Developing better tools to manage plant collections for conservation

Kay Havens —  October 13, 2016 — 2 Comments

Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.  

Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.

Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.

PHOTO: Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).

PHOTO: Quercus oglethorpensis.

Quercus oglethorpensis
Photo ©2015, Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation

PHOTO: Brighamia insignis.

Brighamia insignis

It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Kay Havens

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Dr. Kay Havens is the Medard and Elizabeth Welch Director of Plant Science and Conservation at the Garden. Her research interests include reproductive ecology and conservation of plant species.

2 responses to Developing better tools to manage plant collections for conservation

  1. The Eastern Fringed Prairie Orchid has been pollinated this way for years.

    • Yes, there are definitely some similarities to the wonderful Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid program, but what we are proposing goes a little further. We will know the genetic background and pedigree of every plant in botanic gardens and decide who to cross to meet specific genetic goals.

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