I’ve just touched down at home after five days in New Zealand at the 5th Global Botanic Gardens Congress; 329 delegates from botanic gardens and arboreta from 45 countries gathered together in Dunedin, New Zealand, to learn how to strengthen our horticulture displays and plant collections, education and visitor programs, and plant conservation science. Our Chicago Botanic Garden motto is “Save the Plants, Save the Planet,” and what an amazing experience it is to spend time with people—mostly brilliant plant scientists—who share this passion and mission, and who will travel from every corner of the globe to help realize it.
Here are two particularly good slides that show some of the big-picture goals presented by Peter Wyse Jackson, Ph.D., president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chairman of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC).
Drivers of biodiversity loss by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson
Grand challenges for botanic gardens by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson
I had the honor of representing our garden in Chicago four times throughout the Congress, organized by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). I presented at a symposium with colleagues from England, Austria, and Jordan about botanic gardens’ role in social change; chaired a panel of compelling speakers from Jordan, Mexico, Australia, and the U.S. who shared examples of how to engage communities in conservation; was challenged by the audience at an open forum with Stephen Blackmore, Ph.D. (Edinburgh), Dr. Tim Entwistle, Ph.D. (Melbourne), and Jack Hobbs (Auckland); and delivered a plenary address. If you want to see the range of topics and gardens represented, take a look at the BGCI Congress site; the Twitter comments #BGCI2013 also give highlights. In a few weeks, videos of the plenary addresses will be available.
Kayri Havens-Young, Greg Mueller, and Sophia Siskel at Larnachs Castle, Otago, New Zealand
My Chicago Botanic Garden colleagues Greg Mueller, Ph.D., and Kayri Havens-Young, Ph.D., also attended and presented their work (and we had a lot of fun, too).
Being relatively new to the field of plant conservation, I set as one of my Congress goals the memorization of international conservation acronyms. To effectively make our way in any land we need to learn to speak the language!
This is a PowerPoint slide of inside-baseball acronyms from one of the presentations.
So now, after writing down and decoding (i.e., asking the nice person next to me for help or drawing on the seemingly endless patience of my colleague Greg Mueller), the acronyms I heard, I am now semifluent (in that college French kind of way). Below, I offer a plant-conservation-centered sample of what I’ve learned—hopefully this primer will be helpful as you get involved in plant conservation. If you catch a mistake, please let me know!
Taxonomic Database Working Group (Pronounced “tadwig”— this one is my favorite because even after the group changed its name to Biodiversity Information Standards, it kept TDWG as its acronym! Keeping us on our toes.)
Rhododendrons at Dunedin Botanic Garden, New Zealand
Chicago experienced its first autumn frost while we were away, but spring in the southern hemisphere was in full bloom. Enjoying the remarkable flowers and landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand only intensified our passion for plants and the joy of gardens and nature.
Thank you BGCI, colleagues, the Dunedin Botanic Garden (and Shane the amazing bus #3 driver) for your leadership, friendship, and hospitality. Until Geneva 2017!
A few months later, in August, we taped episode 4, focusing on my work with plants and pollinators, and episode 5, which will feature the work of Mike Moore of Oberlin College on gypsum-endemic plants (to be released later this year).
Chris Martine shoots the intro to Plants Are Cool, Too!, episode 4. (Photo: Krissa Skogen)
So what exactly is Plants Are Cool, Too!?
Chris Martine created the web-based series Plants Are Cool, Too! to address a gap in the nature show genre: there are no shows focused explicitly on plants that might engage people, from elementary school kids on up. He set out to create a series focusing on some of the coolest plants, their stories, and the scientists who study them. As of today, four episodes have been released:
So what does it take to create an episode? And how about two episodes at once, in just three days? Certainly, lots of planning, people who know the lay of the land, and a fantastic film crew. Thankfully, Chris is really good at what he does—the team of people he pulled together couldn’t have been better.
The star of the show: Hartweg’s sundrops (Oenothera hartwegii spp. filifolia), a night-blooming member of the evening primrose family. (Photo: Krissa Skogen)
Our first site for filming was Yeso Hills, just southwest of Carlsbad, New Mexico. We arrived at the golden hour, when the sun is near the horizon and casts a golden light on everything. As we turned off the highway onto a gravel road, we encountered a sea of sundrops (Oenothera hartwegii and O. gayleana). I had a hard time containing my excitement. I’ve seen photos of populations like this, but nothing like it in person. There were plants everywhere, hundreds of them, their yellow flowers on full display, glowing magnificently in the setting sun. I suspected it would be a fantastic night for hawkmoths—how could they not be drawn to this fantastic population? So many plants, so much nectar! It was going to be awesome.
