Saturday, October 15, 2016

Endangered plants, the population bomb, and politicians running for office

Cycads are gymnosperms that have survived from the dinosaur
era.  They are increasingly at risk of extinction from poaching
and habitat loss.  These Encephalartos brevifoliolata
from South Africa are already extinct in the wild.
Photo by Piet Vorster, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 .
The cycad Encephalartos brevifoliolata is an endangered species.  In fact, it is already extinct in the wild, surviving only as a few specimens that had to be moved to a secure location.  Habitat loss and poaching for the horticultural trade threaten many species of cycads. These ancient gymnosperms are among the relatively few plants that exhibit complete gender distinction. Individual plants are either male or female, and as it happens, the surviving members of this species are all male.  Even if there were a female among them, their gene pool would be severely restricted, and future generations would be highly inbred.  With such limited genetic variation, recessive genetic defects are more likely to be expressed, and the entire population much more likely to succumb to disease or environmental change. Cacti, orchids, and carnivorous plants are other groups particularly threatened by poachers, but many other kinds of plants are equally threatened by loss of natural habitats to logging, agriculture, and "suburbanization."

More familiar examples of this are of animals.  Aside from the loss in numbers and other threats, concerns about the rare Florida panther center around its minimal genetic variation.  Animals in more vulnerable 
regions, such as rhinos, tigers, snow leopards, great apes, etc. face more immediate threats, but those that survive, possibly only in zoos, will face the genetic inbreeding problem as well.   Under such genetic constriction, the future of these species is in question.

Carnivorous plants around the world, like this Sarracenia rubra
in north Florida, face habitat loss and poaching by hobbyists.  
According to the Center for Biodiversity, a significant percentages of the Earth’s plants and animals are at risk of extinction, including 50% of the species of primates.  An estimated 1000 species of plants and animals that have already gone extinct under the watch of humanity (see The Extinction Crisis).  Again, animals are more familiar – dodos, passenger pigeons, etc., but 123 plant species have also been officially documented as going extinct in historical times (according to Wikipedia).  This is not to mention also the fact that possibly only half, or less, of the species of living organisms on this planet have even yet been documented by scientists, so we don’t know many that have already gone extinct or are endangered.  The present threat to the existence of organisms of all types, called the biodiversity crisis, could become a mass extinction greater than that in which the dinosaurs became extinct.

What are the consequences to the global ecosystem of plant and animal extinction?
This Dendrobium bracteosum was salvaged from the
branches of a tree felled for the timber industry in
Papua New Guinea in 1971.  Though widely cultivated,
what the fate of this species in the wild is today,
I do not know.
The loss of any species disrupts and simplifies the complex interactive web of life around us.  A plant that goes extinct may be the host or food source for dozens of other organisms, and likewise, an animal may be an important link in the food chain or a predator that keeps other animal populations in check.  Destabilized ecosystems are less productive, subject to wild fluctuations, suffer soil erosion, and become overrun by tough, weedy species of no use to anyone.  Loss of forests and the poisoning of photosynthetic algae in the oceans diminishes the replenishment of oxygen in our atmosphere, and the removal of carbon dioxide.

Why is all of this happening?  We might point to lack of regulation and enforcement, poor land management and forestry practices, human greed, and maybe the erroneous belief by many collectors that they are helping "save" rare species by growing them in their backyards.  But clearly, the growing human population, with its expanding demand for farmland, wood, clean water, and other natural resources, is directly related to the loss of natural habitats required by the others species we share this planet with. 

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne (uncredited at the time) published The Population Bomb (Sierra Club/Ballantine Books, ISBN 1-56849-587-0), which warned of the dire consequences of uncontrolled and excessive growth of the human population.  They predicted widespread famine and other disasters as early as the 1970’s. The predictions were based on sound biological principles.  Every species tends to increase in numbers, because individuals have the potential to produce many more offspring than needed for their replacement.  In a balanced ecosystem, populations of each species are kept in check by limited food supply and other essential resources (e.g. nesting sites for some animals), by disease or predators, or by fouling their own environment.

