide variation of soils, temperature and rainfall. It has nearly 800 native plant species, three of them endemic – Epidendrum montserratense, Rondeletia buxifolia and Xylosma serrata (which is believed to be extinct, as a result of the devastating volcanic eruptions suffered by the island between 1995 and 1997).
Examining plant specimens amidst volcanic ash in Montserrat's original herbarium (Image: RBG Kew)
During field work on Montserrat, Kew conservationists rediscovered R. buxifolia, using plant specimens and information which had lain untouched in offices in the island’s capital since the volcanic eruptions. They collected seed from the shrubs and brought them back to Kew, where they were sown in the nursery glasshouses. Under the watchful eyes of Kew’s Tropical Nursery Team, the plants grew rapidly and flowered in 2008.
Rescued specimen of Epidendrum montserratense (Image: RBG Kew)
The epiphytic orchid Epidendrum montserratense lives high above the ground, supported by tree trunks and branches. Many of the old mango trees that hosted the orchid had 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 (CB) at Kew. The CB team germinated the minute seeds on a sterile culture medium and dozens of the seedlings raised this way have now been transferred to the orchid zones of the Tropical Nursery.
Epidendrum montserratense seedlings are grown under sterile conditions (Image: RBG Kew)
Kew’s UKOT’s team continues to work with partners, on Montserrat and internationally, on conservation projects designed to protect the remaining areas of undamaged forest and to ensure the survival of the island’s native plants.
- Pat -
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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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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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