Fungi and non-flowering plants are some of the oldest organisms on Earth. Ancient lineages were able to adapt to the many significant changes that occurred around them over millions and millions of years—by moving onto land and variously developing wind-dispersed spores, vascular systems, and/or seeds. The New York Botanical Garden is one of the few institutions in the world with scientific expertise across all of the major ancient lineages, including algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, ferns, and gymnosperms.
About 130 million years ago flowering plants began to appear on Earth, and between 125 and 65 million years ago they exploded into life. Today an incredible diversity of flowering plants—from tiny floating duckweeds to daisies and enormous eucalyptus trees—makes up more than 80% of the living plants in the world. Scientists at the Botanical Garden are specialists on many groups of flowering plants that we see around us.
Our current century has been dubbed the “century of biology.” In the coming decades, fundamental knowledge of the full range of fungal and plant groups on Earth will be of central importance in finding solutions for many environmental and natural resource challenges now being brought about by rapid global change.Algae
Fungi & Lichens
Bryophytes (Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts)
Ferns & Lycophytes
Organisms popularly called “algae” include such diverse groups as the giant seaweeds and the microscopic desmids. In fact, the classification and evolution of the various algae on Earth—past and present—is a matter of intense scrutiny and discussion among scientists today. The Garden’s research focuses primarily on “green algae,” organisms closely related to the first plants that invaded land some half a billion years ago. The nearly 14,000 species of green algae found worldwide are important primary producers, playing essential roles in many ecosystems from extremely dry deserts to coral reefs. Green algae also provide food and shelter for a variety of other organisms.
Assembling the Green Algal Tree of Life. This large, multi-institutional project co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Kenneth G. Karol is using modern genomic methods to elucidate the evolutionary relationships of all the major groups of green algae found worldwide.
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Phylogeny and Systematics of the Characeae (Charales). Led by Garden scientist Dr. Kenneth G. Karol, the project is using DNA sequence data to re-evaluate the evolution and classification of the green algae in the Characeae family, commonly known as brittleworts and stoneworts. Find out more information
Fungi and Lichens
Though the fossil record for early fungi is scanty, fungi have been on Earth for at least 350 million years and perhaps much, much longer. Historically considered plants, fungi are now known to share traits with both plants and animals but to actually be their own lineage. Incredibly important in the environment for their ability to decompose organic matter and release carbon and other elements, fungi are everywhere in large numbers—including in the soil, in the air, in water bodies, and in and on the bodies of plants, animals, and humans. The Garden’s fungal research focuses primarily on the Agaricales and the Boletales (mushrooms, puffballs, and related groups).
Lichens are not exactly plants, either. As one lichenologist has described them: “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” Living as a composite organism in a symbiotic relationship, lichens are composed of a fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium. The fungus provides shelter from extreme conditions for the alga or cyanobacterium, while the alga or cyanobacterium—both of which are photosynthetic—provides sugars for the fungus to feed on. These amazing symbiotic organisms are also able to shut down metabolically when conditions are unfavorable and are often the first colonizers in some of the harshest places on Earth. Lichens have been around for more than 300 million years.
Boletineae (Fungi) in Queensland, Australia. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Roy Halling, the project is producing an evolutionary classification of the Boletineae using modern methods and will include online resources for identification and comparison of the Boletineae in Queensland. Commonly referred to as porcini mushrooms, the Boletineae are an important food for humans and animals. In addition, the obligatory symbiotic associations that bolete mushrooms form with tree roots are the largest contributor to forest ecosystem health.
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Lichens of the Ozarks Ecoregion. Co-led by Garden scientists Dr. Richard C. Harris and James C. Lendemer, with colleague Douglas Ladd, the project is documenting the lichens of the Ozarks, including classifications of lichen groups. The Ozarks constitute perhaps the oldest continuously exposed land mass in North America and one of the oldest on Earth. Because of their central location, the Ozarks have on multiple occasions served as a refugium for organisms buffeted by climatic shifts associated with glacial and geologic events. It is an area with many lichens found nowhere else. Find out more information
Bryophytes (Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts)
Bryophytes are small organisms that occupy common habitats such as banks, rock outcroppings, tree trunks, and forest floors—where they often form large carpets or cushions composed of many individuals. Mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are small, in part, because they never evolved the vascular system that has allowed for uprightness and larger size in groups such as ferns, gymnosperms, and flowering plants. Instead, they live mostly in moist places and absorb water and nutrients directly into their leaves. Mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are very successful life forms, having survived on Earth continuously since at least 75 million years before the age of the dinosaurs.
Marchantiophyta, Anthocerophyta, and Bryophyta of the Cape Horn Archipelago. Led by Garden scientist Dr. William Buck, the project is inventorying and preparing an identification manual for the poorly known mosses, liverworts, and hornworts growing in the remote, inaccessible Cape Horn Archipelago in southernmost Chile. The research hopes to shed light on why particular species of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are found at Cape Horn—when their only other known locations are in distant New Zealand and northern North America.