The organ pipe cactus, Stenocereus thurberi,
is one of hundreds of cactus species that are 
Photo by Lars Hammar CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0
Though the Ehrlichs’ may have been off on the timing of some of their predictions (see their recent review article), the need to bring the human population under control is accepted by scientists and humanitarian groups in general.  The principle objections come from people who fear draconian governmental population control measures, or the impacts of no-growth economics.  Again, I can’t do a full review here, but a simple google search for either “overpopulation” or “underpopulation” will bring up a number of links (yes there are people who believe that we, at least in some countries, are underpopulated). 

Before I move on though, I must remark that while the world may not appear to be overpopulated from the biased perspective of affluent America, the 760 million people in the world who are currently undernourished, the 8,350,000 people who die of starvation each year (Worldometers), or the perennially impoverished people of Haiti who just suffered devastating losses from Hurricane Matthew, might beg to disagree.

Expanding numbers of desperately poor people encroach upon national parks and other wildlife preserves to find a means of livelihood, further endangering species and disrupting natural ecosystems.  Maybe we can support more people on this planet, but only by converting ever more wild land to food production.  As we attempt frantically to increase our food supply, we cut down more forests, irrigate deserts, and even encroach upon estuaries and marine habitats.  We also use more fertilizer, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, keep animals in small cages, and continue to genetically modify our food crops. Watch the streaming statistics on Worldometers for a few minutes, you can also see that almost 4 million hectares of forest have been lost this year, and over 5 million hectares of soil have eroded away, along with other disturbing numbers that continue to increase.  And despite all the technological advances, if population continues to grow, we'll back to where we started, but with even more starving people, less wild land, and fewer species of plants and animals.

Adding the problems of air and water pollution, nuclear leaks, toxic waste dumps, and climate change, we are not only fouling our own nest, but that of wild plants and animals as well.  Coral reefs are dying around the world, as well as forests in the Appalachians and California mountains, honeybees are being poisoned, and tree frogs are dying from the effects of pollution.  As sea levels rise and ice caps disappear, not only are polar bears threatened, but also coastal estuarine communities (breeding grounds for many commercial fisheries), sea grass beds and lowland swamps, not to mention the billions of people who live in coastal cities. 

The human suffering is  front and center in our collective humanitarian consciousness, and protecting rare species may seem to be a luxury for the benefit of the affluent, but they are actually both manifestations of the same central problem.  Bringing population growth under control will benefit both people and biodiversity, and the sooner we do it, the better.

Instead of just trying to keep up with increasing population size with ever more technological fixes, maybe we should be asking how many people can the Earth sustain while providing a just and equitable distribution of resources to all of our inhabitants, and while maintaining a viable, biologically diverse ecosystem with which to sustain ourselves.  I would think that, just maybe, we already have enough people on this planet, maybe more than it can sustain cleanly with renewable resources over the long run. Perhaps even a small decline would be helpful in taking care of everyone already here and getting back into balance with our natural ecosystem.  After all, there are already 7.5 billion of us.  We have huge, possibly insurmountable problems to solve, which are only exacerbated if the population continues to grow.  So reducing global population growth should be on the table as a  topic of public discussion, right next to all the other problems that need to be solved. 

But it isn’t.  Outside of academic circles and activist blogs (both pro and con), the population problem is hardly ever mentioned.  It’s not in the mainstream media or in politics. And that brings me to the third part of my title.  As we face elections here in the U.S., or as some of you face them elsewhere, we must choose candidates who respect science, who are aware of the impact of population growth on world justice and on our planetary ecosystem, and who are willing to study and discuss these issues seriously.  They must also take the search for sustainable economics seriously.  Those who deny the existence of climate change and rising sea levels, who want to do away with environmental protection agencies, who oppose treaties on clean air and reduction of carbon emissions, and who want to open up national parks and other wild lands to mining and other economic exploitation, just don't get it, and must be rejected. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mosses of Central Florida 18. Bryum argenteum

