How to count every plant in the Amazon rainforest
19 September 2017
Scientists have for the first time a clear baseline figure for the number of plant species that grow in the vast lowland rainforests of the Amazon.
By painstakingly cross-checking data from botanical collections around the globe, the international team found that 14,003 seed plants, which include flowering plants and the palm-like cycads, have been recorded as growing in the forests.
The scientists discovered that fewer than half (just 6,797) of the plant species are trees, a number lower than suggested in previously published work. But herbs, shrubs and epiphytes - plants that grow on other plants - were more diverse than anticipated, showing they have often been overlooked in studies of tropical diversity.
Dr Sandra Knapp, head of the Museum's Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, contributed to the project. She says, 'By establishing a verified baseline for Amazonian plants, we have solid basis for conservation, but also for studies of the evolution and ecology of these extraordinary and wonderful forests.'
The Amazon basin is one of Earth's hotspots of biodiversity. Just how many plants live there has been fiercely debated, with estimates for flowering plants ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands.
The new study looks at the records of actual plant specimens collected by botanists over centuries of Amazon exploration. These are held in museums and herbariums scattered across the globe.
The team have taken advantage of the digitisation boom and investment by governments in creating lists of the plants of Colombia and Brazil. They have compiled a master list by using databases worldwide and the expertise of botanists who work with Amazonian flora.
While having access to all these records is useful, they must be used with care, cautions Dr Knapp. 'One of the great things about having lots of digital data available is that you can amalgamate and aggregate it very easily. But it's important to verify the data and make sure that nothing is duplicated or has been put in by error.'
The team relied on the work of taxonomic specialists – who are experts in the identification and classification of organisms – to carefully comb through the assembled databases and root out errors.
'This study highlights the importance of institutions like the Museum which have both extensive collections and taxonomic experts who can study them,' says Dr Knapp. 'They provide the solid base on which to base conservation and sustainable use.'
Dr Domingos Cardoso of the Federal University in Salvador, Brazil, led the study with Dr Tiina Särkinen of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
'Publication of this list does not mean that the Amazonian flora is completely known,' says Dr Cardoso. 'Many new plant species are discovered each year, both in the field and in museum and herbarium collections – and much of the vast Amazon area still remains poorly or completely unexplored.'
The team's cleaned list will be published open access and made available for others to use in their studies of the Amazon, says Dr Knapp. 'It's important to share as people think of ways to use data that we would never have thought of.
'Locked in a building it doesn't do anyone any good, but out in the open it can.'
- By James McNish
- Read the scientific paper at PNAS
- Read a blog post by Dr Knapp on using collections to analyze African plant diversity
- Watch a video by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh scientists on the research
- Investigate the Museum's historical plant collections