Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Environment

Project Rondônia: On the Ground in Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest

Posted in Environment on September 17, 2019 by Douglas Daly

Douglas Daly, Ph.D., is the B.A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany and the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.


“Destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”

—Roberto Burle Marx, “Garden and Ecology,” 1969

Forest burning near Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian State of Rondônia. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times/Redux)

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest, spanning nine South American countries and housing 10 percent of the world’s living plant and animal species. Its trees absorb about 25 percent of carbon emissions taken in collectively by all forests on Earth, replacing harmful CO2 with the oxygen we breathe. Recent reports indicate the number of fires blazing in the Amazon in late August 2019 is the highest on record, representing an 83 percent increase over the number of fires at the same time last year.

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Amazonia Ablaze: A Record Year for Forest Fires in Brazil

Posted in Environment on August 23, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Roberto Burle Marx
A photo of Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil, taken by his protegé, Raymond Jungles.

The recent report about the fires in the Brazilian Amazon compels us to reflect on how painful the Amazonian fires would have been to Roberto Burle Marx (1904–94), one of Brazil’s earliest and most important advocates for the rain forest and the subject of our current major exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.

A renowned landscape architect, Burle Marx was also a passionate, outspoken conservationist. His writings on environmental topics in Brazil—powerful when written a half-century ago—have a renewed, relevant resonance in 2019. For example, in Burle Marx: Homenagem à Natureza¹, he is quoted as saying, “You have to understand that it is my obligation to oppose everything that I consider an ecological crime … the sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” In 1969, he wrote: “This destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”² A more powerful, fitting response to the news of the Amazonian fires could not be penned today.

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At a Crossroads: Plants and the Endangered Species Act

Posted in Environment on August 16, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


The federal government recently announced plans to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important legislation ever enacted to protect threatened plants and animals in the United States. There are currently 947 plant species and 1,471 animal species listed through the ESA. The new rules, which will take effect next month, will curtail future listings and potentially reverse a half-century of salvation in the wild. An article in The New York Times outlines the plans; most of the response and commentary has focused on animals—for instance, Carl Safina’s compelling opinion piece with statistics about triumphant saves of condors, alligators, grey wolves, and pelicans since the act became law in 1973. 

However, the new rules also have grave implications for plants. 

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Brazil’s Mata Atlântica

Posted in Environment on July 2, 2019 by Matt Newman

Photo of the Mata Atlantica in Brazil

Throughout our run of Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, we’re sharing glimpses into the natural world that informed Burle Marx’s love of plants and the landscapes that he traveled through in his home country and beyond, discovering new plants and working to protect those under threat of deforestation, development, and more. He called these journeys his viagens de coleta, or “collection trips.”

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Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: A New Global Assessment by the United Nations

Posted in Environment on May 10, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Image of IPBES assessment
IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers, published May 6, 2019

Before this week, most readers probably had not heard of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), but they certainly will know of its existence now. This United Nations group made major news this week, as reported in The New York Times, with publication of its first official report, the IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers. Among its major findings was that about one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The IPBES report makes an ironclad case for urgent global action to mitigate human-induced biodiversity loss before humanity crosses the fail-safe point.  

The breathtakingly dire findings of the IPBES report were captured in the title and content of an analysis by Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., “Eden No More,” published in Science Advances this week. Dr. Lovejoy, an NYBG Trustee and Gold Medal recipient, elegantly explains what is meant by ecosystem services: “those charities of nature, both nebulous and tangible, that serve as the backbone of human well-being: food, fresh water, clean air, wood, fiber, genetic resources, and medicine.”

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Predicting Nature’s Response to Climate Change: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections

Posted in Environment on April 22, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Red maple (Acer rubrum) herbarium specimen in flower, from a collection made on April 12, 1889, by John I. Northrop and Alice Belle Rich in Hunts Point, which is today in Bronx, New York. William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, Bar Code 2488195.

As we celebrate Earth Day, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to an important new initiative that NYBG is helping to lead that could dramatically improve our ability to use biodiversity collections to understand and predict how Earth’s plants and animals will respond to climate change.

