Science Talk

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

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know—about Lichens

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 7, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Tell Me Something I Don't Know
Dr. James Lendemer (standing) tells host Stephen J. Dubner (seated, center) and co-hosts A. J. Jacobs (left) and Sas Goldberg (right) something they didn’t know about lichens.

Readers with an interest in economics and listeners to public radio know Stephen J. Dubner as one half of the writing team behind the best-selling 2005 economics-for-everyman book Freakonomics and as the host of the program Freakonomics Radio.

A triple threat, Dubner is also the host of a game show podcast, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, in which a handful of guests with a particular expertise talk to Dubner and his co-hosts about their subject and then the audience votes for its favorite expert. The prize: the satisfaction of winning and a nice commemorative certificate.

In a recent episode, “Farming without Sun or Soil and Manna from Heaven,” NYBG Assistant Curator James Lendemer, Ph.D., talked about his passion—lichens, combinations of a fungus and an alga that play important roles in ecosystems by filtering water and air and by providing habitat and food for wildlife.

As Dr. Lendemer explains, lichens are so sensitive that they are considered an indicator of air quality, but they are also tough enough to survive in outer space.

To listen to the full episode—and it’s worth listening to the end—head here

“Message Plants” in the Communications Age

Posted in From the Field on November 22, 2017 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany.

The team learns about plant uses
The team learns about plant uses.

The people of Vanuatu, an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, have a rich cultural history and intense desire to maintain these cultural practices as living traditions, enshrined in the concept of kastom. However, preserving kastom can be a great challenge in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. We initiated a biocultural conservation program in Vanuatu’s southernmost islands, the area known as Tafea Province, aimed at understanding the area’s plant and fungal biodiversity and its local uses, both traditional and modern. This initiative is helping to conserve biodiversity resources and support cultural practices in this remote part of the world.

To begin the project, we held extensive meetings with community members to gauge their interest in participating in the documentation of plants and plant uses. In many areas, we saw signs of rapid erosion of such knowledge, where grandparents knew the traditional information, but their children and even more so their grandchildren had experienced a growing alienation from the natural world, especially as they became more dependent on modern approaches to life.

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Reinaldo Aguilar, A Friend of the Plants of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 13, 2017 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden. He is a specialist in the Brazil nut family.

Reinaldo Aguilar (left) being recognized by Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís for his inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula. Photo by Juan J. Jimenez.

In August, renowned botanist Reinaldo Aguilar was honored for his ongoing inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Costa Rica near the Panama
border. In a ceremony at Corcovado National Park on the peninsula, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís presented Reinaldo with an award and pointed out how important botanical inventories are for selecting and managing biological preserves on the Osa, a region of high biodiversity.

Reinaldo began documenting plant diversity on the Osa in 1991 and continues to explore for new and interesting plants. Since 2008, Reinaldo has been collaborating with the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden and is the lead author of the Vascular Plants of the Osa Peninsula.

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Bridging the Gap

Posted in Videos and Lectures on November 6, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo in the ConservatoryThe Cigna Foundation and the Ghetto Film School recently teamed up to host a competition among the school’s young filmmakers, who were challenged to use their video storytelling skills to highlight how some of the Foundation’s New York City-based World of Difference non-profit grant partners, including The New York Botanical Garden, are creating a positive impact on the health and well-being of local residents.

Taking second place was Bridging the Gap, by Kecia Romiel, who focused on the Botanical Garden’s innovative research led by Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director in the Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. Dr. Vandebroek’s project seeks to improve health care for New York’s immigrant Latino and Caribbean communities by studying the plants they use in their traditional medical practices and raising awareness of these practices among healthcare professionals.

You can watch Kecia’s short video here.

A New Era for Collaboration with Cuba

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 25, 2017 by Science Talk

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is NYBG’s Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program.

Photo of Long and Monterrey
Gregory Long, NYBG’s CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President, and Nora Monterrey, General Director of Cuba’s National Botanical Garden. The two institutions recently signed a new Memorandum of Understanding.

The New York Botanical Garden and Cuba’s National Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico Nacional, or JBN) have a history of collaboration that spans no less than five decades on numerous specific plant research and conservation initiatives. Science Talk has chronicled some of the more recent ones here, here, and here.

Earlier this month, Nora Monterrey, JBN’s General Director, and Alejandro Palmarola, Head of Conservation Program at JBN, visited NYBG to launch an exciting new era for collaboration between our two institutions. The discussions about this renewed commitment for collaboration began in Havana in July 2015, when one of us (Brian) went to Cuba to meet Nora as the new General Director of JBN and to discuss how our institutions could best join forces on cutting-edge science or conservation projects.

However, in a visionary move, Nora Monterrey proposed to take our collaboration to the next level. Instead of a specific agreement for a specific collaborative project, she envisioned establishing a wide-reaching umbrella agreement, spanning multiple years. This approach, which is laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), will promote all sorts of collaborative initiatives between our institutions–not only science and conservation but also other programmatic areas such as education, horticulture, and exhibitions, as well as support areas, such as marketing, outreach, and sustainable tourism.

