A woman sits by the river bank and looks over her shoulder

Ana Claudia on a field trip at a national park in Zambia. She spent the night sleeping in a tent with a herd of noisy hippos nearby.

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Plant expert Ana Claudia Araujo investigates the extinction of our global flora

Botanist Ana Claudia Araujo investigates the world's rapidly vanishing plant life. She shares with us details of her idyllic childhood, what inspired her to become a plant expert at the Museum and what she is doing to help save nature from extinction.

Ana Claudia was born in Florianopolis, a small island in southern Brazil that is home to over 40 beautiful beaches. The nearest beach, Canasvieiras, is less than a mile away from her childhood home and reached by a short journey through the Atlantic rainforest - an area teeming with endemic biodiversity.

On most days, the fine white sandy beach would be deserted. Ana Claudia recalls losing her sense of time as she spent long, glorious days climbing trees with her sisters; snacking on guava, pitanga and jaboticaba fruits, and frolicking in the clear water while small fry and fingerlings danced between their feet.

Growing amongst these trees were a variety of shrubs, and some were used for medicinal purposes by Indigenous communities on the island. For instance, the black sage bush was used by the Caiçara people to fight off infections, particularly when hurt by fish spines or cockle shells left by their forefathers.

For Ana Claudia and her sisters, however, the plant was used in make-believe games.

'My sisters and I used to collect the edible red fruits of the black sage and pretend to be Sleeping Beauty,' she says.

Back at home, the sisters lived with their green-fingered mother, who inspired a love of nature with the plants she grew.

Meanwhile, Ana Claudia's father was a local bus driver who would park the bus in the back yard when he had an early shift.

During the summer, birds occasionally flew into the bus windows and injured themselves. Ana Claudia remembers watching her mother nurse them back to health, which helped cultivate a deep sense of compassion for nature.

But it was her first visit to the Ecology Museum, founded by German biologist Fritz Muller, that planted the seeds of science in her heart.

'I was about six years old,' recalls Ana Claudia. 'I didn't know how to read and write properly but I was in awe of all the plants and animals displayed in the museum.'

'I ended up spending two hours in just one room looking at all the specimens. I wanted to understand why they were placed there and what the connection was between them.'

A man and a woman stand in between trees in a forest

Ana Claudia and Museum colleague Neil Brummitt search for an elusive micro-orchid in the rapidly shrinking Atlantic rain forest, Florianopolis.

The quest for a Critically Endangered micro-orchid endemic to southern Brazil

It was only as an adult that Ana Claudia started to understand how precious her island was.

Canasvieiras Beach is home to a wide variety of molluscs, dolphins, whales and seabirds, while more than 60% of the species that live across the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil are endemic. This includes the Critically Endangered micro-orchid, Anathallis kleinii (Pabst) Luer, only found in Florianopolis.

'One of the most important field trips I have ever done was tracking micro-orchids in Brazil,' says Ana Claudia. 'They are tiny, little things - the flowers are smaller than my fingernail.'

A. kleinii is an epiphyte, which means it grows on the surface of other plants - not directly on the soil. This species grows on cool, shaded trees in the Atlantic rain forest, facing away from the sea to avoid blasts of salty wind. It obtains water from the moisture-rich air and nutrients that wash off the tree leaves.

'It feels special to know that the island I was born on is home to such a rare plant,' says Ana Claudia.

Unfortunately, the Atlantic rainforest has been exploited for centuries and now covers only 4% of its former range. Today, it continues to be threatened by deforestation, urbanisation and tourism - a serious issue that is typical in many beautiful, natural coastal landscapes.

Finding this elusive micro-orchid, however, may lead to better conservation policies being implemented. And by protecting the micro-orchids' habitat, many other species that rely on the trees and the forest ecosystem can also be saved.

A red finger nail next to a small flower

Ana Claudia places her finger next to an A. kleinii to demonstrate how small the flower is. The plant is named after Dr Roberto Miguel Klein whom Ana Claudia met during her Master's degree. She later worked in the herbarium where he was based.

The race to identify threatened plant species before they disappear forever

Although hundreds of new plant species are described every year, many more remain undiscovered or poorly known. Identifying threatened plants around the world has never been more important as ecosystems are being destroyed faster than we can learn about them.

Ana Claudia is investigating how many plants around the world are at risk of extinction in a race to save them and their ecosystems before they vanish permanently. The research - Plants Under Pressure - is led by Museum scientist Neil Brummitt in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Plants Under Pressure evaluates a plant's risk of extinction using the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List criteria. This is mostly based on their range size and number of sub-populations.

Using the Museum's digitised herbarium collection, plants are geo-referenced and plotted onto a map. Satellite images help to identify the plants' range, the number of locations they occur in, how their habitat has changed over the years and whether the species is declining and why. Other details are also collected, such as the threats these plants face as well as the types of vegetation found in the same location. The plants are then assigned a Red List category according to their risk of extinction.

‘Some species have hundreds of records to analyse so it takes a very long time to get through it all,’ says Ana Claudia.

There are around 380,000 plant species recognised globally. With one in four estimated to be at risk of extinction, this is at least 95,000 plant species heading towards oblivion - and these are only the plants that we know of.

