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.
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 -
1 comment on 'Unexpected photos from the field'
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 -
0 comments on 'Launching the UKOTs Online Herbarium'
After completing my degree in Environmental Biology I was lucky enough to be accepted on the Herbarium summer internship where I got the opportunity to get an insight into the work carried out at Kew. I was particularly inspired by a presentation on the UK Overseas Territories. Until then, apart from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, I had hardly heard of the UK Overseas Territories and their importance on a global scale. During the presentation, we also heard a lot about the problems caused by invasive species in the UKOTs, and I am particularly interested in this field. I was keen to learn more and so in August 2011, when my internship finished, I started volunteer work with the UKOTs team. My work has focussed on the Red Listing of UKOTs species from the Caribbean area. This project has followed on from the successful creation of the UKOTs Online Herbarium and aims to provide conservation status assessments of plant species native to each of the 16 territories.
Delving into the Herbarium
In order to complete a species assessment, a vast amount of groundwork has to be undertaken to ensure that appropriate information has been gathered for each individual species. I have been mostly involved in carrying out the preliminary work for Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. This entails searching the herbarium to find all the Caribbean specimens for a given species. The species that we are investigating have been prioritised for Red Listing either because they are Caribbean endemics (unique to the area) or because their geographic ranges are poorly understood.
Andrew with specimens of Solanum collected in the Caribbean
Filling in the gaps
Once the specimens have been collected, the information written on them has to be entered into the UKOTs Online Herbarium database, but this is a much harder process than it sounds. Many of the herbarium specimens were collected in the 19th century when modern collection protocols hadn’t been developed, meaning that they are often lacking important information such as date, collector and where exactly in the country the specimen was collected. Additionally, many labels are written by hand, often very badly, and deciphering them requires lots of detective work to establish who the collector was or where the specimen was collected from. Over time I have been able to interpret the handwriting better, but even now there are some old collectors who frustrate me with their talent for writing in a style resembling a young child’s scribbles! We also scan the specimens as high resolution images as part of the on-going efforts to make the herbarium specimens readily accessible from our website.
Andrew is developing a gazetteer of Cuba using a satellite image of the island from Google Earth
Now that the majority of the specimens from the Caribbean region have been collected, databased and digitised, the focus of my work is switching to creating gazetteers (geographical directories of places with accurate location data) for the non-UKOT nations. Creating these gazetteers requires the use of maps, internet resources and local knowledge to identify locations and ensure that they are correctly plotted. These will allow us to plot the locality data for each specimen onto a map, which is needed to calculate the conservation status of the species using GeoCAT, a tool created by the GIS unit at Kew. Inaccuracies can significantly affect the calculations of Area Of Occupancy and Extent Of Occurrence, two categories which are used in establishing the threat status of species. In the coming months, my fellow intern Alex and I will get the opportunity to see the process through to its conclusion by completing the assessment. We will each specialise in a particular family of plants with a significant presence in the region and flesh out the report by adding in descriptions, habitat information and other details about each species. It will be exciting to gain a better understanding of the taxonomy and characteristics of a given family and will hopefully help to enhance my botanical knowledge.
Native or invasive?
Two of the species that I am hoping to learn more about are Tabebuia heterophylla and T. pallida. They were familiar to me through personal work I had done and are listed on the CABI Invasive Species Compendium. They are native to the Caribbean region and are very similar in both appearance and range, which has led to confusion in telling them apart. There is a high degree of variation in form within these species and this has made it difficult to establish how many species belong to the genus Tabebuia, with anywhere from 25 to 100 species being described. As both species have aggressive, pioneering natures, they have the potential to become invasive if introduced to a new region. However there is uncertainty about their native ranges, with T. heterophylla being recorded as invasive in the Dominican Republic, which is within its native range. I hope that by completing the assessment process I will be able to understand more about the morphology and range of these species.