The fine, compact cushions of Bryum argenteum are a distinctive grayish-
green.  This specimen was collected in gravel at the base of a palm tree along
a walkway above a saltwater channel in Tampa (Essig 20160503-1 (USF).
Bryum argenteum Hedw. (Bryaceae) forms compact, fine-textured cushions in exposed areas of poor soil, gravel, or even concrete. It is easily recognized by it's grayish green color, in contrast to the bright green of most other members of the family in our area.  It is the only member of Bryum in Florida.  Other species formerly included in the genus have been segregated out into other genera, including Gemmabryum and Rosulabryum.  It is distinguished from these latter genera by its smaller, more compact dimensions, and the leaves that are more-or-less pressed to the stem, like the scale leaves of a juniper.
The leaf cells of Bryum argenteum, are large, thin-walled,
and filled with chloroplasts. 
Like other members of the family the cells of the leaf are large, and thin-walled, and there is a prominent midrib.  Also very distinctive in this family are the nodding capsules.  This species does not produce capsules very often.  The accompanying picture of capsules is from a specimen collected in Bronx, NY.
The capsules of Bryum argenteum, like
most members of the family Bryaceae,
are symmetrical but nodding by a bend in
the uppar stalk.  From Ahles s.n.,
Bronx, NY 1949 (USF)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mosses of Central Florida 17. Sphagnum strictum

Sphagnum strictum occurs in dry woodlands, and forms whitish branch heads
that are more compact than those of S. palustre.
Sphagnum strictum Sull. (Sphagnaceae) occurs throughout northern Florida, as far south as
Collier County.  It is distinctive within the local species for its dry habitat preference and tolerance of desiccation. It occurs in oak hammocks and other dry woodlands, on dry, sandy soil.  It most often has a very whitish color, as its leaves consist of large water storage cells within which the photosynthetic cells are confined to very narrow strands. 

When dry, the branch heads become more feathery.  Photo by Alan Franck.
(from Franck 3787 (USF)
Sphagnum strictum produces sporangia in the spring, while S. palustre produces them in the Fall. 
The reddish sporangia of Sphagnum strictum appear
in the spring.

The leaf of Sphagnum strictum is composed mostly of large water-storage
cells, which appear as empty.  The cells are reinforced by fibrils wrapped
around each cell.  What appear to be thick cell walls are actually the very
narrow photosynthetic cells.

Mosses of Central Florida 16. Sphagnum palustre

The leafy shoots of  Sphagnum palustre consist of
a compact head of short shoots, with a ring of
longer shoots hanging below.  Each shoot in this
complex consists of a series of closely spaced
ovate leaves.
Sphagnum palustre L (Sphagnaceae) is one of the most common, and most abundant sphagnum mosses in central and northern Florida.  Outside of the state, it extends into to the boreal zone of Canada, and contributes to the massive sphagnum bogs found there.

 Sphagnum species are notoriously difficult to identify, however, and it is probably safe to say that only Sphagnum specialists can use the technical keys to identify a specimen, and even then there is uncertainty and disagreement.  The characters that distinguish particular species, and even whole groups of species, are anatomical in nature, requiring specialized skills to view and interpret.

On a local level, however, particularly in Florida, there are typically only a few species in an area, occupying slightly different habitats, and differing in the size, shape, and coloration of the leafy shoots.  25 species are presently known to occur in Florida, 18 of which extend into central Florida.  Few extend much further south than Hillsborough and Polk Counties, but P. palustre  reaches its southern limit in Highlands County. These numbers and distributions are only approximate, as the herbarium records involved have not all been verified by specialists.  Additional collecting will also add to our knowledge of the distributions of species. 

An extensive colony of Sphagnum palustre near the Hillsborough River, occurring in a flat
seepage zone.
Sphagnum palustre is distinguished from other species in Hillsborough County by its larger shoot size, and the distinctive shape of its terminal cluster of branches. It also occurs, in our area, in a unique habitat zone: in relatively flat, continuously wet zones, such as a seepage area, which is neither often flooded nor completely desiccated.  S. palustre produces sporangia in the Fall. 

Another common species found nearby, S. strictum occurs in drier habitats and has smaller, distinctly whitish clusters of shoots (profile of this species to follow immediately after this).  A third species, yet to be identified, occurs in intermediate habitats.

Although the species are difficult to identify, the genus is unmistakable, particularly with a quick look at a leaf under a microscope.  The leaves are just one cell thick, but differentiated into two kinds of cells.  The green, photosynthetic cells are long and narrow, and form an interconnected network between much larger water-storage cells.