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Ferns and Lycophytes
Ferns and the related lycophytes are among the oldest of land plants, with the earliest fossils dating from nearly 400 million years ago. The evolution of an internal vascular system for transporting water, minerals, and food materials allowed ferns and lycophytes to evolve to larger sizes than the non-vascular plants around them. In the earliest periods of their evolution, there were many forms of ferns and lycophytes that are now extinct—including some that reached the size of large trees and formed large forests over many parts of Earth. The remains of these ancient fern and lycophyte forests provide the bulk of the world’s coal beds. Today ferns and lycophytes remain a diverse group with the greatest abundance in the tropics. They are used extensively in landscape and horticulture display.
Taxonomic Revision, Phylogenetic Analysis, and Leaf Evolution in Elaphoglossum sect. Squamipedia (Dryopteridaceae). While a few species of the tropical fern genus Elaphoglossum have compound leaves, approximately 600 species have simple leaves. Co-led by Garden scientists Drs. Robbin Moran and Barbara Ambrose, the project uses traditional approaches such as fieldwork and herbarium studies, along with modern approaches such as DNA sequence analysis, to understand the classification of Elaphoglossum sect. Squamipedia and the genetic basis of fern leaf diversity. Find out more information
Megalastrum: An Electronic Monograph. Led by Garden scientist Dr. Robbin Moran, the project is producing a scholarly treatise of the neotropical fern genus Megalastrum. An online version will include specimen pages and keys to species. Find out more information
Gymnosperms were the first seed-bearing plants to appear on Earth. The seeds of gymnosperms (typically shed from scales arranged in cones) provided protection for developing embryos and allowed them to remain viable for a long time. Compared to non-seed plants around them, gymnosperms attained a reduced reliance on growing in very moist environments. By the age of the dinosaurs (150 million to 270 million years ago), gymnosperms had become the dominant vegetation on Earth. Eventually pushed out by the much more successful flowering plants, gymnosperms today number less than 1,000 species. Although they occur throughout the world, they are most prominent in areas with nutrient-poor soils. Gymnosperms such as pine, fir, spruce, and cedar are very important timber trees.
Image by Jan De Laet. Retrieved from www.plantsystematics.org
Gymnosperms on the Tree of Life: Resolving the Phylogeny of Seed Plants. This large, multi-institutional project co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Dennis Stevenson is using DNA sequence data to elucidate the evolutionary relationships of all of the gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, Ginkgo, and Gnetales) found worldwide. Find out more information
Systematics of Cupressaceae (cypress family). Led by Garden scientist Dr. Damon Little, the project is elucidating the evolutionary relationships of members of the Cupressaceae, along with determining the evolutionary pathways of certain character traits found within the family—such as tissue thickenings that may be correlated with climate and climate change. Both contemporary techniques (DNA sequence analysis, gene expression analysis) and traditional approaches (anatomy, morphology) are being employed.
Image by Kevin C. and Sarah M. Nixon. Retrieved from www.plantsystematics.org “
Like gymnosperms, flowering plants produce seeds but, unlike gymnosperms, flowering plants have evolved seeds that are contained within fruits. They have also evolved flowers, which are actually organs for reproduction. Fruits can help with dispersal of seeds by attracting animals to consume them. Flowers can attract animal pollinators that carry pollen to other individuals of the same species. Flowers, fruits, and other characters evolved by flowering plants have given them adaptive advantage over many of the non-flowering plants around them. Since their first appearance on Earth around 130 million years ago, flowering plants have attained an incredible diversity of forms and have come to dominate most terrestrial ecosystems. They also provide us with almost all the food we eat—either directly, or indirectly through livestock feed.
Image by Mac H. Alford. Retrieved from www.plantsystematics.org
From Acorus to Zingiber. Assembling the Phylogeny of the Monocots. This large, multi-institutional project co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Dennis Stevenson is using DNA sequence data to elucidate the evolutionary relationships of the monocots. A major sub-group of flowering plants, which includes more than 65,000 species worldwide, the monocots encompass such familiar plants as grasses, palms, orchids, and philodendrons. Find out more information
Planetary Biodiversity Inventory: A Complete Web-based Monograph of the Tribe Miconieae (Melastomataceae). This large, multi-institutional project co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Fabian Michelángeli is producing a complete inventory and detailed scholarly treatise of the tribe Miconieae in the flowering plant family Melastomataceae. This family includes over 1,800 species of trees and shrubs from tropical rain and montane forests in the Americas.
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Bee pollinators attracted to the flowers of Cimicifuga europaea (Ranunculaceae).
Image by Kevin C. Nixon. Retrieved from www.plantsystematics.org
Tackling Schefflera: Initiating the Re-circumscription of the Largest Genus in Araliaceae (ginseng family). Nearly two-thirds of the species of Araliaceae have been classified as belonging to the tropical tree genus Schefflera. However, Schefflera has recently been demonstrated to be an unnatural group, consisting instead of five different evolutionary lineages. Co-led by Garden scientist Dr. Gregory Plunkett, the project is beginning to untangle the confusion surrounding Schefflera by looking closely at species in two of the lineages—one centered in Madagascar and another in New Caledonia. Find out more information
Funding for research by New York Botanical Garden scientists on the evolution and classification of fungal and plant groups has been provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation.