Jessica L. Allen is completing her Ph.D. at the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden. James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.
In a previous post, we reported on the discovery of an overlooked biodiversity hotspot located in the vast coastal swamps of eastern North Carolina. While the area was already renowned for its wildness, we discovered that it hosts more lichen species than anywhere else in the Mid-Atlantic. Unfortunately, the factors that likely preserved the wilderness into the present day—endless low-lying swamps are difficult to drain and log—mean that it is now imperiled by rising sea levels associated with climate change. In an area where the elevation is measures in inches, minute increases in sea level mean the difference between old-growth, lichen-rich forests and marshes or open water where lichens cannot survive.
Deep in the Haupt Conservatory‘s upland rain forest house stands an unassuming tree with a rich history—one that involves one of the most significant medical discoveries of the last century. From the forests of South America to the ships of the British Navy, and even your favorite cocktail, the cinchona’s been making waves for decades.
Find out more about this eminently useful tree in our latest series, NYBG Facts!
This past November, some of the most influential botanists and conservationists in modern science gathered together for The New York Botanical Garden’s 123rd Annual Meeting, joining CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President Gregory Long and the NYBG’s Board Members for a recap of the past year’s successes—as well as the Garden’s plans to come. But top billing during this event went to a person who has not only served as an integral member of the NYBG Board since 1986, but proven an enormously significant figure in global ecology initiatives and conservation efforts.
For many, the highlight of the evening was Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., who received the NYBG’s Gold Medal—our highest honor—for his accomplishments within and dedication to biodiversity and plant science.
Annie Virnig is no stranger to tackling formidable challenges. Whether she’s hiking through the dense tropical forests of Colombia in search of rare plant species, noting her findings in the laboratory, or blocking a header on the soccer field, she employs the same diligence and problem-solving tactics to ensure the best possible result.
As a grad student at NYBG, Virnig’s work focuses on the neotropical blueberries that so often cause a stir in our Haupt Conservatory. The exotic shapes and colors of the Conservatory’s collection are only a small sample of their incredible diversity in South America, where the wealth of species goes well beyond the common blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries that we associate with this plant tribe in the U.S. Zoning in on the historic and cultural uses of these plants, as well as the antioxidants and other health benefits provided by them, Virnig has found herself drawn to the town of El Queremal in Colombia, where an eponymous flower has captured imaginations for centuries.
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).
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.
A recent graduate from Pelham Memorial High School, Owen Robinson worked as a volunteer Forest Intern at the NYBG in the summer of 2012. He has since begun as a freshman at the University of Virginia, where he hopes to continue his pursuit of science research as a part of the Echols Scholar Program.
In the summer of 2012 I conducted a project to determine whether or not invasive trees are negatively impacting aquatic macroinvertebrate populations. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are small, invertebrate insects that play essential roles in their ecosystems, acting as an energy bridge between outside plant life and the rest of their aquatic environment. They do this by breaking down tree leaves.
Invasive trees are an established and worsening problem in our region, one that impacts plant biodiversity as well as some mammalian and avian populations. As little research has been dedicated to my particular focus, I wanted to determine whether the leaves from these invasive trees were less beneficial to aquatic macroinvertebrate populations than the leaves of native trees. If this proved the case, there would be reason to work harder against the takeover of invasive plant species.
The New York Botanical Garden may be a hub of environmental conservation and a botanical museum, but it’s also an institution of growth—and I’m not just referencing our plant collections. Here in our laboratories we host an international body of students whose enthusiasm for botany and its related disciplines fires a passion for learning, with many of them pursuing graduate degrees through research at the NYBG. Of these, a handful were more than happy to sit down and tell us about their chosen fields and the motivations that brought them here, as well as the tools and techniques they employ in their day-to-day studies.
As a first-year grad student with a specialization in freshwater green algae, Robin Sleith spends plenty of time around lakes and rivers, often trawling for algal species with an improvised tool that Dr. Kenneth Karol and his post-doc, Dr. John Hall, dreamed up from an egg whisk. But while the collection methods may be simplistic, the science behind Sleith’s studies is anything but. Check out the video below to see how a childhood spent exploring the wilderness of New Hampshire led Robin to the cusp of a career as a scientist and conservationist.
Getting there is half the fun, unless you’re trekking into remote wilderness. With scientists such as Wayt Thomas, Ph.D., hoofing it into some of the most remote and unforgiving locales on Earth, it’s not surprising that their expeditions occasionally hit snags. Dr. Thomas is the Elizabeth G. Britton Curator of Botany here at the NYBG, and his focus on the flora of northeastern Brazil often takes him to deep, rugged forests where roads are a luxury, if not a pipe dream. But as seen below, the hassles are worth it, especially when species diversity is at risk. Dr. Thomas is working with plants found nowhere else in the world, an effort that has a two-fold benefit.
In the course of documenting these plants in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests, he and his team are also determining which species provide food and shelter for endangered and increasingly rare bird species also found in the area. With time, Dr. Thomas and his colleagues hope to uncover the relationships between plant and animal, which will allow scientists not only to track the location of these avian populations more easily but also to recommend specific reforestation plans to support these vanishing birds.
Of course, Dr. Thomas isn’t the only one roughing it in the field. Stay tuned to Science Talk for more adventures involving our globetrotting scientists.
Not every research program that takes place in the Thain Family Forest is geared explicitly toward the trees, though the work done there does tend to knit together at the end of the day. Think of it as a domino effect; an influence on one organism can herald a drastic fallout for others in the web of an individual biome. And, in some cases, certain varieties of plants or animals are relied on as indicator species—”canaries in the coal mine” that speak to the overall health of a given area, signifying changes for better or worse that might otherwise be too subtle to recognize. Salamanders, wherever they’re found, are often a flagship example.
In recent years, a handful of studies here have focused on the small salamander species that call our Forest home: the northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata), a water-reliant species native to the U.S. and Canada, and the terrestrial redback or woodland salamander (Plethodon cinereus), a species that has evolved to live away from water. Considering how delicate these quick, slippery little amphibians are on average, it’s quite the feat to strike off and make a living under rocks and leaf litter. Of course, even a particular resilience among their own kind doesn’t excuse them from the effects of climate, urbanization, and other challenges.