Here, we are setting up the site that will be filmed. (Photo: Patrick Alexander)
Until it wasn’t.
The sun set and we taped a handful of things: setting up the “moth sheet,” collecting floral scent, nectar, size measurements. And we waited and waited for the hawkmoths to show up; after about two and a half hours, we headed toward Carlsbad for the night. While I couldn’t imagine a better place for a hawkmoth to be, they clearly could.
Setting up the “moth trap”–a PVC frame with a bedsheet stretched over it. At night, a blacklight is turned on to attract night-flying insects (incuding hawkmoths) to the sheet. (Photo: Tim Kramer)
In the dusky light we filmed the setup of our moth trap. (Photo: Tim Kramer)
White Sands National Monument (Photo: Krissa Skogen)
The following morning, we headed for White Sands National Monument, home of the world’s largest deposit of gypsum sand dune field, just west of Alamogordo, New Mexico. August 21 was a special night at White Sands—Full Moon Night. The park stays open until 11 p.m., and visitors come from near and far to experience the magic of the white sands by moonlight—which was one of the main reasons we were there. The flowers of the Hartweg’s sundrops glow in the moonlight and are very easy to see when the moon is full, by us as well as their hawkmoth pollinators.
After checking in with the National Park Service office, we set out to find Hartweg’s sundrops. The dunes provided the perfect white backdrop to capture hawkmoths visiting the flowers. Usually it’s hard to follow an individual moth at dusk; they become lost in the vegetation unless they’re quite close to you. At White Sands, you could follow an individual hawkmoth easily, from flower to flower, plant to plant—that is, if they showed up.
The sun sets at White Sands National Monument–we eagerly anticipate the arrival of the moths and the full moon. (Photo: Krissa Skogen)
For a second night, we were out at the golden hour. Everything was beautiful, bathed in the light of the setting sun. We were feeling optimistic. Considering that this was our last chance to capture moths on film, we were prepared to stay as late as necessary. Looking around at everyone, I realized just how lucky I was, how lucky we all were to be there, together, at this incredible place, on what was sure to be an incredible night. Could we also be so lucky as to be graced by the presence of hawkmoths? We had come so far to capture this moment, and I have experienced many nights when conditions seemed ideal for hawkmoths to show up, only to be stood up instead—like the night before, at Yeso Hills.
Krissa and Chris catch hawkmoths and discuss their role in pollination of Hartweg’s sundrops and other night-flowering plants. (Photo: Tim Kramer)
Before long, the sun had dropped over the horizon and the timing seemed right. I mentioned to Chris that I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see some hawkmoths. As if on cue, a moth flew right by Chris’s head, close enough for him to hear its papery wings fluttering about—all as the camera was rolling! To say I was excited is an understatement. One moth turned into two…three…six…ten—visiting flowers, drinking nectar, and picking up pollen on their tongues, faces, and bodies, moving it from flower to flower—doing the ever-so-important job of pollination. You see, these plants will not produce fruits or seeds on their own—they require pollen from a different plant to do so, and that pollen has to be transported by a pollinator.
So after much nervous anticipation, the hawkmoths had arrived. And now you can see the full episode and how our adventures fit together into a nice story about desert plants that flower at night and their hawkmoth pollinators!
White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata). Just after sunset, a number of moths started to visit flowers, as if on cue! (Photo: Krissa Skogen)
Many thanks to Chris, Tim, and Paul, for being so incredibly fantastic to work with, and Mike, Norm, Hilda, Helga and Patrick, from whom I learned a great deal about the New Mexico flora and gypsum endemism. Thank you to Sophia Siskel and the Chicago Botanic Garden for providing financial and institutional support. This trip was truly the experience of a lifetime.
Hungry for progress, Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., set off in early June to the forests of Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. She was searching for plants in the genus Artocarpus, whose nearly 70 species include jackfruit—the world’s largest tree-borne fruit structure.
Her mission? To gather detailed information about species within the genus, including those that could provide food in tropical areas where it is needed most.
Dr. Zerega in Sabah with Dr. Joan Pereira, her Malaysian collaborator.
