Mountain range in Vanuatu.

Plant, Fungal and Linguistic Diversity of Tafea Province, Vanuatu

Michael Balick and Gregory Plunkett

Vanuatu is a group of 80 islands located in the South Pacific, situated roughly equidistant from New Caledonia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, all of which are globally important biodiversity hotspots. Despite its significance as a treasure trove of biodiversity, Vanuatu’s plants and fungi remain poorly documented, leaving a significant gap in our knowledge of regional biodiversity compared with neighboring island countries, all of which have active or completed flora surveys. The few existing plant surveys in Vanuatu have focused primarily on the northern end of the archipelago. In the southern part of the country, little reliable botanical data exist, and there is great potential for new scientific discoveries. This project focuses on Tafea Province, the five southernmost islands of Vanuatu. In March, 2015, Tafea Province was the site of a catastrophic category-5 super-cyclone. Just prior to that, eight forest transects were established to characterize vegetation growth and change over time. These study sites were severely impacted by the storm, and monitoring efforts will provide an important opportunity to understand how Pacific-Island forests recover from this type of event. Along with its rich biological diversity, Vanuatu is also the most linguistically rich country in the world, with 112 languages for a total population of only 253,000; nine of these languages are found only in Tafea Province. As globalization and economic development are proceeding in Vanuatu, local languages are being replaced by English, French, and Bislama (a local Creole), and thus there is a critical need to document local languages and the botanical knowledge that is encapsulated therein. Undergraduate students will be trained in the analysis of linguistic data, and graduate students will participate in all aspects of the research and receive valuable training in tropical botany and mycology.

The researchers will complete the first comprehensive survey of angiosperms, gymnosperms, ferns, lycophytes, bryophytes, endophytic and macro-fungi, and lichens ever undertaken in Tafea Province. Surveys will be conducted using two approaches: 1) establishment of permanent monitoring transects and plots, which will allow for both vegetation analysis and dense floristic and fungal sampling, and provide an opportunity for long-term monitoring in the face of global climate change, and 2) a general collecting approach will be used across larger areas. From these data, an annotated checklist (both hard copy and online) will be assembled using the database of newly collected and historical specimens. The checklist will allow for tests of phytogeographic relationships among Vanuatu and its closest neighbors (New Caledonia and Fiji), allowing the researchers to address questions relating to levels of endemism, species distributions, and evolution of the regional flora. Because most land in Vanuatu is held under customary ownership, and local people are the stewards of their environments, the loss of biocultural knowledge is a serious threat to their ability to manage biodiversity resources sustainably. To support local environmental education efforts, the project will combine the expertise of the team’s linguists and botanists to work with indigenous speakers of eight Tafean languages to document names of plants and fungi, providing a tangible linkage between biodiversity, traditional culture, and conservation. Project linguists will produce printed and digital dictionaries of indigenous plant and fungal names and will use web-based videography and ‘story maps’, which spatially link names and traditional uses of organisms onto the landscape, helping viewers visualize the connections between biodiversity, knowledge, and place, providing a complement to the botanical databases.