Skip navigation
You are here: Home > NaturePlus > Botany news > Botany news

Botany news

5 Posts

New People

Posted by David Williams Feb 3, 2012
Sara Contu has just started working in the Botany department here at the museum. She is working with Neil Brummitt on the SRLI (Sampled Red List Index) project working on conservation status assessments of the Pteridophyte selected for the sample. The assessment is based on herbarium specimen records, literature research (protologues, floras, monographs, etc.) and GIS analysis. She will summarize the information in the IUCN Species Information Service (SIS) Data Entry Module database, and the report is subsequently delivered to IUCN


Tonya Lander joined the Department on January 4 as a Post Doc working on the genetic population structure of the widespread Central American tropical forest tree Brosimum alicastrum (Moraceae).  Tonya’s post is funded by the Darwin Initiative and she will be with us at least until October 2013.


Annabel Crookshank is working on a project to DNA barcode UK ferns, and is currently at the museum to source suitable material for DNA analysis from un-mounted collections, and process these samples in the molecular lab.



Some of the spectacular scenery that Sandy Knapp has photographed on her fieldtrip to China


Sandy Knapp continues to search for aubergines (Solanum melongena) and other interesting Solanum species in China, and I've been reading her blog with interest.


Aubergine varieties seem to have evaded discovery so far - a farmer in one of the locations she visited said his crop had failed due to the cold weather, but there are apparently lots of other interesting crops and plant life to be seen, and in some cases eaten.


On Monday Sandy was served the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, which is a common weed in Britain and thought to be poisonous! She says it was obviously not very, at least in China. A braver approach than I'd have, and I was relieved to read from her blog posts later in the week that she didn't seem to be any the worse for it.


Sandy's not just exploring fields, brush and spectacular limestone mountains: she found another species, Solanum torvum, growing in a rubbish dump in the north of China. Who said fieldwork isn't glamorous!



It's worth it though. Yesterday she wrote that they'd found their first exciting Solanum species - Solanum violaceum (shown right). Although it's a common species, she wants to compare it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.


Not all of her observations have been positive. She has seen first-hand evidence of habitat destruction in the beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills near Gansu. She says mining for stone and gravel will have destroyed many of them by next year, along with the native flora that grows there.


I look forward to finding out more about Sandy's travels, including whether she finds the elusive aubergine and whether she's served up any other risky dishes.


Read Sandy's blog, Investigating aubergines in China.


Earlier this year I wrote that Dr William Purvis, one of our lichen experts, was planning a visit to Signy Island to evaluate lichen biodiversity in the Antarctic.

He’s just arrived back in the UK to begin working on the specimens and data he collected, but you can still read his fascinating account of his travels on his blog, Discovering Antarctic Lichens.


Nesting Gentoo Penguin by lichen covered rock.jpg

A nesting gentoo penguin by lichen covered rocks.


Our scientists’ research takes them to the four corners of the Earth to some dramatic locations to explore the diversity of the natural world. One of our lichen experts, Dr William Purvis, is embarking on a new project to evaluate lichen biodiversity in the Antarctic.

It is one of a number of projects the Museum’s Botany Department is running to investigate the impact climate change is having on lichen biodiversity.

Lichens are known to be excellent environmental indicators – the canaries of the plant /fungal world. William believes that by understanding the vulnerability of different lichen species, we can use them as a warning system for climate change across the planet.

He will be journeying to sub-Antarctic Signy Island, one of the South Orkney Islands situated in the Southern Ocean, to carry out his research. I wanted to find out a bit more about what he was facing so had a quick look at the Signy Research Station page on the British Antarctic Survey website. The general impression I got was… ice and wind! However, William will have plenty to look at as there are many different species of lichens on the island and, along with mosses and liverworts, they are the dominant flora of the island.

William will take fresh samples of saxicolous crustose lichens growing on different mineralised rocks and develop base-line monitoring. His project will generate new specimens not represented in collections, and provide a basis for interdisciplinary studies. The British Antarctic Survey is funding this project as part of their Antarctic Funding Initiative - Collaborative Gearing Scheme (CGS).

I must admit, I never realised just how diverse and stunning lichens could be until I prepared the images for the redeveloped Botany Department webpages. Here are a few of my favourites:

(from top left to bottom right: Pyxine coccifera, a lichen of well-lit tropical forests; Cladonia floerkeana, which prefers acidic habitats; Usnea articulata on twigs in Madeira; Xanthoria aureola, a nitrogen-loving, yellow lichen)

Pyxine-coccifera-200pxhigh.jpg Cladonia-floerkeana-200pxhigh.jpg


You don’t have to go as far as the Antarctic or visit exotic locations to observe lichens though - they occur in all major ecosystems apart from the deep sea. In fact, if you live in (or are visiting) England you can contribute to the new OPAL air survey and help scientists answer important questions about local air quality. Even if you aren't able to take part, the site has a handy guide to some of the different lichens you can find here.


It's always nice to see our scientists getting recognition for the work they do: Dr Sandy Knapp, a Merit Researcher in the Botany Department, has received the American Society of Plant Taxonomists' Peter Raven Award for 'outstanding contributions to public education in systematic botany'.


The commendation was well-deserved, as Sandy regularly involves herself in a range of public outreach activities - from public lectures to radio interviews. Among other things, she has recently helped develop the stunning exhibitions in the Museum’s new Darwin Centre.


Sandy says the award means a lot to her as Peter Raven (of the Missouri Botanical Garden) has been one of her most valued mentors throughout her career in botany. She also feels it is particularly special to receive an award in the 'Darwin year'.


Here's a picture of Sandy with Professor David Spooner, who presented her with the award at the American Society of Plant Taxonomists' banquet during the 2009 Botany and Mycology Conference in Snowbird, Utah, USA:




As well as receiving her award, Sandy was there for the closing project meeting for Planetary Biodiversity Inventory (PBI) Solanum, which she co-led. You can find out more about the project on the Solanaceae Source website. Another of our botanists, Dr Maria Vorontsova, gave a presentation on ‘African spiny Solanum: a thorny taxonomic tangle’.


It sounds like the meeting was a lot of fun and apparently the scenery in Snowbird is spectacular - I've never been myself. But Sandy assures us the science was new and exciting enough to ensure the mind didn't wander. She's hoping more of our botanists can come and enjoy next year's meeting in Rhode Island - anyone who's interested should check out the Botany 2010 meeting website.