Special note: the mosses have now been added to the Atlas of Florida Plants, where you can see the county by county distributions of each species.  We are also slowly adding photographs to the database. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

How to identify a plant

When you encounter a plant that you do not know, it is natural to want to know its name.  In my previous post, I described some ecological disasters that resulted from scientists misidentifying plants used in experimental studies or in habitat restoration.  I also provided a reference where numerous incidences of accidental poisoning have occurred through consumption of misidentified food or medicinal plants.

Can you tell the difference between the two specimens below? Two people in Italy were recently hospitalized for confusing them.  The one on the left is fennel, the one on the right is poisonous Hemlock, two species out of hundreds in the carrot family, Apiaceae. Though there are clear differences, including flower color and leaf shape, you would have to know them from experience or have them identified by an expert before using them.
Photo by Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC
BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.
Photo in public domain,
its name.  In some cases, it may be critical to ID it correctly: if you're using a plant in a scientific study, if it's something you may eat or take as a medicine, if your child has eaten something that might be poisonous, or if you're selling plants of some supposed horticultural or medicinal value.  The list goes on and on.  In my

So what do you do?  If it's important, you at some point will have to consult an expert.  You can use available tools to identify it yourself, or at least narrow down the possible identities.  If you have a deep interest in plants, learning identification skills can be time well spent.  It will sharpen your eye for detail and deepen your understanding of plant diversity and adaptation.  If, however, you are a mother in a panic about what your child just put into his mouth, skip this step!

In either case, you need to gather as much baseline information as possible:

1. Is it wild plant, or a cultivated one?  There are different tools for these fundamental categories.

        If it is a wild plant, and you know where it came from, you've already
greatly limited the number of possible plants. There are typically field guides, keys, pictorial guides, and specimen depositories (herbaria) for specific regions of the world, that you can avail yourselves of.

        If it is a cultivated plant, where it was growing is also important.  Plants cultivated in south Florida are quite different from what can be grown in Maine, and there are often regional guides for cultivated plants.

2. What plant parts do you have to work with? Though a good forensic botanist may be able to ID seeds, pollen grains, or wood fragments, generally a good sample of the foliage as well as the flowers and/or fruit is necessary for identification.  Photographs are helpful, but the actual physical material is important for examining small details.

If the above information and materials are fairly complete, you are in a good position to seek out an appropriate expert, or plunge on yourself.

The primary job of plant taxonomists is to inventory the plant
life of the Earth.  Here, taxonomists Heinar Streimann
and Peter Stevens work with local villagers to pack up
plant materials that will be dried and deposited in
 around the world as reference specimens.  Photo taken on an
expedition to Aseki, Papua New Guinea in 1972. When not
in the field, taxonomists continue their research in plant
diversity, teach students, and identify specimens sent in by
A.  Finding an expert.  Plant identification experts are called taxonomists or systematists, and they reside primarily at herbaria and botanical gardens. If there is such a facility locally, that will be your first contact. In most states, there is at least one major herbarium, usually at the primary state university or at your state's designated agricultural college.  In big states, like California, Florida, Texas, and New York, there are several major herbaria.  A local county agricultural extension agent may know many of the plants cultivated locally, and can also direct you to the nearest herbarium.  Outside of the US, each country has a similar network of regional and national herbaria.

Once you locate a herbarium and confirm that they are willing to look at your material you can take your specimens to them, or send them by mail if it's too far to drive there.  Once your materials are in the hand of a professional plant taxonomist, you are connected to the network.  If your local taxonomist can't fully ID your plant, he or she can at least narrow it down to a plant family, genus or other grouping and send it off to a specialist.  Some places will charge a fee, particularly for commercial purposes, others will do it for free.  If it's a common local plant, they may be able to give you the ID instantly.

But experts frequently turn to other experts for critical identification of uncommon plant materials.  Each typically has his or her own particular genus or family that they have spent years studying, which often have specialized terminology or details that require years of training and practice to recognize.  In the grass family, for example, we have to distinguish between paleas, lemmas, glumes, and awns, and in mosses we have calyptras, peristomes, opercula, etc. In the genus Sphagnum, the distinguishing characters not only have funny names, but can only be seen in special preparations under the light microscope.

Now, if you're that panicked mother, you've already wasted valuable time reading the above paragraphs.  You should already be at the hospital!  The baseline information, and a sample of the plant material will still be very important in identifying the poison and administering the appropriate antidote.  The information here will, however, help prepare you for future incidences and to avoid poisonous materials in the future.

