From 20th Century plant hunters to 21st Century forest modellers – the many uses of biological records in forest biodiversity conservation

New Guinea fig specimen, georeferencing maps and habitat suitability model integrated in the Google Earth interface Picture credit: Thomas Starnes, RBG Kew
New Guinea fig specimen, georeferencing maps and habitat suitability model integrated in the Google Earth interface
Picture credit: Thomas Starnes, RBG Kew

What could early 20th Century plant hunters have to do with the contemporary conservation movement? Research conducted by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew draws on plant collections made from the tropical rainforest of New Guinea over 60 years ago to help make predictions about the past, current and future distributions of ecologically and culturally important tree species.

The Herbarium at Kew houses some nine million plant specimens from all over the world. This is where species are identified and named for the scientific record. The archives include material collected by Darwin, Hooker and Livingstone and are constantly expanding as new species are discovered and catalogued.

In the past, plants were collected largely for economic purposes and for the benefit of the state. For example, it is at Kew where seeds of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis were famously cultivated before being shipped to the then-British-occupied Malaysia and breaking the Brazilian monopoly on the hugely important rubber trade. Later, plants were collected purely in the name of science – the aim being to document and classify all species of living things.

Another scientific facet brought to the mainstream by Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russell Wallace was the study of the distribution of living things, known as biogeography.

This new field required not only the taxonomic identification of biological specimens but also the determination of their geographical whereabouts. For example, a field scientist collects a specimen from a tree, including a branch with leaves and ideally a fruit or flower. The scientist also records other information such as the latitude and longitude of the collection, which is matched to each specimen with a unique collection identification number. The specimen is sent with hundreds of others back to museums and herbaria around the world where the species are identified by expert taxonomists.

Crucially, the latitude and longitude information allows geographical information scientists to plot these biological collections on the map. This brings us to the most contemporary use of biological collections – the conservation of species. Information about species’ distributions is used in the designation of national parks and conservation areas as well as in local planning decisions.

The Oceanic island of New Guinea is home to a staggering 150 species of fig trees, many of which are endemic, and yet the island’s flora remains significantly understudied. In making informed decisions about the conservation of floristic diversity on the island, researchers are turning back to the historic plant collections now stored in their tens of thousands in the world’s scientific institutions.

Methods in species distribution mapping have progressed significantly in the 21st Century and are drawing heavily on past collections of biological material such as the herbarium specimens held at Kew. High resolution, readily available satellite data on temperature, precipitation and land cover are opening the way for huge advances in ecological studies and yet interestingly the other key element in much of this research is the historic known localities, or presence points of species. This is why museums and herbaria are such a valuable resource – geo-referenced biological collections allow us to place an ‘x’ on the map at each known location of a given species.

Biological records don’t just contain information on a species’ location. Many collections also document traditional uses of plant materials by local peoples. There are over 150 species of fig tree on New Guinea and many scientific expeditions have documented their specific uses in tribal culture and medicine. The many human uses of New Guinea’s figs include ‘… sticky latex [which] is used for caulking canoes.’ Also, ‘[latex is] used to catch pigeons by cutting the branch in several places to produce a sticky exudate which holds the birds fast by the feet.’

The sheer volume of information contained in biological collections such as Kew’s Herbarium is invaluable in making informed conservation decisions for the preservation of biodiversity, local economy and cultural heritage. By accessing and digitising this information we are learning more about species diversity, distributions and economic applications. We are learning more about ecosystem functions and how best to protect forests for present and future generations. Importantly, we are also learning how to design better field survey techniques and develop monitoring strategies to safeguard the ecosystem services on which we all critically depend.

For all this to happen, we desperately need the skills and funding to digitise our biological data. Of Kew’s nine million herbarium specimens, only a fraction have been digitised, georeferenced and added to a database where they can be accessed by researchers all over the world through media such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Kew’s scientists, aided by curators and geographic information specialists are working hard but in the face of hard economic times. It is time we realised the full potential of biological records such as those at Kew to contribute to the understanding and conservation of life on our planet.

Written by: Thomas Starnes
Affiliation: Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
Country: United Kingdom

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