Many aspects of plant life intrigue our British and Irish herbarium curator, particularly the history of plant discovery in the British Isles, and the future under a changing climate.
Dr Spencer has been fascinated with plants and fungi for as long as he can remember. He enjoys researching the history of botany and the rules of naming and describing plants, illustrated in our extensive historical herbarium collections.
He uses plants for a vast range of applications, from advising government on invasive species to understanding the impacts of climate change on our plant life.
He even helps the police with forensic casework. Plant fragments can indicate the scene of a crime and disturbance in vegetation patterns can locate missing bodies or pinpoint when a crime occurred.
Dr Spencer sees the value in every plant, finding stinging nettles just as interesting as rare orchids. It’s the Museum’s vast collection of different plants that helps him answer some big questions about what’s going on with UK biodiversity in today’s changing climate and under the threat of increasing invasive species.
Historic herbariums can help unpick the shifts in temperature over time. Investigations can be as simple as tracking the changes in plant ranges, and databasing and modern techniques can help get more out of each specimen.
For example, the density of stomata (pores that allow air to enter the plant) on a leaf surface can indicate past levels of gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide. The number of orchid pollinia (sticky pollen blobs) on specimens in the collection can also give an indicator of pollinator success by gauging how well bees and other insects are doing.
Supporting documents can also help track the changing landscape. Photographs and field notes from British botanist Sir Edward James Salisbury compiled in the 1940s and 50s are being compared to current landscapes to judge the degree of change.
Dr Spencer isn’t after the big flashy discoveries, but the contributions and findings that come as a part of his everyday research activities. ‘You never know what’s around the corner,’ he says.