With one-in-five of the world’s plants believed to be on the brink of extinction, things do not always look so shiny for those of us working in biodiversity science. Zoologists have pandas as an iconic example of endangered species, but what about us? Like many other lesser known groups of organisms, such as insects, thousands of plant species await discovery – and many could be wiped out before they are ever scientifically described. We are losing natural resources before we know we have them. The good news is we have a plan. Our international network of gardens has the capacity to reverse fortunes – and not necessarily in the most obvious fashion.
The world’s botanic gardens hold examples of about a third of all known plants and help protect 40 per cent of endangered species, a study by Botanic Gardens Conservation International has indicated. A clearer picture is emerging of what we know we have and, crucially, what is missing from botanic gardens.
However, some groups such as tropical plants remain under-represented in the inventory of species in the living collections. Many leading botanic gardens – including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – are in the Northern Hemisphere, where tropical species are harder to maintain as they need to be grown under specialist conditions in regulated glasshouses, such as those found both in the public glasshouses and behind the scenes at Edinburgh.
These hurdles will not stop the advance of plant science. Alongside the strikingly rich living collections of plants to be found in botanic gardens are the less publically lauded herbaria: the collections of preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study.
An active push to share resources among these herbaria is resulting in important breakthroughs. In the last month we published the first verified checklist of plant diversity in the Amazon basin, one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, in the paper Challenging Checklists: counting plant species in the Amazon, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Significantly, in cataloguing 14,003 species of seed plants from the Amazon basin, our team of 45 taxonomists from 32 research institutes – in Edinburgh and London along with colleagues elsewhere in Europe, Amazonian countries and the USA – produced a verified list that can now be used in conservation efforts and global models of predicting climate change response of these majestic ecosystems.
The publication was made possible by recent advances in the study of the Amazon flora and by the digitisation of herbarium specimens, along with the hard work of hundreds of taxonomists sorting and naming these specimens over the past decades. Innovative efforts such as the ongoing Flora do Brasil 2020 and the Catálogo de Plantas de Colombia, funded by their respective governments, together with more local studies, have been key to advancing knowledge of Amazonian plant diversity.
The study demonstrates how preserved collections and the people who work on them, collaborating across countries, are essential for understanding diversity. Similar to many other studies such as climate, for example, we cannot work as single nations – we have to build upon the expertise of each country to work towards a common goal.
The publication of all Amazonian plants is a real moment of celebration for the botanical community. It reflects hundreds of years of fieldwork and exploration and centuries of taxonomic study around the world’s herbaria by countless researchers.
Although we can afford to celebrate for a while and raise our glasses to our recent achievements, more work awaits. Ecosystems are the pandas of the plant world and we should pay them attention. I find it shocking that in 2017 we still do not know what lives where. This ignorance is preventing us from monitoring how things are changing – to put in context think along the lines of being able to take the pulse of a patient – or from making predictions on how bad the consequence might be of losing some of these organisms. We risk damaging our ecosystems simply by not knowing what they hold.
Scotland is playing its part. Botanic gardens really are the best hope for saving endangered plants and focusing our efforts into understanding our ecosystems. Such work cannot be undertaken quickly or in isolation. It requires a multi-pronged approach in which the global collaboration of botanic gardens and scientists is essential. Together we can deliver a solid basis for researching the needs of diverse communities in response to climate and other environmental change.
Dr Tiina Särkinen is a Biodiversity Scientist in the Tropical Team at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh