Plant Research and Conservation at The New York Botanical Garden: News and Media
NYBG welcomes economic botanist Alex McAlvay, Ph.D.
The NYBG community is delighted to welcome our newest Assistant Curator in Science, Dr. Alex McAlvay, to the Institute of Economic Botany! Alex grew up in Seattle, Washington, where he became interested in traditional uses of local plants.
He completed a B.S. in Biological Anthropology at Western Washington University, a Ph.D. in Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Cornell University.
Alex is passionate about understanding the relationships between humans and their environments, the evolutionary and ecological impacts of humans on plants, and the traditional management of plant resources. In his research, Alex addresses issues at the interface of culture and the environment through the integration of ethnographic interviews, population genomics, community ecology, participatory research, and niche modeling.
Alex’s Ph.D. dissertation research centered on the twin management concerns of crop wild relatives and introduced feral forms of the globally important crop species Brassica rapa (turnip, napa cabbage, bok choy, and oilseeds). As part of this project, he identified crop wild relatives for conservation, reconstructed the domestication history of the crop forms, traced the origins and spread of feral populations, documented the importance of weedy field mustard for food security in Latin America, and characterized a rare instance of ongoing redomestication by Indigenous Mexican farmers.
For his postdoctoral research, Alex examined traditional management of agroecosystems by Ethiopian farmers and the resilience of these strategies in the face of climate change. He studied the potential of traditional intercropping of multiple wheat and barley varieties to mitigate abiotic and biotic climate stressors, and he assessed the impacts of market access and government intervention on these practices. His interdisciplinary economic botany research also includes projects on the ecological legacies of First Nations management of Canadian forests, local and Indigenous perceptions of climate change impacts, and activist research in ethnobiology.
At NYBG, Alex plans to leverage collections, facilities, and collaborations across science departments to develop new projects on functional ecology in Mexican and Ethiopian swidden-fallow systems, British Columbian First Nations and Indigenous Mexican forest management practices, and the management of tea genetic resources in Myanmar under climate change. Alex looks forward to contributing to the interdisciplinary and collaborative research community at the Garden and working closely with diverse students and members of NYBG’s audience.
Eminent NYBG Science and Library Staff Transition to Emeritus Status After Decades of Service
Eight staff members with an average of 32 years of service in NYBG’s Plant Research and Conservation program and the LuEsther T. Mertz Library are stepping down in 2020.
Ever appreciative of its tradition of staff longevity, NYBG wanted to give these longtime employees the opportunity to take advantage of an outmoded retirement benefit known as Terminal Leave before it permanently expires on September 1, 2020, and offered a Voluntary Retirement Incentive Program to eligible staff across all divisions.
Many of our scientific and Mertz Library staff have spent significant portions of their professional careers at The New York Botanical Garden, and it is a bittersweet occasion when we recognize colleagues for their accomplishments, reflect on their scientific and institutional contributions, and wish them well for the future. These individuals have been leaders in their fields, and the Botanical Garden thanks them for their many decades of service and the important roles they have played in making NYBG one of the great plant research institutions of the world. While we wish them all well, we do not bid farewell to the curators who are retiring. They will continue their Garden-based projects and research activities as Curators Emeriti in the coming years.
Brian M. Boom, Ph.D.
Vice President for Conservation Strategy, Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany & Director of NYBG Press
(36 years of service)
Brian is an expert in the coffee family (Rubiaceae) in the American tropics, but he has devoted most of his career to Science administration at the Garden. He served as NYBG’s first Vice President for Conservation Strategy, successfully launching the New York City EcoFlora Project, and he has also overseen the operations of the NYBG Press. Over the years, Brian has worked in Science Development, as Special Assistant to the President, as Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany, Director of the Caribbean Program, Director of Outreach, and as Vice President of Science.
Susan M. Fraser
Thomas J. Hubbard Vice President and Director of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library
(nearly 37 years of service)
Susan has helped to secure the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’s standing as the world’s greatest library devoted to the botanical arts and sciences. Her knowledge of the collections, both general and special collections, has helped to inform breathtaking exhibitions, and her strong network of inter-organizational friends has been a great asset to the Mertz Library’s ability to acquire new collections and build collaborations. Her dedication to the Library has also led to many important grants, and she was central to the founding of the Humanities Institute.
Andrew J. Henderson, Ph.D.
Curator of Palms
(33 years of service)
Andrew is a world authority on palms, and his field explorations have taken him to more than 35 countries on all continents except Antarctica. He has published 10 books devoted to cataloging the diversity of palms in regions including the Amazon and other parts of the Americas, southern Asia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, and he has published two books on rattans.
Robbin C. Moran, Ph.D.
Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany
(nearly 23 years of service)
Robbin has devoted his career to the study of ferns and lycophytes in the American tropics. He is a dedicated teacher, and he has inspired generations of young scientists over many years of teaching courses in Tropical Plant Systematics and Tropical Ferns and Lycophytes. Robbin has served for 22 years as an Associate Editor of Brittonia.
Dennis W. Stevenson, Ph.D.
Vice President for Science and Cullman Senior Curator
(33 years of service)
Dennis’ interests and specialties are wide-ranging. His colleagues most appreciate his encyclopedic knowledge of plant morphology and anatomy. In recent decades, he channeled his expertise and drive to develop the Garden’s well-funded and highly successful laboratory research programs in Molecular Systematics and Genomics. Dennis is a specialist in cycads but also has expertise and publications in everything from bryophytes to ferns and lycophytes, paleobotany, seed plant evolution, flowering plant phylogeny, and monocot systematics. Dennis was Editor-in-Chief of Botanical Review for 30 years.
Manager of Special Projects
(nearly 33 years of service)
Jan has served in many roles for science outreach and conservation. She oversaw the growth of the science internship program and spearheaded development of a formal calendar of hands-on enrichment activities for participants. She developed and managed the Science Gallery Talk series, has overseen science exhibition content development, and has served as manager of the business functions of the NYBG Press.
William Wayt Thomas, Ph.D.
The Elizabeth G. Britton Curator of Botany
(37 years of service)
Wayt is a world expert on the flora of the Brazilian Atlantic Coastal forest, a highly diverse and endangered biome. In recent years, he collaborated with large teams of scientists to understand the evolutionary, geological, and climatic history of the Atlantic Coastal forests. Wayt is also a specialist in the sedge and tree-of-heaven families (Cyperaceae, Simaroubaceae).
Mertz Collections Development/Technical Services Librarian
(nearly 25 years of service)
Don has served in many roles related to acquisitions, collection development, and technical services for the Mertz Library. His hard work and expertise over the years has built the Library’s collections to ensure the well-curated and comprehensive holdings for which it is so well-known. His success derives from his knowledge of the literature in plant science, horticulture and history, his intellectual curiosity, and his eagerness to engage colleagues and request input on collection development questions.
NSF Herbarium Digitization Grant: Bryophytes and Lichens
A new grant from the National Science Foundation will support continued specimen digitization in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. This new project emphasizes digitization of Bryophytes and Lichens, unrelated groups that are functionally similar in that they form minute forests that offer a matrix of habitats for cryptobiotic communities of microscopic organisms.
The project is a multi-institution collaboration that will establish a novel consortium to integrate information about Bryophytes and Lichens and coordinate the imaging of more than 1.18 million herbarium specimens held in U.S. institutions, at least 250,000 of which will be contributed by NYBG.
As the largest herbarium in the Western Hemisphere, the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is a priceless resource for scholars from around the world who are documenting earth’s biodiversity of plants and fungi. The herbarium focuses on building collections in all groups and regions, and on large-scale digitization projects. These projects have been supported by many grants over the years, using a piecemeal approach adding up to more than four million specimens digitized, which represents approximately half of the physical collection. Current grant-funded projects focus on geographic regions (Rocky Mountains, south central U.S.), and on different groups of plants and fungi (Ferns, Plants with Extreme Morphologies, Bryophytes and Lichens).
