As I recounted in last week’s post, it took Basset Maguire, a famous New York Botanical Garden scientist of the mid-20th Century, more than six weeks to travel to the base of Tafelberg, a “table mountain” in central Suriname. It took our team of six scientists and five support staff just over an hour to fly from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. Yet we still faced the same problem that Maguire had of getting our equipment and team to the summit, nearly 3,400 feet above our base camp.
In our case, the cargo included all of our food and camp essentials for two weeks, plus all the equipment to collect, study, and document the many different groups of organisms targeted by the expedition: plants, aquatic insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, and fish. Altogether, we needed to move about 1,200 pounds and 11 people to the summit. Once again, we had a faster method that wasn’t available to Maguire: a helicopter.
Whether it’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle or the phylogenetic reconstruction of the Carex laxiflorae complex, Jenna Dorey has a knack for piecing things together. Her work as a first-year Ph.D. student here at the Garden takes her through long stretches spent poring over morphology and molecular data, yet each piece of information is, like a jumble of shaped cut-outs, only a series of tenons and mortises waiting to be made whole. And from the field to the lab, this student rarely backs down from a good challenge.
We spoke with Dorey in late fall about her work in the NYBG labs, and the botanical inspirations that push her to continue her studies in the plant world. Among them, she tells us the love of a good frolic in a verdant field sits high on the list (though stomping around on a spongy moor with a vasculum in tow has a charm all its own).
The 14th Annual Winter Lecture Series kicks off this Thursday, January 30, with Kirstenbosch—The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa, a much-anticipated talk by Brian J. Huntley. As one of the world’s leading conservation scientists, he will be speaking about that stunningly beautiful Cape Town botanical garden and the long history of botanical exploration in southern Africa, home of one of the world’s most diverse—and endangered—floras.
A couple of weeks ago, I called Professor Huntley—among his many other titles and endeavors, he’s an emeritus professor of botany at the University of Cape Town—at his home in South Africa to ask him about his upcoming visit to The New York Botanical Garden, the first stop on an American speaking tour.
“The core component of my lecture will deal with the unusually rich flora of South Africa and how it has been developed and displayed at Kirstenbosch,” said Professor Huntley, who promises his talk will be “profusely illustrated” with images of Kirstenbosch’s gorgeous gardens, as well as individual species and families of plants. “One purpose of the trip is to give people a sense of what they’d see if they came to South Africa.”
Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants. This is the first of four posts about an expedition last year to Suriname in northeastern South America.
As a field biologist, you see some places mentioned in old literature that have achieved classical status, places that you think you will never be able to visit. Until recently, Tafelberg—Dutch for “table mountain”—in central Suriname was one of those places for me.
Geologically, Tafelberg is part of the Roraima formation of northeastern South America, with a layer of sandstone that lies over a granitic base, similar to several mountains in southern Venezuela that are of a type usually called a tepui (from the word for “mountain” in the language of the indigenous Pemon people). Tepuis often have steep rock cliffs that rise from the surrounding forest or savannas, giving these mountains not only their characteristic table-top shape but also a sense that their summits are effectively isolated. This shape and sense of isolation were prominently featured in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, contributing to the lore and mystery that surround these mountains.
Normally, the term “tree hugger” brings to mind an environmental activist who takes action to protect trees from destruction by other humans. In contrast, the plant shown here is a tree hugger that may hasten the death of the tree it embraces. The plant “hugging” the tree is a fig, one of the nearly 700 species of the genus Ficus of the mulberry family (Moraeae).
Many species of Ficus are “keystone” species, meaning they play an especially large role in their ecosystems. Their fruits—figs—are eaten by a wide variety of animals, especially species of birds and bats. Bird figs are usually red (Fig. 2) because birds are attracted by red, and bat figs are usually green at maturity because bats often find their food by echolocation and aroma, not by color (Fig. 3).
Figs that embrace trees like this are called strangler figs, but this is a misnomer. They do not strangle the host plant. They do, however, harm their hosts by robbing them of light, water, and nutrients.
Algae, a large and diverse group of plants that live in water, are often overlooked, but they shouldn’t be. They play an important role in the food web and life on Earth: algae produce more oxygen than all the land plants combined. They can be found in freshwater, brackish, and marine environments, and they’re classified as red, green, or brown, which is the kind I am currently studying.
Shannon Asencio, who works at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, is the Project Coordinator for the Macrofungi Collection Consortium. This Garden-led project, involving institutions across the country, will result in a publicly accessible database and digitized images of several hundred thousand specimens of mushrooms and related fungi.
A couple of months ago, I attended the 2013 “foray” of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), held at Shepherd of the Ozarks in northern Arkansas. I was there not only to participate in the search for mushrooms—mycology is the study of mushrooms and other fungi—but also to deliver a presentation on The New York Botanical Garden’s exciting new crowdsourcing initiative.
These annual forays are a way to record the mycological species that occur throughout North America. The collection data, photographs, and dried specimens are housed at the herbarium of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. These specimen records provide data about the distribution of macrofungi—mushrooms and other large fungi species—in North America and serve as a resource for additional studies, such as DNA research.
For as much time as our scientists spend surrounded by centrifuges, microscopes, and the minutiae of scientific investigation, botanical inspiration can just as easily begin with something as simple as admiring a plant’s stunning good looks—a fact NYBG grad student Gwynne Lim will happily confirm. Her muse came in the form of the Tacca genus, more specifically the bat flower, a “gothic and macabre” plant which captured her imagination and led her down the path of exploration.
As a specialist in the systematics and reproductive biology of Tacca, Lim’s knowledge extends well into the current research being done to determine the genus’ medicinal uses, as well as its potential viability as a famine crop. But she certainly hasn’t lost that sense of wonder and discovery; of seeing the bat flower for the first time in the wild, or roughing it through miles of challenging terrain for the singular reward of witnessing something no other botanist has seen before. Watch the video below for an interview with Lim—it should help you understand how, so very often, discovery begins with a living muse.
Here’s a video that shows how essential big, strong bees are for the production of the largest “nut” found in a can of mixed party nuts. It shows a carpenter bee (Xylocopa frontalis) pollinating the flowers of a Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa).
We say “nut” because Brazil nuts are seeds, not nuts, a kind of fruit structurally similar to an acorn. The Brazil nuts we eat at parties are produced in a woody fruit that looks like a cannonball, so, to be botanically correct, Brazil nuts should be called Brazil seeds. But we don’t expect that to happen anytime soon!
Alma Whittaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel TheSignature of All Things, has a passion for science, especially botany, and most especially mosses. I share these passions although I have always been more captivated by liverworts, the cousins of mosses.
Mosses and liverworts were among the first groups of plants that evolved to live on land rather than in water. Because they lack the internal mechanisms for conducting water that most land plants have, they remain small so their leaves can absorb water directly from the surfaces on which they grow. Mosses and liverworts both reproduce by single-celled spores rather than seeds.
While most mosses are fairly uniform in structure, consisting of a stem with simple leaves spiraling around it, liverworts are unfettered by structural conformity. As shown in the illustration, their forms range from ribbon-like to leafy, and the leaves can be folded and divided in many ways. They release their spores by means of stalked structures that look like umbrellas or tiny brown flowers.