Nation's plant database falling behind, survey shows

06/07/04

EAST LANSING, Mich. Stopping to smell the roses may be laudable, but more people need to be picking, preserving and cataloging them.

Smelling doesn't build and maintain a rich and necessary documentation of the nation's biodiversity. A drop-off in collecting plants threatens the flora database that is the primary source of material for gardeners, county extension agents, nature enthusiasts, artists and illustrators as well as for medical scientists, forensics experts, law enforcement agencies and other scientists.

The problem: Collecting local or in-state plant life is in steep decline, at a time when habitat is changing dramatically.

"To protect the best remaining native forests, and to determine how development can best reflect our values, we have to thoroughly understand our natural heritage" said Alan Prather, a botanist and plant curator at Michigan State University. "This information has to be kept current, because new invasive species are introduced every year and once-pristine habitats are destroyed by both natural and human forces."

Prather and Carolyn Ferguson of Kansas State University have outlined the trend toward doing less collecting which holds true from the vast holdings of the Field Museum in Chicago to smaller plant museums that house only a few thousand specimens.

Their article, "The Decline of Plant Collecting in the United States: A Threat to the Infrastructure of Biodiversity Studies," and the accompanying "Commentary: Implications of the Decline in Plant Collecting for Systematic and Floristic Research" appear in the spring 2004 issue of Systematic Botany.

The researchers surveyed small and large collections of plants or herbaria, from public and private institutions, universities, museums and botanical gardens, and from 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Their findings are startling: Fewer scientists and students are going into the field to gather plants and preserve them in collections. The result, Prather said, is not only a breakdown of resources for a myriad of professionals, but also a breakdown of knowledge of what habitats were like and what they are becoming.

It's vital to understand the composition of a natural habitat and to be able to quickly recognize the invasion of exotic species.

"If we cannot keep out such invading species, then our best defense is to detect them right away and eliminate them," Ferguson said. "But unless we are vigilant and collect plants locally and know when invaders appear, we cannot possibly defend against them."

Plant collections play an active role in medical and public health and forensic science, Prather said. For example, if a child eats an unknown plant, workers in herbarium collections get the emergency call to quickly identify the plant.

"We need actual specimens to identify plants and, in a situation like this, to rule out poisonous possibilities," Prather said.

In terms of national security, herbarium collections are assuming added meaning, the authors said. Without extensive plant reference specimens, identifying foreign plant diseases or pathogens of crops or forests would take much longer, Prather said, and meanwhile, serious damage could result.

Ferguson and Prather advocate increasing the resources for local collecting and for accessioning specimens.

"We need more people to do the actual collecting. We need to train students in collecting practices," Prather said. "We need to focus on statewide plant collecting again and actively resist pressures to stop adding locally collected plant specimens to the nation's herbaria."

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