13 April 2015

Documenting Bolivia's bountiful botany

Land-locked Bolivia has a wide range of vegetation types from its eastern plains to the mountainous Andes. After years of international collaboration, including the participation of 11 Kew scientists, Bolivian vascular plants have been comprehensively documented for the first time.

Bolivian plains

Documenting and conserving Bolivian plant diversity

The first enumeration of plants of Bolivia was published by Foster (1958) who recorded 9,431 species (although approximately 1,000 of those species names were wrongly applied). More recently, the two volumes of the Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Bolivia (Jørgensen et al., 2014) documented 15,345 species in the country, which covers a land area of 1,098,580 km2. Of those, 2,343 species (15%) are endemic and of primary conservation interest. Bolivia’s rich plant diversity is, in large part, due to its wide array of ecoregions and vegetation types, ranging from Amazon forest, cerrado (savanna) and bosque seco (dry forest) of the lowlands, through the puna and Polylepis forest of the Altiplano, to the paramos, yungas and dry valleys of the Andes; but also to the altitudinal range, from 100 m in the eastern lowlands to an impressive 6,542 m for volcán Sajama close to the Chilean border.

In Kew’s recently launched Science Strategy, Bolivia is identified as a focus for developing existing and new partnerships aiming to conduct targeted field research, identifying priority areas for plant and habitat conservation under Kew`s TIPAs (Tropical Important Plant Areas) programme. The Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Bolivia provides the baseline data needed to underpin a successful plant conservation programme and is therefore a vital tool for evidence-based conservation. Of the 221 international plant scientists contributing to the Bolivian Catalogue, 11 are either currently active Kew researchers (Goyder, Klitgård, Lewis, Pennington, Rico, and Wood) or ex Kew staff and interns (Araujo, Barham, Harley, Renvoize, and Vargas). These researchers contributed accounts of the Acanthaceae, Convolvulaceae, Cyperaceae, Lamiaceae, Leguminosae (= Fabaceae) and Poaceae to the Catalogue and reviewed some of the plant family accounts submitted by others.

The history of plant exploration in Bolivia

Bolivia is one of the very last countries in South America to be documented botanically. Early botanical explorers, who collected plant specimens now preserved in a number of herbaria in Bolivia, the USA and Europe, included the French botanists Louis Feuillée (1660–1732) and Joseph Jussieau (1704–1779) and the Austro-Hungarian naturalist and explorer T.P.X. Haenke (1761–1816). From the 19th to the late 20th century the French naturalist C.V.D. D` Orbingy, the English professional collector R.W. Pearce, the German botanists and explorers C.E.O. Kuntze, K.A.G. Fiebrig and O. Buchtein, the American botanist and medic H.H. Rusby, the Dane M. Bang, the Swede E. Asplund, the prolific German-Bolivian collector O. Steinbach, and the Bolivian botanist M. Cárdenas were amongst the most prominent collectors. Duplicate specimens of several of these collectors are deposited in the Herbarium at Kew.

Of an estimated total 2,000 botanists who have collected in Bolivia over the centuries, only 24 have collected 5,000 or more specimens each. In the modern era (late 20th century to present) the contributions of three collectors particularly stand out: S.G. Beck (with 30,000 Bolivian collections), M. Nee (20,000) and J.R.I. Wood (20,000). Beck and Nee, led by P. Møller Jørgensen of the Missouri Botanical Garden, are the co-editors of the Bolivian Catalogue. The English collector J.R.I. Wood is a research associate of Kew who has spent the past c. 20 years working in or regularly visiting Bolivia to undertake general plant collecting. A top set of his collections is housed in the Kew Herbarium, and his plant specimens are particularly rich in families in which he and his Kew collaborators have a research interest, including the legumes.