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Thomas Walter and His Plants

Posted in Books: Past and Present on October 23, 2017 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.

Ward Front CoverThomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Work of a Pioneer American Botanista new book from The New York Botanical Garden Press, documents how Walter named, for the first time, many native plants in North America in his Flora Caroliniana, published in 1788. Part history, but mostly scientific, Thomas Walter and His Plants will be of interest to botanists, bibliophiles, and history-of-science enthusiasts.

Flora Caroliniana was the first flora written in America that used Carl Linnaeus’ classification system and binomial nomenclature. In terms of modern taxonomy, this is a very big deal. The way that plants are still named today has its basis in Linnaeus works, specifically his Species Plantarum, published in 1753. After this publication, binomial nomenclature became the standard for naming plants. Very simply, binomial nomenclature is a system of giving plants (and other living things) a Latin name containing two parts—a genus (which is a capitalized noun) and a specific epithet (which is a lower-cased modifying adjective, often descriptive or commemorative). (Read more about taxonomic ranks, including genera and species here.) 

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Majestic But Endangered: The Uncertain Future of a Mainstay of Northeastern Forests Will Be the Focus of NYBG’s Saving the American Ash Summit

Posted in Events on October 6, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a white ash treeFrom anchoring the ecosystems of many North American forests to providing the wood commonly used in baseball bats, the American ash tree is a majestic and important part of this continent’s woodlands. Now, however, it faces a mortal crisis as an invasive beetle spreads from the Upper Midwest into the northeastern United States and Canada, leaving millions of dead ash trees in its wake.

Nearly 100 percent of ashes infested with ash borers die. The threat is so grave that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently added six North American ash species to its widely respected Red List of threatened species. It declared five of the six critically endangered, a category that is one step from extinction.

On Friday, October 13, 2017, The New York Botanical Garden will bring together four experts to discuss the natural and cultural history of the ash and the peril it faces in Saving the American Ash Summit. The summit will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Ross Hall at the Botanical Garden.

In addition to examining the threats to the American ash, the summit will address how homeowners, nature enthusiasts, and stewards of natural areas can work to save these beloved trees.

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No Longer a Best Guess: NYBG Scientists Help Produce the First Comprehensive Catalog of Amazonian Plants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 22, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre
Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre

Representing a major advance in understanding and conserving the plant life of one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, an international team of scientists—including four researchers from The New York Botanical Garden—has created the first scientifically vetted list of known plant species in the Amazon Basin.

Based on documented plant specimens held in research collections worldwide and verified by specialists in tropical plants, the team cataloged 14,003 species of seed plants in the Amazon Basin, including 6,727 species of trees. Their research paper, which has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is available here.

Until now, the number of plant species that live in the Amazon Basin has been hotly debated, with estimates ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. But those numbers have been based on ecological models or unverified species lists. This study assembles comprehensive species information based on plant specimens identified by specialists.

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NYBG’s Urban Naturalist Program: Become a Steward of Your Urban Environment

Posted in Learning Experiences on September 5, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Several Urban Naturalist students working on a sandy shore.Even in this teeming metropolis, nature is all around us. You just have to look for it. But it helps to know what you’re looking for and what you’re seeing when you’ve found it.

That’s where The New York Botanical Garden’s Urban Naturalist Program comes in.

Called “life-changing” by students who took the course this spring, the fall Urban Naturalist Program will equip you with the observation, interpretation and documentation skills necessary to become a citizen scientist and an effective environmental steward. Led by Mike Feller, our team of expert naturalists, including Ken Chaya and Nancy Slowik, will use the Botanical Garden’s grounds and select New York City parks as living labs to investigate the interrelationships between species and discover how our urban environment sustains those ecosystems.

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A Virtual First: NYBG’s Citizen Scientists Document the Botanical History of the Northeast Online

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 25, 2017 by Charles Zimmerman

Charles Zimmerman is the Herbarium Collections and Outreach Administrator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a specimen
This chestnut specimen, collected by NYBG founder Nathaniel Britton in 1901, was part of the virtual volunteer project.

The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is especially proud to report the successful completion of Phase I of our largest citizen-supported initiative to date, which makes much historic data for vascular plants of northeastern North America freely available online for the first time. Following the October 2016 launch of this WeDigBio worldwide citizen science event, over 190 online participants contributed a total of 7,177 transcriptions, providing new digital records for 300 species from familiar plant families including sunflowers (Asteraceae), blueberries (Ericaceae), oaks (Fagacae) and grasses (Poaceae).

Through an ongoing partnership with Notes from Nature, virtual volunteering for Steere Herbarium projects has quickly become the most accessible platform for citizen engagement in scientific research at The New York Botanical Garden. Using any computer with access to the Internet, curious and enthusiastic volunteers can view digital images of historic preserved plant specimens in our collection. Through self-guided training (and a little practice), participants interpret and transcribe the often handwritten information on a specimen sheet about the context in which a plant was found in the wild, including the name of the scientist who collected the sample, the geographic location, and the date of collection.

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