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.
Just how diverse is it?
If you’re thinking about trees that are bigger than 10 centimeters (four inches) in diameter, you’re talking about a couple of acres that can have 200 or 300 species. We usually see about 10 species in a comparable area in the US. It’s a very different experience. It’s dizzying really.
People that are good at identifying have to be really good. They have to use all their senses. We are going to be generating half a million inventoried trees. It’s not physically possible to make a specimen of every one.
Also, there are lots of trees related to the Brazil nut. There’s one guy here [at the Botanical Garden] that studies the Brazil nut and can readily identify trees in that family. We’d like to have a specialist for each species but realistically there’s usually a specialist for every hundred species and some that don’t have anybody working on them, which means we have big gaps in understanding the diversity.
Do you have the same challenges when you’re doing research in Colombia?
For its size, it’s probably the most biodiverse country on earth. You get more bang for your buck per square mile--it has salt flats and deserts, coasts, the Amazon, and the high Andes. You move a few miles and a you’re in a completely different habitat.
It has some pretty daunting problems as well. The family of trees I study has a lot of species there and a lot of species that are unknown to science. For example, the dominant tree in one area that I study had never seen before. It’s unclassified.
But that’s not my main focus. I went because it’s an isolated habitat and it’s guaranteed to be interesting. In Colombia I work mainly in the Piedmont, the foothills of the Andes. It’s very poorly known in terms of the plant species, but it’s ancient in terms of human history. In one particular place in Andaki, there are so many trails that have been around so long the trails have become four-foot deep trenches. They’ve been used by indigenous people and then conquistadors chasing the indigenous people. They were used by people transporting quinine and rubber and then used by the narco traffickers, by the guerrillas, and by the military. In Andaki, despite its long human history, the flora is still unknown.
Why do you choose to work at a specific elevation?
At 700-1,000 meters it’s the perfect place for diversity. If you go down to lowlands, there’s a seasonality to rainfall and there’s less diversity. At 700 meters you don’t get a lot of water stress because it never gets that hot and above 1,000 meters you lose the lowland diversity. It’s constantly moist and you have lots of herbs and ferns and epiphytes. I’m studying all the flora.
I got a grant to get started on this place and sent a group to work on this trail, and in nine days they collected 700 species of plants.
For comparison, how many species would you have collected in nine days in, say, California?
Part of it is that it’s such a short time. Even in California you’re not going to be able to capture everything. On an equivalent hike of nine days you wouldn’t get 100 species in California. It’s almost an order of magnitude on that brief sample.
Do you feel safe out traveling around Colombia?
"[In Colombia] there are plenty of things you can run into like ants and snakes, but it’s the people that worry me."
In Colombia what’s really important is who you work with. We team with fantastic people from SINCHI, the Amazon research institute of Colombia. One reason to work with them is because they’re great people, good botanists, and also because they know where it’s safe to go. I was going to go to this place next month, but now I’m not going because some FARC people were spotted there. There are plenty of things you can run into like ants and snakes, but it’s the people that worry me.
What kind of supplies do you have to haul with you on a trip into the jungle?
We have a fair amount of things we have to carry, I have a three-page packing list. Tree climbing equipment, binoculars, rain gear, a first aid kit which you hope you don’t use. Binoculars are really important for me. You’re looking 40 meters up for flowers that are only a couple of millimeters long. You need camera equipment because it’s really important to document parts of the plants.
I also carry a hand lens to look at the inside structure of flowers. Standard supplies are also small bags with silica to put leaves so you can do DNA studies later. The silica dries them out really quickly without heat. If you keep them cool and dry DNA can be really stable. Ultimately, back at the lab, it gets into a bank of material of DNA that Colombia has and they store that below freezing. That’s only a piece of the leaf.
When taking other samples, of course you also need a machete and pruning shears so you can cut things to the right size. Some people collect things in a bag and press them at the end of the day but prefer to press in the field using newspapers. You want to include flowers or fruits for the morphology part. Those either get dried at the end of the day or get put into alcohol and get dried back in civilization.
I also use a little digital voice recorder and I can record observations about species that are around and make notes of the height of the trees the diameter and some colors that don’t come through in the camera. Anything you can’t see in the piece of branch that you press goes on a label that goes with the specimen at the end. It ends up in the herbarium, a library of specimens. In New York we have about 7 million of those from all over the world
The basic unit is a folio-sized piece of paper with a dried specimen on it. The practice comes from the old herbalists in the Renaissance and medieval times. They’d write in Latin or Greek about the plants properties and press plants in the book. Botany and medicine were the same thing until the 1900’s.
You must need a lot of help hauling this stuff around.