Most of these threatened plants live in the tropics, and either have a small natural range or are endemic. Some of the most at risk live only on islands where unique ecosystems have developed.

For example, around 80% of plants found on Madagascar are endemic, but today, only 15% of its native vegetation remains.

The research adopts a multi-faceted approach to understand and tackle biodiversity decline.

'In the case of epiphytes, we are checking if the timber they grow on is targeted for logging,' explains Ana Claudia. 'If that is the case, then it means that the epiphytes are also targeted, albeit indirectly.'

A pair of hands hover over a sedge specimen

The papyrus sedge is native to Africa and most well-known for making papyrus paper - one of the first types of paper made by the Ancient Egyptians. Photo by Tammana Begum.

This mammoth research effort is revealing new facts and highlighting poorly known flora, as well as the intricately interwoven relationships between plants, animals and other organisms and their environment.

The research will help us understand what species we are losing, why we are losing them and how this will impact life on Earth, and in particular humans.

'A lot of people know they are part of nature but feel disconnected from it,' says Ana Claudia. 'However, humans are already being affected by the decline of global biodiversity.'

In Florianopolis, warm summers up to 30 degrees and mild winters at around 10 degrees were the norm when Ana Claudia was a child. Floods, cyclones and tornadoes were a rare occurrence.

Now, the summers have lengthened and temperatures have increased on the island. Winters are shorter and floods, high winds and cyclones are common at any time of the year. The island, along with other parts of southern Brazil, suffers from droughts.

Recently, the east coast of Santa Catarina - the state where Florianopolis lies - was shut down for more than two days due to high winds, floods and landslides.

This drastic change to the area's weather and seasons is destroying the delicate equilibrium that has allowed southern Brazil's unique and spectacular biodiversity to thrive for thousands of years.

'The destruction of forests is leading to severe weather and changes in nature. Without the forest, animals such as birds and amphibians have nowhere to live,' explains Ana Claudia.

'The decline in these predator populations means an increase in prey species, such as insects which may be carriers of disease.'

'Dengue fever, which is becoming more common in northern Brazil where it is hotter, is spread by insects. But insects are not the problem - we are.'

Higher temperatures favour the increase of insects, fungi, and bacteria and virus populations. While they are an important and necessary part of biodiversity, their populations need to be regulated.

A sedge specimen on paper

Cladium mariscus (L.) Pohl is a common sedge found in marshlands, which helps to retain water in the soil. The population is declining in the UK, which means areas near its habitat are becoming more susceptible to flooding. Photo by Tammana Begum.

In instances where plant species are well-recorded, scientists are able to make links between them and other changing factors in the environment.

The real danger, however, lies in not knowing the biodiversity of an area. This means being unaware when a species has gone extinct and the knock-on effect it has on its ecosystem.

'Imagine you are playing Jenga,' says Ana Claudia. 'And you take out a block from the middle of the stack. Everything can fall apart.'

'In nature, we don't yet know what species fits where in their ecosystem. The disappearance of one species could lead to the ecosystem falling apart. Several species will become extinct because of one, and an unbalanced ecosystem could lead to disastrous consequences.'

This is why learning about as many species as possible is vital. It allows us to picture a web of life, to predict and mitigate the consequences should one species become endangered or worse, go extinct.

'To keep the planet healthy, we need well-balanced ecosystems,' continues Ana Claudia. 'The key to all that is plants - the basis of life on Earth. We need to understand and conserve them, which will allow us to conserve all the other organisms linked to them.'

Small changes to make the world a better place

Ana Claudia has dedicated her professional life to researching plants with the aim of supporting and protecting them better.

Over the last eight years, this has included working with the education and communication team at the Museum to help teach the public about the value of nature.

Her passion for nature is present in her personal life too and reflects itself in many ways. For example, her diet is devoid of meat and poultry and consists of in-season fruits and vegetables. She is also conscious of food waste and tries to make the most of every part of a fruit or vegetable.

'Adjusting my life to respect nature and utilise it in a conscious and environmentally-friendly way didn't come all at once,' says Ana. 'It has been moulded over the years.'

'I am constantly in contact with nature, whether it's walking through my local park or reading about it. The more I know about nature, the more I respect it and the more determined I become to fight for it.'

A woman sits on the stairs

One of Ana Claudia’s favourite Museum specimen is the sequoia. She is in awe of how millions of tiny cells work together to create and support such a large structure and believes it is a great example to humans: joining forces to support nature. Photo by Tammana Begum.

The ongoing struggle for science and nature

Climate change anxiety is a serious, growing concern for everyone.

Ana Claudia says, 'Despite all the talks and agreements made by governments and world leaders, little is being done to support the science of plant conservation.'

At the Museum, there are only two scientists working on Plants Under Pressure. Next year, there will be only one when the project's current funding runs dry.

Ana Claudia urges people to visit the Museum and learn about biodiversity, get involved in conversations about climate change and put pressure on governments to prioritise nature’s welfare.

'Individuals have the power to change where political focus is directed by putting pressure on their government,' says Ana Claudia.

'Politicians follow what gives them success. So the more pressure people put on them, the more likely they are to prioritise initiatives that will promote a healthy planet and support the science behind it.'

'People-power is like a wave. One drop in the ocean is nothing, but a million drops in the ocean - now that has the strength of a wave.'