On their research trip this summer, Dr. Zerega, a plant evolutionary biologist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and her research team crossed a small stream on their way into a tropical forest on the edge of a large oil palm plantation. They searched there for an uncommon species until sunlight faded and the light rain turned to a downpour. On the way back, they found that the stream had grown into a raging river several feet wide and deep. Covered in leeches, they held hands tightly and waded across to safety. On other days, they searched for species with leaves as tall as any one of them, and collected fruit weighing more than 20 pounds apiece.
It’s all in a day’s work for Zerega. She has long traveled to places like this, where she works closely with local scientists to study underutilized food-bearing plants.
Jeisn Jumian, field assistant, carries jackfruit back from the field for dinner.
Currently, she explained, the world relies on roughly 30 species to provide the majority of our food. The top three crops—rice, corn, and wheat—account for approximately 40 percent of all food consumed worldwide. We are merely scratching the surface of the thousands of edible plant species in existence, including at least a dozen in the genus Artocarpus.
It’s possible, even likely, that some underutilized crops have as much potential as the current favorites, but simply have not been as developed. “Underutilized crops have the potential to diversify the world’s food supply and improve food security,” said Zerega. She believes the development of these crops, produced close to where they would be consumed, could also reduce the amount of energy used in growing and exporting large quantities of crops around the world. The more options we have, the better off we are, she maintains.
“We’ll be studying DNA to understand the evolution of Artocarpus, and patterns of the diversity of cultivated members of the genus, such as jackfruit, breadfruit, and the lesser known cempedak, a species believed to have originated in Malaysia. Understanding and conserving genetic diversity is as critical in crop species as it is in wild species,” she said.
Breadfruit is sold at a market in Sabah, Malaysia.
The work is part of a National Science Foundation grant for which Zerega is assembling a taxonomic revision, which is like a genealogical history. It will include descriptions of all the Artocarpus species, how to identify them, where they originated, where they are found today, how they are used, and how they are related to one another.
Dried, pressed specimens of all the plant samples used for DNA will be stored in herbaria in Malaysia and the Garden’s Nancy Poole Rich Herbarium. Zerega serves as director of the herbarium. These specimens, along with photographs, serve as documentation of each plant.
Cooking up solutions
Fried breadfruit from a market near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Next, Zerega hopes “to focus on ways to conserve the diversity and increase the use of underutilized species such as jackfruit and breadfruit, because they hold great potential for increasing food security in food-insecure parts of the world, many of them in tropical areas where Artocarpus species grow.”
As she considers her research, Zerega occasionally finds time to stroll her favorite areas of the Garden—the Dixon Prairie and the McDonald Woods.
From working with students and collaborating with scientists around the world, she hopes her work will contribute to the conservation of underutilized crop diversity and food security around the world. Although she has already accomplished a great deal, it seems that Zerega’s work so far is just a taste of what is to come.
Five years ago this past May, I found myself starting a new job and a new research project. My job, of course, was as a conservation scientist here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the research project had me sitting on the side of a road at dusk in Pueblo West, Colorado. I sat there in front of a group of plants that produce lovely-smelling flowers, waiting for their impressive pollinators to show up. And when they did, I snapped some of my very first photos of these beauties: hawkmoths, better known as the five-spotted hawkmoth, or to the scientific community as Manduca quinquemaculata.
A five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) drinks nectar from the Colorado Springs evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii) as the flower begins to open. Pueblo West, Colorado, May 2008. Photo: Krissa Skogen
So how did this one photo go from being taken in the spring of 2008 to being highlighted on the NSF’s website? How does a research project evolve and grow over time? Ask any scientist what they are currently working on and their answer will almost always start with, “I was first fascinated by x back in y….” Something caught their attention, sparked a thought, pulled them in—and they continued asking question after question, developing hypotheses and gathering data to test them, with their answers pushing them forward, sometimes down unanticipated paths, and sometimes into much bigger or smaller arenas. The more one knows, seemingly, the less one knows; old questions are answered and new ones are developed. This is what pushes scientists, and science, forward.
