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Arnold Arboretum

The future of plant collecting: a role for ‘elite parataxonomists’

May 8, 2012 by Cam Webb

If you were dropped into a unknown forest or grassland and told to start collecting plants, you would start with what you first encountered, which would be the common species. All ecological communities are dominated primarily by a few common species, with a long tail of rare species (a hollow rank abundance curve). A good rule of thumb is that 50% of the individuals belong to only 10% of the species. As different plant collectors visit a particular vegetation type, herbaria become filled with duplicates of the of these common species. The rare species are by definition harder to catch in flower and fruit, yet it is among these individuals that new or undiscovered species may be discovered. Hence personal experience with a flora will help a collector pass by common, ‘known’ species and more efficiently spot the new ones.

The first collection made by our parataxonomist team in Seram, probably an Ericaceae

While no one doubts this role of experience, a recent paper by Bebber et al. (2012) reviewing numbers of type-specimens per collector suggests that long experience makes one disproportionately more successful at finding new species (type specimens are those plant collections associated with the descriptions of new species). The authors found that “more than half of all type specimens were collected by less than 2 per cent of collectors.” This group of ‘elite collectors’ has been vitally important to the discovery of plant diversity, but the number of people in this demographic (herbarium-employed, expatriate, general collectors) is dwindling. A new model must emerge if we are to continue, and indeed step up, plant species discovery before it is too late. In a related article in Nature, John Whitfield (2012) quotes John Wood, an active elite collector, as saying, “It’s possible that the days of the non-native plant collector are virtually at an end, and people like myself are the last examples.”

During my time working in Southeast Asia, I have been repeatedly struck by the enthusiasm of young local scientists and students for getting out in the field and collecting. Surely their energy can be harnessed for discovering plants in their countries? It should be a natural switch: from expat experts to more local ones. The question is: who and how? Local professional botanists are the obvious inheritors of the ‘elite’ crown, and it is likely that a sizable proportion of the ‘2%’ were not expats. In Indonesia today, elite collectors would include Mien Rifai, Ismail Rachman (Herbarium Bogoriense), and Kade Sidayasa (Wanariset, E Kal), and younger professionals on their way up including Ary Keim (Herbarium Bogoriense), Charlie Heatubun, and Krisma Lekitoo (both from Forest Research Center, Manokwari). But in a country the size of Indonesia, even experienced, well-traveled national botanists may not return to a place frequently enough to really come to know a flora—although a developed sense for where to look for new species in a new place will help them.

So I believe there’s a vital role for local, non-professionals who can be trained to be very effective ‘plant-spotters.’ With our current work in Borneo, Teguh Triono and I are working with two groups to build local capacity for plant discovery: university biology students and park rangers. The goal is to maximize the botanical capabilities of those with little experience using technology (Webb et al. 2010), while identifying and retaining those special few with ‘the eye for plants’ who desire to go further and become so-called ‘parataxonomists,’ or plant experts working outside normal academic channels (Basset et al. 2000, Pfeiffer and Uril 2003, Basset et al., 2004).

The stilt roots of a giant Pandanus tree. “How do we collect this one?” asked Iik (right) to Endro (left)

After three years, I am pleased to apply the term parataxonomists to our field assistants, Endro and Acun. Their collecting trip to Seram was a way to further develop their skills and confidence, and also to assess the effectiveness of the model of using parataxonomists for core collecting work. Their specimens are now back in Bogor and have been dried, and our herbarium team are starting to examine them. It will be tremendously exciting if we have one or two new species.

While on the trip, Endro and Acun spread the collecting methods they had learned. Endro writes:

“The first day we surveyed the river as we usually do in Borneo. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the team. We started with a demonstration of how to collect, and since the team was learning, we did not expect to make many collections on this first day. However, if we did a good job with the training, the whole trip should be more effective.

One funny thing was when Iik (Manusela park staff) asked, “How about collecting pandans?” I described my experience from Borneo, that normally we have no problem collecting them, even their stilt roots. Then Iik pointed to a pandan nearby, and I had to laugh: the plant was huge, with many stilt roots, each 20 cm in diameter, and a total height of more than 20 m!

We got ten specimens on this first day, from lianas, trees, and pandans, quite satisfactory. Several of the trees were quite tall, but the tree climbers rose to the challenge. And the training went well, with everyone happy with their different roles. We also talked about types of plants and how we can identify them.”

The training offered by Endro and Acun was so welcomed and successful that we have initiated discussions about developing a plant collecting program at the Manusela Park office. Imagine if we had experienced parataxonomists based at each national park in Indonesia, making high quality collections with DNA vouchers, taking photos, and uploading the data to networked databases. While individually none of them may ever collect as many type specimens as the elite global collectors of yesterday’s botany, as a group they may still be successful at finding many new, rare species, because locally they will be ‘elite parataxonomists.’

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