Remote Research: Down for the Count

Throughout the world, closures and lockdowns aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted many people’s lives and work. As a global institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden does research around the world, making travel restrictions a major hindrance. The “stay at home” order means staff has lost access to the Garden’s herbarium and labs, too.

But of course, they’ve adapted. Some are using the time to catch up on data analysis. Others are completing manuscripts, which communicate the findings of their work, and floras, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region. And in more remote locations, like protected sites in Madagascar, conservation efforts go on.

“None of us are running out of stuff we can do,” says Jim Miller , Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation.  “Everybody’s got a laptop, we’re all able to work.”

In a typical year, Charlotte Taylor names and describes 20 to 30 plants new to science. For context, that’s about 10 percent, or more, of new species described by Garden scientists in a given year, which is 10 percent of all new plant species described worldwide.

Until a species is formally described, it does not exist, scientifically speaking, which makes this a crucial first step in conservation. Without a name, a species can’t be counted as present in a forest, its ecology can’t be measured and understood, and it can’t be taken off site for ex situ conservation because researchers don’t know for sure what they’re growing.

Taylor’s discoveries come from field work, which she only does now and then in her 30th year of her Garden career, and from analyzing in the Garden’s herbarium, one of the largest in the world. 

Without access to the herbarium, she isn’t able to make new discoveries. 

As a result, she’ll likely describe fewer new species overall in 2020. That has immediate conservation impacts. Several of the species she’s working to describe are part of other Garden conservation projects. Without the description, researchers can’t target the species for special attention or get funding to preserve adjacent areas where the plant grows. And, biodiversity surveys used to prioritize areas for conservation, will find lower numbers of a species in some places, like parts of the central Andean region where the Garden’s Peru program works.

Taylor is still able to write and edit results and articles and synthesize existing data, but she’s limited to working with data that’s already been collected by someone else, or that she’s already recorded from specimens.  But even that work can’t be finalized until she can double-check the specimen again in the herbarium.

“You can do a lot with digital images of specimens, but only until you get down to study of small parts in a flower that you have to manipulate with your hands to dissect while looking through a microscope, which is part of every new species description, “ she says.

Digital images are also inadequate when you want to look through dozens, or hundreds, of unidentified specimens to look for additional specimens or your new species. Unidentified or problematic species are easy to locate in the physical herbarium due to the storage arrangements, but difficult to find online because of how unknown species can be catalogued and misidentified.

“So, for conservation, I guess biodiversity research advances, but will not produce any actual results until there is herbarium access again.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of our lives, the Garden’s critical work conserving plant life goes on. These efforts would not be possible without your support. Consider helping us continue our mission in these uncertain times by becoming a member or making a donation.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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