The evolution of a research idea
Krissa Skogen poses with an evening primrose in New Mexico. Photo: Chris Martine
In 2008, I started my current research program. After many conversations with Rob Raguso (Cornell University) and Tass Kelso (Colorado College), I drove out to Colorado with a plan to collect as much information on as many different populations of the Colorado Springs evening primrose (Oenothera harringtonii) as possible in a short period of time. That year, my timing was off—I arrived in Colorado on June 10. Oenothera harringtonii flowers primarily in May. Most of the plants had stopped flowering and so instead of collecting data on floral features, nectar, scent, and pollinators, my field assistant, Evan Hilpman, and I collected data on plant size, health, reproductive success (how many fruits did they produce?) and population size (much like a census). And one striking thing we noticed was this: small white “galls” on some of the green, developing fruits. We took notes on how often we saw this, never anticipating the importance that these little white dots would play in just a few years’ time.
We noticed small white “galls” on some of the green, developing fruits. These are parts of the cocoons of tiny little moths, called microlepidopterans, of the genus Mompha. Photo: Krissa Skogen
In subsequent years this project grew, and in the last four years—with the help of conservation scientist Jeremie Fant and other colleagues, and many research assistants and students—we’ve collected data on flower size, nectar volume and sugar content, floral scent, who pollinates and when (hawkmoths come at dusk and visit overnight; bees generally visit in the morning), how populations grow and shrink over time, which other plant species are flowering at the same time, and more. We know a lot of things about this species now, and one thing has been a constant: those little white balls have been observed year-in and year-out in some populations, but not in others.
We know now that some of our populations have an important compound—linalool—and some do not. We know that genetically speaking, our 25 populations function more like three, likely due to the fact that hawkmoths can fly so darn far (some estimates are up to 20 miles in just one night). And more recently, we started gathering more data on those little white balls. It turns out that they are parts of the cocoons that surround the larvae of tiny little moths called microlepidopterans, which belong to the genus Mompha. These moths lay their eggs on flower buds, fruit, and stems. If the larvae eat flower buds and/or seeds, they reduce the number of offspring that the plant produces. This is bad for any plants upon which these moths decide to lay their eggs, but everything must eat, right?
Mompha stellella microlepidopteran adult; larva inside fruit (seed predator); cocoon inside O. harringtonii fruit. Photos: Terry Harrison and Krissa Skogen
In speaking with colleagues across the country and in Canada (plant and moth experts, alike), we developed an intriguing story and series of hypotheses we felt were compelling. Do pollinators and floral antagonists both respond to the same attractive scent? Could floral scent be telling hawkmoths and Mompha moths where the flowers are? Pollination is good for plant reproduction, but anything that eats flowers or seeds is not—so how would this trade-off play out in evolutionary time?
These questions have led us to the project that we will pursue on a much larger scale, thanks to recently awarded funding from the National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity Program for our proposal, titled “Landscapes of linalool: scent-mediated diversification of flowers and moths across western North America.”
A Lasioglossum species bee robbing pollen from O. harringtonii at dawn. Photo: Sadie Todd
Relationships among flowering plants and insects represent one of the great engines of terrestrial diversity. Floral scent and other plant volatiles are important drivers of these relationships (e.g., pollination, herbivory, plant defense), but remain poorly integrated into floral evolution and pollination ecology. Few studies have tested the spectrum of plant fitness outcomes when scent attracts both pollinators and floral/seed enemies. Thus, the hidden diversity of floral/seed predators and their potential as selective agents constitutes a considerable gap in pollinator-centric understanding of floral evolution. These “forgotten predators” have co-diversified with flowering plants and are likely influential in the evolution of most plant-pollinator interactions.
A five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) probes an opening evening primrose flower for nectar with its proboscis. Photo: Krissa Skogen
This project is ambitious and large and pulls upon a wide variety of expertise. In total, there are 11 Ph.D. scientists collaborating on it, including myself, Jeremie Fant, and Norm Wickett here at the Garden. The others include Robert Raguso (Cornell University), Rachel Levin (Amherst College), Terry Harrison (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jean-Francois Landry (Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre), Sylvia (Tass) Kelso (Colorado College), Kathleen Kay (University of California, Santa Cruz), Mike Moore (Oberlin College), and Warren Wagner (Smithsonian Institution).
We are excited about what we’ll uncover in the next five years and will update you with progress as our discoveries unfold!
Holding a toad-sized hawkmoth lured in by our sheet and black light.
O.K., I did know what a proboscis was before my trip to New Mexico last month. But learning how to uncoil a hawkmoth’s 3-inch nectar-sucking hollow tongue while trying to calm the toad-sized insect in my hand was the biology lesson of a lifetime.