B. Plunging on yourself.  How do you start?

You don't have to have a PhD in plant taxonomy to begin the identification process, narrow the plant ID to a handful of possibilities, or possibly even come up with the correct scientific name for the plant. It's a challenge, but can be a very rewarding learning process.  The tools available run the gamut from pictorial guides that anyone can use, to more technical keys that require some learning and practice.  There are books and a growing list of useful websites to help with identifying plant materials of a particular type or geographic origin.

Pictorial wildflower guides, like this one for
South Africa,can be very useful, but you must
pay close attention to detail - there are many
look-alikes due to similar adaptations for
You can begin with non-technical field guides that contain descriptions and color photographs, usually arranged by flower color, or sometimes by habitat.  These are available for many states, national parks, or other specific regions.  These are not usually comprehensive, but contain the most common species. If you come up with a possible match, you can do a web search for images to confirm.  But beware - you can get many erroneous hits, typically of other plants that might be on the same web page as the plant you're looking for.

You can move from that beginning to more formal floras or handbooks, which contain all known species for a specific area with technical descriptions and identification keys.   An identification key takes you through a series of either-or questions that progressively narrow the field of possibilities.  A key might begin
More advanced references,
like Wunderlin and Hansen's
Guide to the plants of Florida,
require the use of technical
keys and specialized
with "flowers red" vs "flowers yellow."  Depending on your choice, you're directed to a later subsection of the key that deals only with plants with red flowers or the one that deals only with yellow flowers.  So, if you were faced with a possible 1000 plants at the beginning of the exercise, after the first step, you could potentially be down to 500 possibilities (more or less, depending on how many red and yellow flowered plants are actually in the area).  You could get really lucky and find that there is only one red-flowered species in the area, and you have it.  Simple, right?

Well, not always.  Keys in general are notoriously difficult, even sometimes for trained taxonomists.  First, you have to learn a lot of specialized terminology. You have to know the names of all the parts of a flower, and the parts of each flower part, and there are typically special names for unique forms of flower or fruit parts found in particular families or genera.

Professional taxonomists typically reduce the time they spend with keys with various shortcuts.  The most important of these is to learn to recognize the various plant families.   Keys to the families are particularly difficult as the technical characteristics that distinguish modern plant families tend to be rather obscure.

Someday, we might be able to just "google" a plant by entering in an image for "facial recognition."   An experienced taxonomist can often recognize instantly plants that he has seen before, sometimes even just by the hue and pattern of colors in a field.  I's the sames as when you see someone you know.  You don't have to measure the length of your spouse's earlobes or the precise color of their eyes to identify them.  A taxonomist likewise, doesn't have to laboriously count ovary locules or measure the length of anthers in order to identify a plant he or she has seen before.  So a similar sort of facial recognition of plants may be possible with computers in the future.  Another tool that may eventually allow for instant identification would be some kind of DNA scanner, a Star-Trekish tricorder, if you like.

For now we still need professional taxonomists, and in fact a large number of them will be needed to program the above technology!)  This is all the more reason that it should be alarming that taxonomists are dwindling in numbers, as I pointed out in my previous post, and as eloquently pleaded by the famous Indian taxonomist R. R. Rao.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Mosses of Central Florida 15. Physcomitrium collenchymum

Physcomitrium collenchymum forms extensive colonies, and an abundance
of spore capsules, in the wet soil along receding ponds. (Essig 20160328-1)

[For other mosses in this series, see the Table of Contents]

Physcomitrium collenchymum (Funariaceae) occurs along the receding edges of ponds during the dry season, and in other disturbed wet sites.  It evidently completes its life cycle rapidly, producing an abundance of spore-bearing capsules in the interval before the rains fill up the ponds again.
After losing their lids (calyptras) the capsules resemble
 wide-mouthed wine glasses and lack teeth around the margins.  

This species occurs in Florida and in other southeastern states, with outlying records in Kansas and Nova Scotia.  It is distinguished from the related species, P. pyriforme, by its globose, rather than inverted pear-shaped, capsules.  The capsules lack any teeth around the opening, which distinguishes them from many common mosses, such as Isopterygium.

