Growing knowledge: the Brazilian List of plants and fungi

Daniela Zappi, one of 575 authors of the second edition of the Brazilian List of Plants and Fungi, explains how this project has improved knowledge of her native country’s biodiversity.

By Daniela Zappi

The Palm House

Unexpected impact of a plant, algae and fungal list

The publication of the Lista de Espécies da Flora do Brasil (or Brazilian List) in 2010, and its subsequent upgrading, has had a positive impact both within and beyond the botanical community. This collaborative project started with around 400 botanists, phycologists and mycologists, and culminated in 2015 with the participation of 575 specialists.

The objective was to record all known plants and fungi that grow in Brazil, and to provide a platform where species could be added to a dynamic online list. One of the biggest advantages is that the list is updated in real time, encouraging researchers to contribute details of the species they worked with, with new records created instantly.  

Brazil has over 46,000 species of plants, algae and fungi, with a higher number of plant species registered than any other country in the world; we now know that around 10% of the world’s flora occurs in Brazil. In terms of unique plants, over half (57%) of the species of flowering plants found in Brazil are endemic (found nowhere else). 

The Brazilian List helps to provide name consistency for biodiversity surveys and many other users. It is also now a legal tool, responding to the demand for plant species name certification for customs, policy making and legislation. Using the website, the public can, for example, very quickly create a list of plants from the Amazon, of orchids of the Atlantic Forest, or of daisies that grow in the Brazilian Pampa.

Since 2010, the website has received over 1.5 million visits from half a million users hitting over 13 million pages. This list is the first port of call for collection curators and students who need to check plant names and their occurrence within Brazil. 

The final numbers (see table below) for the Brazilian List Project 2015 were published in the 80th year anniversary volume of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden in-house journal, Rodriguésia:

Final numbers of different groups included in the Brazilian List (*native species. Endemism percentage calculated based on native species) 

The relevance of the Brazilian List for plant conservation

The provision of a plant-name backbone has helped the Centro Nacional de Conservação da Flora/CNCFlora specialists to prepare conservation assessments for Brazilian species. 

Listing all known plants has thrown light on poorly known regions, where botanical collections are still needed in order to provide a more complete picture of the regional plant diversity. This is particularly apparent in the Amazon. Increasing knowledge about species distribution is important to develop a framework for Brazilian state floras and checklists.

Reflora Programme

The Brazilian List project has led to the resurgence of plant taxonomy as a worthwhile subject to be studied and a consequent increase of the number of contributors from 416 in 2010 to 575 in 2015.

The Brazilian government’s recognition of taxonomic activities was re-kindled by this process and the Reflora Programme was launched. This two pronged programme aims to digitise and increase the visibility of herbarium specimens collected in Brazil and dispersed in herbaria worldwide. It includes scholarships for Brazilian botanists to visit collections abroad, along with the databasing and imaging of Brazilian specimens held at Kew and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, amongst other institutions.

Data repatriated through Reflora are used to create a virtual herbarium (Herbário Virtual Reflora) with over a million specimen images. Under the same programme, 24 individual and collective bursaries brought over 80 researchers to Europe, generating a high and varied output of scientific work based on historical botanical collections and leading to the description of over 100 new species for the Brazilian Flora. 

The catalogue, published in 2010, included fundamental features concerning accepted species, bibliographic references, biome, distribution and endemism. Despite endeavours to include a voucher specimen for each species and infraspecific taxon cited, it lacked a facility to include the images of the specimens listed. Since March 2013, the online Brazilian List was transferred into the server of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens under the umbrella of the Reflora Programme, alongside the virtual herbarium launched in September 2013.

The rapid growth and linking of the virtual herbaria to the Brazilian List meant that images of samples (including type-specimens) could be added to the system. Researchers were also able to link images of plants in the field, making the list more user-friendly for non-botanists and for researchers based far away from the collections. 

The birth of the Brazil Flora Online Project

The final edition of the Brazilian List project aims to record the known Brazilian plant diversity prior to its transformation and upgrade into a new project, the Brazilian Flora Online 2020, which aims to describe and differentiate among species. This fundamental shift in involvement and focus means that botanists now have to concentrate on several new issues, such as new functionalities and a system that can compare descriptions.

It is important to gauge how many species a single researcher can describe in four years, considering that several large genera, such as Eugenia, Mimosa, Croton and Paepalanthus, have more than 300 species and lack the necessary studies to differentiate between their species.

In order to achieve the Flora’s objective, researchers bid to complete taxonomic plant groups comprising up to 300 species in four years, and will adhere to strict deadlines.

This is an excellent moment to take stock and consider the huge effort involved in holding an online updatable system to register plant biodiversity, coordinating the work of 575 contributors and making it instantly available for the botanical community and public worldwide, and reflect on its enormous contribution to science and society. 

Reference

BFG (including Zappi, D. C.) (2015). Growing Knowledge: an overview of Seed Plant knowledge in Brazil. Rodriguésia 66 (4) DOI:10.1590/2175-7860201566411 Available online