Expert botanists – an endangered species

botany, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, transit of Venus,

International science journal Nature has published an article called Superstars of botany: Rare specimens, explaining how a handful of plant hunters has shaped the field over the past 200 years and warning that such experts are now in danger of extinction.

Some 2% of botanical gathers have been responsible for over half of the specimens in the world’s most important collections, says the magazine, adding: “Now they are disappearing, and there are no clear successors.”

“These elite field workers have probably numbered fewer than 500 people throughout history. But they have contributed much of what scientists know about plant diversity, ecology and evolution, and have been crucial in the race to document the world’s plants before they are lost to deforestation, development, invasive species and climate change.”

The article cites Joseph Banks and features the image above of one of the plants named after him – Banksia serrata. The painting (by the artist Sydney Parkinson) and accompanying pressed specimen come from the Natural History Museum in London. A combination of factors means that figures such as the feted naturalist and his successors through the years are becoming increasingly rare.

“Today’s researchers spend their days with plants collected by botanists going back to the eighteenth century days of Joseph Banks, and speak of their forebears with the same familiarity as they do of their contemporaries.

“As the star collectors disappear, botanists are debating how to fill the gap. Some researchers, including Wood, are training botanists in tropical countries, the presumed home of most undiscovered plants. But others think that it might be more efficient to recruit a large group of less-skilled collectors, aided by technology and crowdsourcing techniques.”

“The real question is, can we exchange a few elite collectors for an army of enthusiastic less-experienced collectors?” asks Cam Webb, a Harvard University plant scientist based in Indonesian Borneo.

Read the full Nature article here.

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