If you want to find new species of plant life in the world, you have to get out and look for it. That means trekking slowly through jungles and forests--and spending a lot of time staring through binoculars at leaves, fruits, and flowers. New York Botanical Garden curator of Amazonian botany, Doug Daly, specializes in plants of the Amazon region. Specifically he spends a lot of time in Brazil and, most recently, Colombia. He chatted with us about what it’s like to identify new plant species in regions of the world that aren’t always so friendly to humans.
Why do you study forests?
Most people wouldn’t understand the thrill you get from being a taxonomist. I can’t separate it from the motive for becoming one. There’s a mindset for people who do systematics. As one of my old professors once said: “There are two kinds of people. Those who ask: ‘How does it work?’ And those who ask: ‘What is it?’”
"Figuring out what things are is a complicated process. We don’t separate that from how things are related to each other."
Figuring out what things are is a complicated process. We don’t separate that from how things are related to each other. The reason I go to places I go, to the tropics, is that’s where the species are. You’re looking for quantity and amazing mega-diversity, so traveling to those areas is kind of decided for you.
What I’m doing right now is working on two big projects in the Brazilian Amazon that involve forest management. There’s been progress made in sustainable logging and there’s also a national forest inventory going on in Brazil. Although loggers might follow the correct procedures in practice, between 50 and 70 percent of the species are misidentified. So people have no clue about what we’re actually cutting down.
There are practices where you can minimize the impacts on the forest, but if you don’t know what the trees are you’re kind of hamstrung.