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United Nations Declares 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Posted in Environment on April 8, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of coastal forest
Atlantic Coastal forest of Brazil, where 95% of the original forest has been destroyed or degraded.

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As the UN announcement emphasized, this declaration will provide unparalleled opportunities for job creation, food security, and addressing climate change, all of which are intertwined, vitally important concerns for the future of human society and of all life on our planet. In a recent post, I wrote about the notion of a botanical approach to mitigating global warming through a concerted, coordinated effort of ecosystem restoration, for which Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy argued elegantly and persuasively in his recently published book Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which the Society for Ecological Restoration applauded in a statement, will provide a multilateral framework to give a botanical approach to mitigating global warming a much-needed public boost and hopefully a substantial financial investment. But how much ecosystem restoration would it take to really make a difference in terms of mitigating global warming? An encouraging answer was provided in a recent research paper presented by global change ecologist Dr. Thomas Crowther at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

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The Botany Bill: Proposed Legislation Highlights Importance of Native Plants on Federal Lands

Posted in Environment on March 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Dr. Rob Naczi
Dr. Rob Naczi in the field doing research for The New Manual of Vascular Plants.

Proposed legislation has been introduced in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives with the rather formidable title “Botanical Sciences and Native Plant Materials Research, Restoration, and Promotion Act.” Informally, it is known as “the Botany Bill.” If enacted, the Botany Bill could greatly support the safeguarding and promoting of native plants on federal lands and the increase the number of botanists who are dedicated to studying and protecting those plant species. NYBG is one of dozens of organizations that have endorsed the Botany Bill.

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The Lichens Are Coming—Back!

Posted in Environment on February 19, 2019 by Becky Thorp

Becky Thorp is the Senior Plant Recorder at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of lichen
Flavoparmelia caperata

Do you like to breathe? If yes, then I have excellent news for you: lichens are easier to find in the New York metropolitan area today than they have been for decades, and this is an indicator of improved air quality.

Lichens are composed of a symbiotic relationship between photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria, which create food from sunlight, and a fungus, which provides shelter. They can be found growing on the surfaces of tree trunks, rocks, lean soil, tombstones, and other surfaces on every continent and in every type of terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Able to withstand extreme variations of moisture and temperature, lichens have even survived long periods in outer space. What they can’t survive is air pollution here on earth, especially in the form of soot or sulfur dioxide, because they absorb nutrients directly from the atmosphere. Given this fact, it comes as no surprise that while they thrived in the New York area in the early 19th century, the number of local lichen species declined sharply in the 20th century with the growth of industry and population.

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Mitigating Global Warming: A Botanical Approach, Part 2

Posted in Environment on February 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


View of the Tapajos river
View overlooking the Tapajós River in Amazonia National Park. This botanically diverse area is slated to be impacted by hydroelectric development.

My recent post on Science Talk focused on the importance of planning and executing a coordinated, worldwide scaling-up of ecosystem restoration efforts in order to maximize the potential role of plants in mitigating global warming. At least as important as ecosystem restoration is the need to safeguard the quantity and quality of existing intact ecosystems. Indeed, in a recent report, larger trees were shown to be more efficient at capturing carbon than smaller trees, so mature trees in healthy ecosystems are essential to the efficacy of a botanical approach to mitigating global warming. Another recent report, suggesting that as the climate warms, plants will absorb less carbon dioxide, reinforces the urgency of restoring ecosystems and protecting natural areas.

NYBG scientists are helping to safeguard protected natural areas by documenting their plant diversity and sharing that information with land managers and policymakers. For example, Associate Curator Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., is leading one such research project in Brazil’s Tapajós National Forest and nearby Amazonia National Park, discussed in a previous post on Science Talk and profiled in greater depth here. NYBG has “boots on the ground” in six Areas of Botanical Concern (ABCs), which are regions where conservation action is urgent and NYBG is well positioned to have a major influence on conservation outcomes: North America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Pacific islands, the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, and Amazonia.

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