Herbarium specimen of Tabebuia heterophylla
It has been very enjoyable working with the UKOTs team and everybody has been extremely welcoming and friendly. The work has been hard, but it has been great to feel that I am contributing to plant conservation on a global scale and I have received a lot of advice and encouragement from the UKOTs team about getting employment in this area. I have learnt a vast amount about botany and developed my identification skills, and it has been fascinating delving into the lives and history of many of the collectors. I have discovered many interesting things about the Caribbean region and its geography - I will always remember my amazement when I discovered that Trinidad & Tobago was located just off of the coast of Venezuela, miles from the main Caribbean block of nations where I had always assumed it was! The project has also improved the curation of these specimens, showing up mistakes and issues with the classification of certain species. It has been reassuring to see that even the experts can struggle at times with some of the more confusing species. I believe that the skills that I have learnt while working with the UKOTs team will benefit me in my future career and will hopefully make it easier to get a job in botany.
- Andrew -
- The UK Overseas Territories
- Kew's work in the UK Overseas Territories
- Invasive species in the UK Overseas Territories
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Richard Lewis, a botanist working for Falklands Conservation and collaborating with Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) Team, is spending six months in the Falkland Islands, studying their native and introduced plants, collecting seed and preserved plant specimens. Here he describes the significance of his latest seed collection.
Richard Lewis during fieldwork on Mount Usborne, East Falkland
The thirteenth species – lucky for some!
I was thrilled to find large stands of the silvery buttercup (Hamadryas argentea) in a few remote valleys on Weddell Island. The low levels of grazing in some parts of the Island have allowed this scarce species to thrive along with many other rare plants. I had tried to collect seeds of this species several times before in other parts of the Falklands but always been defeated: once a cold spring had made the plant flower late, another time the plants only had male flowers, so no seeds were set, and a third time some goats had escaped from a nearby farm and eaten all the female flowers – they must be tastier than the male flowers! The buttercup seeds have been carefully dried and sent to the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), where they will join seeds collected previously from the 12 other endemic species, preserved at low temperatures so they will stay alive and viable for decades or even centuries.
Female flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Rebecca Upson, Falklands Conservation)
Male flowers of silvery buttercup (Image: Mike Morrison)
Unique plants of the Falkland Islands
The 13 endemic plant species found only in the Falklands include some beautiful and unusual species, such as lady’s slipper (Calceolaria fothergillii) and snake plant (Nassauvia serpens). Unfortunately five of them are considered at risk of extinction. For example two species,Moore's plantain (Plantago moorei) and false plantain (Nastanthus falklandicus) are restricted to the southern coasts of West Falkland, where they are being affected by an invasive plant, mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella), which can grow over and smother them. Keeping seeds carefully preserved at the MSB ensures that should these plants become extinct in the wild, they can still be grown from seed so future generations will still be able to learn about and appreciate the unique natural heritage of the Falklands.
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) is an ambitious project to preserve the seeds of wild plants from around the world. In 2010, working with partners all around the world, including several of the UKOTs, it met its first objective to save seeds from 10% of all known species of seed-bearing plants. It has now set a new goal to preserve seeds from 25% of known species in safe storage by 2020.
The MSBP has been working with Falklands Conservation and the Falkland Islands Government since 2004, with the aim of eventually preserving seeds from all the native flowering plants. The seeds of the 13 endemic species join seeds of a further 117 native species, which have been collected by local volunteers and botanists from Kew and Falklands Conservation. Over 80% of the native Falklands flowering plants are now in the MSB, with just 25 species left to collect.
Not only are these seeds saved in case of extinction in the wild, but they are also made available for research and other use. For example, several species which have undergone germination trials or full horticultural protocols are now on display in the Rock Garden and Davies Alpine House at Kew. By displaying these fascinating and unique plants, we hope to highlight the botanical significance of the far-flung UKOTs. Some seeds have also been sent back to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, to be grown at the Stanley Nurseries native plant nursery, which produces plants for habitat restoration projects and for sale to local gardeners. Seeds of some of the rarest species, such as Moore’s plantain, are being used by researchers at Kew to better understand issues affecting conservation, such as possible hybridisation with thrift plantain (Plantago barbata).