Integrated data that are produced as part of the Bryophytes and Lichens project will form an important resource for evolutionary and ecological studies. Herbarium specimens hold a wealth of information that will become broadly available to researchers studying diverse topics such as biocrust formation, carbon/nitrogen cycling, evolution of symbioses, endophyte/host diversification, and the evolutionary origins of biodiversity.
Curatorial Assistant Laura Briscoe, NYBG’s Principal Investigator on the project, observes, “Previous efforts to digitize our cryptogamic collection have focused solely on capturing collection data from the labels, without capturing images of the specimens themselves. Earlier last year, the Steere Herbarium began imaging all new specimens of bryophytes and lichens, a practice already in place for vascular plants. We are very pleased to bring our innovation and standards of specimen image capture to this project, along with all participating institutions, to provide these specimens a fuller level of documentation for researchers and enthusiasts alike.”
The project will provide professional training for a large number of undergraduates, with a focus on leveraging local resources to promote underrepresented students in STEM fields. Students will be trained in image capture and processing, digitization, databasing, and collections management, and will contribute to project education and public outreach components.
Ms. Briscoe and NYBG Lichenologist James Lendemer, Ph.D., look forward to eventually being able to do outreach on the Garden grounds and share information about these fascinating organisms with others, once it is safe to do so.
More information: University of Tennessee story
Plantae: Phylogenetic analyses of key developmental genes provide insight into the complex evolution of seeds
The Plantae blog highlights NYBG Graduate Student Cecilia Zumajo’s research to unravel the complex genetic network behind the development of the ovule–the cell that turns into a seed after fertilization.
The commentary emphasizes this exciting research as a starting point for future efforts on the molecular genetics of ovule development.
The original article was published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution:
Zumajo, C. & B. Ambrose. 2020. Phylogenetic analyses of key developmental genes provide insight into the complex evolution of seeds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2020.106778
Fabián Michelangeli and Collaborators Awarded NSF Grant to Study Diversification of Princess Flowers (Melastomataceae)
Fabián Michelangeli, curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany, has extended his long streak of funding from the National Science Foundation for his research on the plant family Melastomataceae.
The latest grant, awarded to a team led by University of Florida and The New York Botanical Garden with collaborators across 10 different countries extends the group’s research program in an exciting modern direction to use phylogenomics to better understand the Melastomataceae, which represents one of the most impressive and diverse radiations of tropical angiosperms.
Dr. Michelangeli has devoted his career to unraveling the systematics of the Melastomataceae, and he has successfully built a large and geographically dispersed team of collaborators during a long period of successful funding from the National Science Foundation.
As a Principal Investigator on an early NSF award, Michelangeli led collaborators in the 2005–2009 effort to produce a phylogenetic analysis of the largest tribe in the family (Miconieae) (Melastomataceae) based on molecular and morphological data. The project then grew as the collaborative team undertook an ambitious long-term NSF-funded Planetary Biodiversity Initiative (2009–2018) to compile a complete web-based monograph of the tribe Miconieae (Melastomataceae). These projects established a solid systematics baseline for neotropical melastomes, and they built an understanding of the relationships, evolutionary history, and ecological diversification of this important plant group. The melastome team then joined a large collaboration of zoologists, paleontologists, and climatologists, funded through NSF’s Dimensions Program (2013-2018), to generate a multidisciplinary framework for understanding biodiversity in the Brazilian Atlantic forest hotspot, a highly diverse and endangered ecosystem in which melastomes have thrived and diversified.
This latest project incorporates state-of-the-art genomics tools to better understand the evolutionary history and genetic diversity of Melastomataceae. The collaborators will build one of the largest existing phylogenomic datasets (including ca. 2500 + species) across any major evolutionary group of tropical angiosperms, allowing them to test the geographic origin and subsequent movement of the family, the evolution of morphological characters, and associated diversification rates throughout the worldwide distribution of Melastomataceae.