The leaves have a strong midrib and clear, rectangular to angular cells with walls irregularly thickened.  The thickened appearance appears to be due to chloroplasts adhering to the walls.  Leaf cells are smooth, lacking any papillae (hard, pimple-like bumps).  This distinguishes this species from similar-looking members of the Pottiaceae.
The leaves of Physcomitrium have a strong midrib, and large rectangular
Note: photographs, geographic distributions and information about the naming history and synonyms of this and other mosses are currently being incorporated into the Atlas of Florida Plants.

Adhering chloroplasts give the cell walls a rough, thickened

Monday, March 21, 2016

The case for plant systematics in universities

The diverse creatures of planet Earth are being destroyed faster than taxonomists
can document them or have any chance to save them. Logging, agriculture,
mining, urban expansion, pollution, and other factors related to human population
growth are the causes of biodiversity loss. 
Every university biology department should hire a plant systematist.  Here are the reasons why.

1. We are in the midst of a "biodiversity crisis"  a massive extinction of species comparable to the one that saw the extinction of the dinosaurs.  This one could be even worse, however, because it is human-caused, and if we can't bring our wasteful practices, demand for natural resources, and unchecked population growth under control, the losses will be catastrophic.

Why is biodiversity so important?  The billions of species of life on this planet are not isolated, like zoo animals in their contained display areas.  Each species lives in the context of many other species with which it interacts in complex, unpredictable, and often unknown ways.  For simplicity, we can call this a food web.  The removal of a single species affects all the others, maybe in a minor way, but maybe in a catastrophic way.  The removal of wolves from an area, for example, usually results in  the overpopulation of deer and other grazers, and that in turn leads to decimation of herbaceous vegetation.  The removal of many species, or an entire biotic community at one time may lead to disruption of the water cycle, soil erosion, climate change, the cycling of  carbon dioxide and oxygen, or other serious ecosystem imbalances.

Plant taxonomists gather plant materials from the wild, store them as dried
specimens in herbaria, then  analyze, describe, name and classify them.
Herbaria thus represent depositories of a vast amount of information about
the kinds of plants that exist, their distributions, habitat preferences,
ecological interactions, and indigenous uses.
A particularly aggravating dimension of the crisis is that many of the species going extinct have never been named, described, or even been seen by scientists.  The traditional practice of taxonomy focuses on the collection of specimens, their preservation and storage in museums or herbaria, naming and describing those species, and developing classifications, practical identification keys, catalogues, and field guides to the species.

The discovery and documentation of the kinds of organisms on this planet, despite nearly three centuries of effort by dedicated taxonomists, is by the most generous of estimates, only half done.  A general consensus suggests however that we have documented only about 15% of the species that probably exist on Earth (Wilson 2004).  Whatever unique ecological, genetic, or biochemical properties might be possessed by the remaining 85% of the world's biodiversity could be lost forever before they are even known.  This is surely one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, considered by some to be even a greater challenge than mitigating the effects of climate change (Science Daily, January 2012). Wilson (2004) suggests, however, that completing the inventory of Earth's creatures could be completed within one generation, if the number of taxonomists working worldwide (estimated at 6000 in 2004) were doubled.  Modern techniques, including use of high-resolution imaging, genomic mapping, and communication of taxonomic information over the internet, will aid this process, but only in the hands of trained taxonomists.

2. One very real and concrete way in which plant systematics, specifically plant identification skills, is vital, is in both theoretical and applied ecological studies.  Alejandro Bortolus (2008) documented the many kinds of disastrous cascades of errors that can occur when ecologists fail to verify the identity of plant species cited or manipulated in their studies.  One example particularly stands out:

"During the late 1970s, a team of geneticists, managers, architects, politicians, biologists, and landscapers got involved in the transplant of propagules of the cordgrass Spartina foliosa from Humboldt Bay to Creekside Park in San Francisco, California, as part of a restoration project involving the only Spartina species native to the West Coast. Using an esthetic criterion, they selected gray clumped mats of S. densiflora, believing they were a good-looking growth form of the native S. foliosa, and they did not question the species identification (after all, it was the only Spartina species described for the region by then). In fact, biologists had mentioned that the plants on Humboldt Bay looked different from the San Francisco native, but no significant attempt was made to further identify it (which would have amended the error) until after it had been introduced into Creekside Park (30). It was not before a number of phenological and ecological differences became highly evident between the transplants and local specimens that botanists realized they were probably working with a different species than presently thought. About 30 years later, the transplanted specimens were correctly recognized as S. densiflora (31). By then, the repeated transplant of this species seamed to have triggered a latent invasive ability in S. densiflora, which after decades of apparent inactivity expanded its original distributional range, massively displacing native organisms and changing the entire physiognomy of regional landscapes along the West Coast" (Bortolus 2008).