Bolivian legume species

Leguminosae (Fabaceae) is the third largest family in Bolivia after Orchidaceae and Asteraceae (Compositae). There are 201 genera and 1,114 species (7.3% of the vascular plant flora) of legumes recorded for the country. One legume genus and 87 species (7.8%) are endemic. By comparison, 138 genera of legumes (1 endemic) and 971 species (280, or 28.8%, endemic) were recorded for Peru by Brako and Zarucchi (1993), and 127 genera and 591 species (61, or 10.3 %, endemic) of legumes were documented for Ecuador (Jørgensen & León- Yánez, 1999). Thus Ecuador, more than three times smaller in land area than Bolivia but with a coastline and associated habitats, has approximately half the number of species of legumes but strikingly nearly 1,000 more vascular plants and a 10% higher level of vascular plant species endemism. 

A group of eight authors (Atahuachi, Barham, Klitgård, Lewis, Neill, Romero and Vargas) from five countries contributed the data on the Legume family which is consistently in the top three to four families in Bolivia whether analysed by vegetation type, habit, department or altitude (although the family is not dominant above 5000 m). Legumes are particularly rich as shrubs, trees and lianas in the dry forests of the lowlands and the dry valleys of the Andes. Leguminosae and Asteraceae are the joint richest families in seven different habitats, and the legume genus Senna is one of only two genera rich in four different habitats. In species richness the genus Inga is the eleventh largest genus of angiosperms with 78 native Bolivian species (four endemic); five other legume genera are amongst the top 60 most speciose angiosperms (Lupinus: 52 species, Mimosa: 50, Senna: 48, Machaerium: 38 and Desmodium: 34). Of the 11 monospecific legume genera which are recorded for Bolivia, four are worthy of special mention: Steinbachiella leptoclada Harms is the sole endemic legume genus in the country; Fiebrigiella gracilis Harms is rare and known from only a few collections; Cyathostegia mathewsii (Benth.) Schery might be beetle pollinated (Lewis et al., 2012); and Mimozyganthus carinatus (Griseb.) Burkart, historically placed in its own legume tribe, is now nested within tribe Mimoseae.

A need for continued targeted exploration

With continued botanical exploration in Bolivia, especially in under-explored areas of limited access, new species and new geographical records will undoubtedly be made. A paper by Atahuachi et al. (in press) presents a checklist of the species of Mimosa in Bolivia and describes three new species not recorded in the Catalogue. The paper brings the total number of Mimosa species in Bolivia to 56 (11 of these endemic), six more than recorded in the Catalogue, and raises the genus to the second most speciose legume genus after Inga. On a 2010 trip to the remote Amazonian forests of Pando, Klitgård and collaborators collected the monospecific dalbergioid genus Etaballia for the first time in Bolivia. Etaballia dubia (Kunth) Rudd, previously known only from Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil, and not officially recorded for Bolivia in the Catalogue, was recently moved back to the genus Pterocarpus based on molecular evidence (Klitgård et al., 2013). When the scientific evidence is robust, such changes in taxonomic status are unavoidable. We anticipate further nomenclatural changes based on new taxonomic placements as knowledge about Bolivia's rich flora continues to grow.


Brako, L. & Zarucchi, J. L. (1993). Catalogue of the flowering plants and gymnosperms of Peru. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 45. Pp. 1286.

Jørgensen, P. M., Nee, M. H. & Beck, S. G. (2014). Catálogo de las plantas vasculares de Bolivia. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 127. Pp. 1741.

Jørgensen, P. M. & León-Yánez, S. (1999). Catalogue of the vascular plants of Ecuador. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 75. Pp. 1181.

Klitgård, B. B., Forest, F., Booth, T. J. & Saslis-Lagoudakis, C. H. (2013). A detailed investigation of the Pterocarpus clade (Leguminosae: Dalbergieae): Etaballia with radially symmetrical flowers is nested within the papilionoid-flowered PterocarpusSouth African Journal of Botany 89: 128–142. Available online

Lewis, G. P., Wood, J. R. I. & Lavin, M. (2012). Steinbachiella (Leguminosae: Papilionoideae: Dalbergieae), endemic to Bolivia, is reinstated as an accepted genus. Kew Bulletin 67(4): 789–796. Available online

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