The team of researchers will train two post-doctoral associates and two graduate students, giving them the necessary tools to further their development as plant systematists and publicly engaged scientists. The group will highlight their research with exhibition content at the Florida Museum of Natural History and The New York Botanical Garden, whose science exhibits draws more than 500,000 annual visitors. Short botany courses are also planned in Haiti and Peru as part of this project. Dr. Michelangeli summarizes, “The most exciting part of this project is the teaching and outreach aimed at both the next generation of botanists and the general public. It is exciting to use our research as a model to teach evolution, plant morphology, and the tools of modern biodiversity research.”
All told, the Melastomataceae research team has collected more than 7,800 plant specimens in 20 countries, produced more than 160 publications with descriptions of more than 120 new species, and provided training for nine Ph.D. students, four Master’s students, seven postdoctoral researchers, and eight interns. The Melastomataceae research program at NYBG is an excellent example of the power of collaboration, the role of systematics as a foundation for a broad understanding of biodiversity and ecology, the benefits of embracing new technology and tools, and the importance of training future generations of scientists.
The Guardian: Unproven remedies proliferate in my community, even in the face of a deadly virus
The article highlights the importance of plant-based medicine in the Dominican communities in New York, but reports on the recent proliferation of unfounded home remedies thought to prevent or cure COVID-19.
New York Botanical Garden Ethnobotanist Ina Vandebroek comments on the disconnect between science and the botanical remedies that are so abundantly used in many immigrant communities.
COVID-19 Impacts on Biodiversity Science Collections
Biodiversity collections hold a tremendous amount of data and support research and education in many scientific fields. They are found in natural history museums, botanical gardens, university-based research centers, field stations, and in government agencies.
“These scientific facilities are a backbone of our research enterprise. They must have the resources needed to sustain scientific progress during this chaotic period,” said Dr. Robert Gropp, Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. “Science is an engine we need to reignite the economy and to combat future public health and environmental problems.” The US bioeconomy was estimated to be about $1 trillion per year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN), Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance), and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) surveyed individuals affiliated with US biodiversity science collections to better understand the effects of COVID-19 related disruptions and closures on biodiversity research and education collections, and the people who use and care for these scientific resources.
“The response to the survey was tremendous, with more than 390 individual responses,” said Dr. Barbara Thiers, President of SPNHC and Vice President for Science at The New York Botanical Garden.
Survey results include the following:
• 96% of natural history collections were unavailable for use in April.
• Most of the scientific collections reported some regular monitoring of resources, but less than 30% were being monitored for pests – a significant threat to collections.
• More than 90% of respondents were working from home, mostly on some aspect of data transcription based on specimen images captured prior to the shutdown.
• When asked about chief concerns arising from a 1-3 month closure:
o Just under 64% were worried about their ability to provide vital research resources;
o Just under 49% were worried about a loss of funding for collections care materials and supplies;
o Just over 47% were concerned about their ability to provide outreach opportunities for the public;
o Nearly 47% were concerned about the loss of staff because of budget cuts;
o 43.5% were concerned about their ability to meet existing grant and contract deadlines.
Center for Plant Conservation Newsletter: Disappearing Lichens and a Southern Appalachian Stronghold
Lichens are fungi that form beautiful, complex symbioses with algae and bacteria. They hold together soils, regulate the climate, allow seeds to germinate, and provide food and shelter for all kinds of animals.
These hubs of activity that bind nature together are incredibly important to nearly everything that lives on land. And many have vanished.
One of the priority areas for lichen conservation is Appalachia, especially the southern mountains in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. For more than a decade NYBG lichenologist James Lendemer has worked with colleagues and students to build the case that this area is a global hotspot for lichen diversity—and one that is critically imperiled. In the process, they published the monumental, Field Guide to the Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Herbarium 2020 – FGVC7: Identify plant species from herbarium specimens
In recent years, Fine-Grained Visual Recognition Competitions (FGVCs) have spurred progress in the development of image classification models focused on detection of fine-grained visual details in both natural and man-made objects. This year, Google and The New York Botanical Garden have expanded their partnership for the Herbarium 2020 challenge.