One can imagine similar disasters in pharmacological studies of plant derived compounds, though I have not yet seen any compilations of errors in that field.  There are, however, many instances of poisoning or other harm caused by misidentification of herbs by commercial interests and amateurs (Lewis and Lewis, 2003, Chapter 3).  In a related field, one that could serve as a basis for pharmacological investigation, Luczai (2010) found a significant percentage of errors in Polish ethnobotanical papers, even when voucher specimens were deposited.  Failing to correctly identify plant materials in any kind of study most importantly disconnects the study from the body of literature associated with that species, and connects it with the wrong body of literature.

By misidentifying plant species in scientific studies, researchers risk more than disasters like that mentioned above.  One of the essential features  of a modern scientific paper is the "Materials and Methods" section, which if properly done, provides information necessary for the experiment in question to be verified by replication or other independent means.  If researchers do not explicitly state how and by whom their plant materials were identified, and/or did not file voucher specimens of each species, their results are non-replicable, unreliable, and potentially misleading.  This is bad science!

  Further quoting from Bortolus (2008): "62.5% of these modern [ecological] studies are devoid of any supporting information justifying or guaranteeing the correct identification of the organisms studied or manipulated.  Only 2.5% of the analyzed papers reported that specimen vouchers were deposited in a scientific institution.  Medicine, biochemistry, paleontology, and geomorphology are some of the disciplines in which misidentifications could generate great loss of time, knowledge, money, and even human lives."   These conclusions were  verified and amplified by Vink et al. (2012). So biologists of all stripes need taxonomists as partners, not only to prevent disastrous errors, but also to improve the design of their research so as to target the most relevant plant materials, and to enhance replicability and credibility of their research.   For that reason biology departments should be including plant taxonomists on their faculty.

The need for taxonomists, or systematists, to document the diversity of life has never been greater.   Yet ironically, the number of taxonomists being trained and employed, has declined drastically over the past few decades.   Why?

The National Science Foundation had a program from the mid 1990's to 2010 for training scientists in taxonomy, called PEET (Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy)  mid-90's to about 2010.  It was successful in turning out a number of young taxonomists, but the problem was that they had a difficult time finding work as practicing taxonomists afterwards.  "But as many PEET alumni (peetsters) are experiencing, taxonomic expertise is rarely required, or even relevant, when it comes to securing a job, especially in academia." (Agnarsson and Kuntner 2007). So the prejudice against taxonomists was already entrenched at that time.  What about that prejudice?

In all fairness, Biology has been changing rapidly for several decades.  Academic departments have been scrambling to keep up with the newest expertise in genetics, theoretical ecology, and cell biology, typically with colleges relatively stingy about providing new faculty lines.  So older areas of expertise were sacrificed for the newer ones.  Except in institutions with well-established and productive botany programs, low enrollment botany departments, curricula, and degrees were often scrapped altogether.  Plant-based ecologists, geneticists, and cell biologists were often integrated into the new programs, but classical plant morphologists, anatomists, physiologists and taxonomists disappeared. Many herbaria were bundled up and shipped off to more stable botanical institutions.

However, there is a persistent perception by many biologists that taxonomy is old-fashioned, not engaged with cutting-edge practical or theoretical developments, or unimportant to those advanced fields.  For those that do recognize the value of taxonomy and perhaps utilize taxonomic information in their research, there is the belief that others can do it; that they can consult with taxonomists at other institutions if need be.  The fallacy is that such an attitude only strengthens the decline in the number of practicing taxonomists, making such collaboration even more difficult.