- Richard -
- Developing Ex Situ Conservation Collections of UK Overseas Territories Plant Species In-Territory and at Kew
- Falkland Islands Native Plants Project
- Falkland Islands Plant Conservation
- Invasive Species in the UK Overseas Territories
- UK Overseas Territories - a collaboration between Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership, Kew's UKOTs science team and local conservation partners
- Blog post February 2011: Propagating unique Falkland Islands plants
- Falklands Conservation
- Falkland Islands Government
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For over ten years, members of Kew’s UKOTs team have paid regular visits to Anegada, one of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Despite its small size, Anegada is home to a variety of plants and animals, notably the Anegada rock iguana, a lizard found nowhere else in the world. Another of the island’s unique species is Metastelma anegadense, a scrambling thin-stemmed plant belonging to the milkweed family, Apocynaceae. It is commonly known as wire wist, reflecting the use of the stems as a natural string.
In its natural habitat Metastelma anegadense twists around both itself and supporting bushes
Collecting the seedlings
During fieldwork on the island in July 2011, Martin Hamilton and Michele Sanchez from Kew collected some tiny wire wist seedlings which had established themselves alongside a path. Rather than see these rarities face death by trampling, the Kew team carefully lifted them and took them back to the J R O’Neal Botanic Garden on Tortola, managed by the BVI National Parks Trust. Several seedlings were potted up at the Garden for cultivation there whilst five were cleaned and placed in pots of sterile perlite for the journey back to the UK to ensure that they did not represent a plant-health risk.
Metastelma anegadense seedlings on arrival at Kew's Quarantine House
Arriving at Kew
As soon as they arrived in Kew’s new Plant Quarantine Facility, the seedlings were transferred from the sterile growing medium used for transport and grown on in compost. Within six months of their arrival, the first of the wire wist seedlings had grown large enough to begin flowering - the first time that flowers have been recorded for this species outside its native environment.
The first Metastelma anegadense flower at Kew
Not only is this a major achievement for Kew’s horticulturists, but also enables Kew scientists to study this plant in more detial. Until now, it has never been possible to collect seeds from this plant as their mature fruits split open without warning and the seeds, which are covered with silky hairs, rapidly disperse in the wind. By hand-pollinating the flowers, researchers at Kew will be able to monitor the development of the fruits and discover how long it takes for them to reach maturity. This knowledge will help seed collectors harvesting wire wist fruits from their natural habitat for seed storage at the Millennium Seed Bank.
Metastelma anegadense fruits (photographed on Anegada) split open to release the wind-dispersed seeds
Challenges in the pollination process
But pollinating the flowers is not as easy as it sounds. Firstly they are very tiny, and Michele Sanchez and Noelia Alvarez from Kew’s Great Glasshouses team needed to use a magnifying glass as they began the pollination process. David Goyder, a botanist in Kew's Herbarium who specialises in the family Apocynaceae, explained that the unusual structure of the flowers would make them tricky to pollinate. He pointed out that the receptive part of the stigma (pollen-receptor) is on its lower surface, hidden from view behind the pollen-bearing stamens. And as in orchids, pollen is distributed en masse, not as individual pollen grains. All the pollen within two adjacent pollen sacs is joined together to form a removable pollinarium, which would normally become attached to nectar-feeding insects and be transported from one flower to another.
As with many other plants in this family, this species is probably self-incompatible. This means that for successful pollination, flowers from different plants need to be open at the same time so pollen can be transferred from one plant to the other. So to produce the next generation of wire wist plants in cultivation, Kew’s horticulturists will have to wait for more plants to flower and then cross pollinate them with ‘surgical’ precision. If successful, the team also wants to collect seed at different stages of ripeness to test the effect of age on germination.
The good news is that both cultivation and seed storage will ensure that this Critically Endangered species can be conserved away from the threat of habitat loss that it faces in some parts of Anegada.
- Marcella -
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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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