In the Herbarium 2020 challenge, researchers are invited to tackle the problem of identifying species of land plants. This challenge is distinguished in that the included images depict dried specimens preserved on herbarium sheets, exclusively. Herbarium sheets are essential to plant science, as they not only preserve the key details of the plants for identification and DNA analysis, but also provide a rare perspective into plant ecology in a historical context. As the world’s second largest herbarium, NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium contributed a dataset of over 1 M specimens representing over 32,000 species for this year’s challenge.
NY Times: She Wanted to Revive a Park, but First She Had to Take on the Rats
Aleya Lehmann grew tired of watching Verdi Square decay over 16 years—the park was so bad that it became known as Vermin Square or Rat Park. So, Ms. Lehmann gathered a small group of like-minded volunteers to beautify the small slice of the Upper West Side for themselves.
Daniel Atha, a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden who lives near the park, joined the group after meeting them at a volunteer drive. He convinced Ms. Lehmann that instead of boxwoods, she and her fellow volunteers should plant native species, which would attract pollinators, insects, and create a waypoint for animals, and humans, between Central Park and Riverside Park. “This is a community garden, with the parks department, but instead of vegetables, we’re planting for the birds and the butterflies,” Mr. Atha said while working in the garden last fall.
One person’s vision, inspired volunteers, expert advice, a successful rat abatement program, and Verdi Square is Rat Park no longer!
National Parks Magazine: A Liking for Lichens
Every summer for a decade, Erin Tripp and NYBG Lichenologist James Lendemer visit Great Smoky Mountains to look for lichens, organisms that Tripp describes as fungi and algae sandwiches.
When they started their project, researchers had estimated that the 463 species that were documented in Great Smoky Mountains National Park represented at least 90% of the total number of lichen species in the park. After walking at least 2,000 miles and devoting personal funds and countless hours to the effort, they have identified a total of 920 lichen species — a record for a national park — including eight that occur nowhere else in the world and one that had been presumed to be extinct. In addition to doubling the number of species known for the park, Tripp and Lendemer described more than 35 species that were new to science.
NYBG Botanist Dr. Michael Balick recognized by American Horticultural Society
NYBG Ethnobotanist Michael Balick has been named the 2020 recipient of the Dr. H. Marc Cathey Award of The American Horticulatural Society. Dr. Balick is recognized for his “outstanding scientific research that has enriched horticulture and plant science,” in a career spanning over four decades of botanical fieldwork and research around the globe.
Foodie Pharmacology: Jamaican Roots
The Caribbean is home to an amazing assortment of botanicals from merging cultures. In Jamaica, wild plants are used to make special fermented “root tonics” not only as an enjoyable beverage, but also to boost health. Some of these are even attributed with aphrodisiac properties for men and women.
In this podcast episode, host Cassandra Quave speaks with Dr. Ina Vandebroek—ethnobotanist and expert in wild Caribbean plants used as food and medicine. They discuss root tonics and other local delights like “bissy” and “cerassee,” which also play an important role in food and medicine in Jamaica.
Science Advances: Global and future distribution of rarity across land plants
An international team of researchers, including an NYBG scientist, has concluded that more than a third of all plant species are exceptionally rare, making them highly vulnerable to extinction from such threats as habitat destruction and climate change.
In a study published by the online research journal Science Advances, scientists analyzed the largest compilation of global plant observation data ever assembled to determine how many of the roughly 435,000 total plant species should be considered very rare. They found that 36.5 percent, or more than 158,000 species, fall into that category.
One Thousand Plant Genomes: Understanding One Billion Years of Evolution
Did you ever wonder how a pumpkin is related to a pine tree? Our scientists are using new scientific tools to build the tree of life by comparing the genes from over 1000 species of plants. Take a dive into the origins of Earth’s nearly 500,000 plant species.
Plant Talk Blog: Science
From the field to the lab, NYBG’s scientists aren’t just about white coats and microscopes—they’re adventurous and determined globe-trotters who live to discover, understand, and preserve Earth’s biodiversity. The Plant Talk blog exposes the far-reaching work of the Garden’s botanical specialists.