According to Wilson's estimate in 2004, we need 6000 more taxonomists globally to complete the biodiversity inventory of the Earth.  It's probably more than that now, since the last generation of taxonomists to find widespread employment, in the 1960's and 70's, has been retiring in droves during the last decade or two.  A large percentage of these will be plant taxonomists. Universities with varied biology programs can help reach that goal, and include:

      a. universities with unstaffed or understaffed herbaria, some of which have been essentially mothballed;
      b. universities with otherwise strong biology programs, particularly in ecology and evolution, where a major herbarium is nearby.  That would be the case, for example, in New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, St. Louis, MO, Claremont, CA, or Berkeley, CA;
      c. the existing major herbaria themselves, whether privately or governmentally funded, which should be encouraged to hire  additional taxonomists, including some who could teach part-time at local universities.

3.  Plant systematics is bigger than taxonomy.  Departments who feel that they cannot support a conventional plant taxonomist can benefit greatly from  a more broadly defined plant systematist, who could work with ecologists and geneticists on biodiversity issues.  Plant systematists include scientists who are taxonomically knowledgeable, but working on a broader array of related issues.  They ask questions like: what is the geographical and ecological range of each species? How does each survive and interact with other species?  How did these species evolve?  Why are some species endangered while others run amok when transported outside of their natural range? What properties of each species, particularly medicinal, nutritional, or structural, are directly useful to us as we face questions of survival and quality of life in the coming centuries?  (See Michener et al. 1970, for a more extensive discussion of systematics from the time of its emergence.).

Employing a plant systematist, who may not need regular or frequent use of a herbarium, opens up new opportunities for universities to get more involved in current issues associated with the biodiversity crisis. This crisis is gaining more and more attention in the media, by the public, and eventually (we hope) by politicians.  That means funding is and will be available for biodiversity research. Such funding opportunities require the participation of systematists.   Though the PEET program and the Systematic Biology and Biodiversity programs have been discontinued, funding from NSF is a moving target, and similar programs may rise from the dead.  Currently, NSF is offering an interesting program called  “Dimensions of Biodiversity,” which targets the interaction of phylogenetic, genetic, and functional aspects of biodiversity – a perfect opportunity for collaboration between plant systematists, ecologists and geneticists.  Grants for research related to biodiversity can also be obtained from the USDA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service. There are also many private organizations such as the Florida Native Plant Society, JRS Biodiversity Foundation, and the Rainforest Biodiversity Coalition, that fund research in biodiversity.

4. A final reason why university biology departments, particularly smaller ones, should hire plant systematists is this:  If you're going to hire just one "token" botanist to provide balance in your program, you would best be served to hire a plant systematist.  Plant systematists by nature have a broad knowledge of plants and their diverse adaptations.  They can undertake modest, inexpensive field projects with which to engage undergraduate students  They are also likely to be knowledgeable of plants useful in medicine, nutrition and technology. They have a lot of stories to tell, neat ways to engage students, recruiting some for further study, enlightening the rest against plant blindness.   In addition, the kind of information and expertise that a plant systematist can provide is vital to many other disciplines, including  environmental science, anthropology, historical geology, horticulture, pharmacology, medicine, forensics, organic chemistry, history, the fine arts, and material science.  A plant systematist would be a valuable resource to an entire university community.

Literature cited:

Agnarsson, Ingi and Matjaž Kuntner. 2007. Systematic Biology Volume 56, Issue 3Pp. 531-539.

Bortolus, Alejandro.  2008. Error Cascades in the Biological Sciences: The Unwanted Consequences of Using Bad Taxonomy in Ecology, Ambio Vol. 37, No. 2, March 2008, pp 114-118.

Lewis, W. H. and M. P. F. Elvin-Lewis. 2003. Medical Botany, ed. 2. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Łuczaj, Łukasz J.  2010. Plant identification credibility in ethnobotany: a closer look at Polish ethnographic studies. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 2010; 6: 36.

Michener, Charles D., John O. Corliss, Richard S. Cowan, Peter H. Raven, Curtis W. Sabrosky, Donald S. Squires, and G. W. Wharton. 1970. Systematics In Support of Biological Research. Division of Biology and Agriculture, National Research Council. Washington, D.C. 25 pp.

Vink, Cor J., Pierre Paquin and Robert H. Cruickshank. 2012.  Taxonomy and Irreproducible Biological Science. BioScience Volume 62, Issue 5Pp. 451-452.

Wilson, E. O. 2004. Taxonomy as a fundamental discipline. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Volume: 359:739.