SARAH WILD: Technology helps to put new plants on the map
Sanbi, representing SA, is part of a global group aiming to create an online repository of all the world’s flora
Every year, plants are discovered that are new to science and researchers estimate that about 10% of the world’s flora are unknown. In SA, scientists stumble upon about 60 to 70 new species a year, while 2,000 new plants are discovered across the globe.
"We’re not sure why this is still happening," says Dr Marianne le Roux, e-Flora co-ordinator at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi). "Maybe it’s because of the digital environment: people can take a photo and show it to a specialist."
The whole of plant taxonomy is getting a digital reboot. Less than two centuries after Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus created the classifications used to describe the natural world, a global consortium is attempting to create an online repository of all the world’s flora.
The first target of the 2010 global strategy for plant conservation is an online flora repository of all known plants. The 34 partner institutions including Sanbi representing SA, aim to have this open-access treasure house of data up and running by 2020.
There are about 400,000 known plant species in the world, and SA has 21,000 — about 5%. "These plants, both known and unknown, may hold answers to many of the world’s health, social, environmental, and economic problems," the World Flora Online Consortium write on their website.
SA’s biodiversity is highlighted as a major scientific and economic advantage area for sectors ranging from tourism and agriculture through to bioprospecting and pharmaceutical development. The Cape biome, for example, is recognised as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms.
But environments — in SA and the rest of the world — are under threat from over-exploitation and urbanisation, which imperils human livelihoods.
"We can’t do anything if we can’t identify a plant," Le Roux says. "If it’s out there in the veld and you can’t put a name to it, you can’t do anything to conserve it."
A taxonomist by profession, Le Roux says that classifications and flora data "are the building blocks of everything we do with plants — medicinal, commercial and conservation".
So far, e-Flora SA, through the contributions of about 17 local scientists and eight "digitisers", has collected data for 13,800 species.
"We’re more than halfway, but the last bit will be difficult," Le Roux says.
The information gathered includes the plants’ morphological description, habitat and distribution.
Taxonomists are a "rare breed" in what many see as an outmoded area of science, Le Roux notes. Scientific articles about taxonomy still reference Linnaeus’ 1753 work Species Plantarum. In other fields such as molecular biology, reference papers are seldom older than five years.
"It’s almost as if people see taxonomy as an old way of doing science, but we need taxonomy to do identification — all other research is based on that," Le Roux says.
The research is funded through the biodiversity institute by the government.
The programme Southern African Friends and Researchers Indexing Specimens (Safaris) — enables citizens to be scientists. Some of the data they collect will eventually be included in e-Flora SA.
Safaris is SA’s offshoot of Australia’s DigiVol, a citizen science programme to digitise the analogue records gathering dust in natural history museums. "There are about 1,600 online volunteers around the world," says DigiVol’s Paul Flemons. "Online volunteers capture information from images, and then scientists use the data for taxonomy, evolution and biodiversity research."
In the Australian Museum in Sydney, where DigiVol is headquartered, about 15 people are seated in a room, taking photos of images, maps, notes and tags attached to specimens, and uploading them to the internet.
"The programme is volunteer-driven: it’s a small operation, with about 12 to 14 volunteers [coming into the museum] a day, but it has a big impact," says Flemons.
Consisting predominantly of white women older than 50, this core group of volunteers has been responsible for uploading images of hundreds of thousands of specimens.
SA’s operations are in their infancy. Since 2013, volunteers have worked through natural scientists’ registers and field notes to identify and georeference the plants that they saw, says Les Powrie, Sanbi deputy director for information technology advisory services.
For example, Welsh-born botanist Illtyd Buller Pole-Evans collected 182 specimens during an expedition in 1920. By going through his field notes, Safaris volunteers have been able to provide geographic information about his collection.
This data, while important for taxonomy and historical record, also shows how the South African climate and biodiversity are changing over time.
There are benefits for volunteers, Powrie says. "Besides being able to join early explorers in ‘virtual’ travels around SA and see the land through their records, to some it can be very valuable in improving their employment prospects as they develop computer literacy and other skills," he says.
"This is work in which volunteers are able to contribute meaningfully to the work of the biodiversity sciences. We welcome them."
SA is caught in a scientific groundswell: several projects are pushing to document, and thus conserve, its scientific natural history and biodiversity.
The South African research infrastructure road map, published in October, provides R104.1m for a natural sciences collections facility. Millions of preserved plant, animal and fossil specimens collected in the course of the past 200 years are spread across more than 40 museums, science councils and universities that are in various states of upkeep.
"Collection-based research is often considered foundational because it provides knowledge that is critical for most other research fields involving biological materials," the report notes. "The collections are essential as a reference for accurately identifying materials for bioprospecting, agriculture and health."
• Wild’s trip to Australia was funded by the Australian government’s department of foreign affairs and trade.