In some places people use mules and in that particular spot in Colombia we have to hire people to help carry stuff. It’s 2 weeks from one end of the trail to the other. We’re not trying to hike it fast, we work slowly and it takes time. We’re kind of beasts of burden and we want to make sure to have people to help with the burden so we can do the plant work.
It sounds like a fairly calm thing, but it doesn't feel very calm. Everybody is in high gear. We see a plant and we try to collect flowers or fruits because that makes it much easier to identify them. We have to be constantly remembering if we’ve already collected something, where it was. You’re testing your memory every minute and your observational powers. You’re recording what you’re seeing with your eyes.
It’s amazing that in this high tech world, species identification still focuses around just looking around.
It’s kind of sad that we’re not further along than simply looking and seeing what we see. I’ve started working in the oOld World, in Asia and parts of Africa, and it’s still just as new as the New World. There are so many areas that are undocumented in terms of flora and fauna.
I was in Malaysia last year looking at flora they collected, there were so many things in the tree group that I study that I didn’t recognize at all. I love the part where I’m discovering new species, but you have to do something with that information.
The coolest thing in terms of biology I’ve been doing is something I started in 2005. I went to Madagascar for the first time and, what we do in the botanical world is if I collect a plant in, say, the Brazil nut family we get two or three branches from the same tree. I do that because I want to keep one for my own research, I want one to stay in the host country, and one to send as a gift to the person who works on that group so they will have something for their collection. What I get out of it is an identification.
In Madagascar, I received a lot of duplicates for identification, and I started realizing that there was this genus that had a lot more going on then there was supposed to be. In the 1940s there were only three species of that genus recorded in Madagascar and now there are 33. There were 27 new species!
The coolest part is that tree is really important for certain species of lemurs. They need the tree for nutrition and the trees need the lemurs to disperse the seeds. Now I have a whole project going on now with lemur specialists to show that in a given area the lemur doesn't need just one species, it needs all five or six species of this genus in each place. Why and how do you get these things living close to each other all in the same place? They probably flower or fruit in different months, so the lemur can find food from them in different times of year. So if you lose one of the species you might lose the lemur.
So how, exactly, do you go about looking for new species?
It’s a huge amount of face time with the trees. You get an idea of how trees are structures and where on the tree you’re going to find fruits. You really have to have an idea based on what the group of trees is and where you’re likely to find the fertile parts. We spend a lot of time getting a sore neck. We’re walking along looking up and we step on things--once I almost stepped on a poisonous snake because I wasn’t looking down.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the southwest area of the Amazon. Out there we travel a lot by boat and we stop at a settlement with a family or two, make sure it’s OK with them that we walk through the forest, and then they take us along their hunting trails or their rubber tapper trails. That’s where you get the surface area--you go on as many trails as you can. The visibility is better and you don’t have to spend all your time cutting open a trail
Do people in the small villages understand what you’re trying to accomplish?
"It’s funny, you start talking plants with people who live in the forest, and it’s like talking shop."
The only places where it gets odd is where there’s a history of people looking for hallucinogens. There people tend to get suspicious. But it’s funny, you start talking plants with people who live in the forest, and it’s like talking shop. What kind of fruits can you find in May or June? Are there nut trees around? One thing people are often suspicious about is medicinal plants. We tend to avoid talking about that. But if you talk about edible plants or plants for making canoes then you’re talking shop.
You also have to know the local names for things. The family that I study has a different name in every country. Here it’s called Burseraceae. It’s the frankincense and myrrh family. The weird thing about it is, it’s all around the tropics, but it’s one genus in the dry forests of Mexico and it’s a different one in Madagascar. If it’s wet or dry you get a different portion of the family. But it’s used for the same things almost everywhere. In Gabon they use the resins for the same purposes as they do in Somalia.
That’s a lot of exotic locations. It sounds exhausting.
We end up traveling by a lot of different means of transportation. The most satisfying, the closest to paradise in terms of field work, is to travel by river in the Amazon area. We’ll get a boat that’s 30-feet long, fits eight people, and has a roof and we sleep in hammocks. We fill it full of equipment and food and send it up from a city, then we take a small plane and meet it upstream (it takes weeks for the boat to get there) and then we spend the next several weeks going downstream very slowly. There are no roads and no cars, and the forest is in really good shape. You pull over for the night on a beach and hear the dolphins. It’s pretty fantastic.
Not all science is done in a lab by guys in white coats staring into microscopes. Lots of discoveries require brave men and women to put their boots on the ground and get down and dirty in dangerous environments. Every month we’ll profile one of these field scientists, tell you how they do their job, and explain the science behind what they do. If there’s a scientist or field of science you’re dying to hear more about shoot us an email or a tweet: erin at erinbiba dot com, @erinbiba