Thanks to Chicago Botanic Garden scientists Krissa Skogen, Ph.D., and Wes Glisson (who recently earned his master’s degree in plant conservation biology from the Garden/Northwestern University graduate program), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico state botanist Mike Howard, I learned about hawkmoths, the plants they pollinate, and how to collect plant cuttings for scientific study.
I also had the opportunity to meet and work beside two remarkable interns, Kate Wilkins and Elisabeth Ward, from our Conservation Land Management Internship Program (and enjoy a few absolutely perfect hours of exquisite silence in the desert at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico/Texas border).
The exquisite silence and panorama of the New Mexican desert.
I had been asking around the Garden’s scientific staff to see whose fieldwork would fit with my summer schedule. Krissa was planning a trip to southern New Mexico to film an episode of Chris Martine’s great video web series Plants are Cool, Too. Krissa’s episode, which will air in October, highlights her work on long-distance pollinator movement, focusing on Oenothera harringtonii, an evening primrose endemic to southeastern Colorado and other closely related Oenothera species. The flowers of Oenothera harringtonii and many other evening primroses open soon after sunset and are pollinated primarily by hawkmoths. These moths feed on the nectar of Oenothera flowers, which they locate by the strong fragrance produced by the flowers. We commonly think of floral scent for its role in attracting pollinators, but it may also be used as a cue by floral and seed predators.
By studying the shape, smell, and color of Oenothera flowers, Krissa and her colleagues hope to determine what it is that attracts pollinators to these flowers. She can also determine how the plants “reward” their pollinators by studying nectar—how much flowers produce and how much sugar the nectar contains. And lastly, by collecting pollen grains from pollinators, Krissa can determine which plant species the pollinators rely on most, which brings me to catching hawkmoths and collecting pollen from their tongues.
Krissa gently rolls out the proboscis to show us just how long it is!
The first night of our trip, we set out to find some hawkmoths. After visiting a couple of sites in the Organ Mountains, we found them. Above is a photograph of Dr. Krissa Skogen, Elisabeth Ward, and me holding the toad-sized moths we attracted to a blacklit white sheet held up on a PVC armature.
After sunset, the hawkmoth uses its long hollow tongue to extract the nectar from deep down within the narrow mouth of the flower. The moth’s nightly journey often covers a distance as far as 20 miles. Krissa gently rolled out the tongue to show us just how long it is!
The next day, we set out early to collect Lepidospartum quamumfor our colleague Evelyn Williams, Ph.D. Evelyn, a post-doctoral researcher, has been working with Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., Kayri Havens, Ph.D., and Mike Howard on this plant since 2012 in an attempt to figure out why it is threatened with extinction in this area of New Mexico. The plant grows in a unique environment—the gypsum salt flat.
Lepidospartum quamum cuttings, tagged and ready to be sent for propagation in our greenhouses.
Evelyn’s previous collecting trip this spring needed to be supplemented with new cuttings. We worked all day to collect the cuttings, which we sent back to the Garden for propagation in our production greenhouses, as well as samples for genotyping in the Garden’s Harris Family Foundation Plant Genetics Laboratory.
This important work, which ultimately aids seed growers, restoration practitioners, and government agencies to select appropriate plant materials to restore diverse plant and animal communities, was funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant as part of the Native Plant Conservation Initiative.
It’s a fact that most people are more attracted to animals than plants—and therefore more inclined to know their names and fight for their survival. Just compare the following two photographs—the Lepidospartum quamum specimen we were studying, and this lizard that darted by and immediately commanded our attention (yes, even botanists and plant-lovers are drawn to a cute face).
What grabs your attention more? This plant …
…or this cute lizard?
But all life depends on plants and the healthy habitats on which they depend. When we think of fighting to save wildlife, let’s remember that wildlife includes plants! I am hopeful that by working with collaborations from gardens, zoos, government agencies, and other land-trust and conservation organizations, we can integrate plants into wildlife action plans both in the U.S. and abroad. I particularly like how this report by NatureServe summarizes this issue.
We can all point to moments in our life—when we’ve experienced something new or met someone special—when our understanding of life changes. My two days with these five scientists—at all phases of their careers—was one of these experiences I will never forget.
Thank you, Krissa, Kate, Mike, Elisabeth, and Wes!
One last note: Hawkmoths are essential to ecosystems from Venezuela to here in Chicago. My son and I watched one this afternoon drink from the hostas on our street! Below is one we filmed in the English Oak Meadow of the Chicago Botanic Garden last week.