Sunday, July 30, 2017

Botanical Society of America Annual Meeting---June 2017

Datura sp.
Datura with flowers opening: research plants can be very beautiful
After the Garden Blogger's Fling, which featured gardens around Washington, D.C.,  I attended the Botanical Society of America meetings, within the excellent facilities of the Omni Hotel, Fort Worth, Texas. The first meeting was full of bright flowers, garden design and the heat and humidity of northern Virginia in June (link). The second showcased of the latest ideas, photos of exotic locations and the dark and chill of air-conditioned conference rooms.

Omni Hotel, downtown Fort Worth, Texas
Roof garden at Omni Hotel, Fort Worth, Texas
At the Botanical Society meetings, I caught up on the frontiers of knowledge about plants. A 137-page book summarized the program: 15-minute presentations of current work, symposia with half-hour talks on a theme, for example "Big Data and the Conservation of North America's Flora," posters of research results, meetings of committees and scientific societies, receptions and mixers, and special lectures such as "A Botanical Waltz Across Texas."

Texas forest, pines and palmettos
Texas forest, pines and palmettos
I made no attempt to attend all the topics, but focused on my interests, chiefly for this blog, but also for areas I where I thought I knew the subject, in case my understanding had become obsolete. 

One cutting edge is "geographically explicit study of phylogeny," that is, linking evolutonary patters, such as the diversification of species into derived species and then more derived species, to the places in which this happened. Very impressive computer programs can analyze the data, despite its irregularity and complexity. I listened to a biogeographic study of the Caribbean which concluded that patterns of endemic species do not suggest a land bridge from South America facilitated migration, casting doubt on a postulated long ago land connection to South America. Another paper reported that plants seem more often to migrate into habitats that fit them than to change their preferred habitats, showing that Datura, jimson weed, and its close relatives occur in dry areas in North and South America but only one lineage has adapted to moister conditions. Botanists need several examples, as different as possible, to agree on general principles, so these studies are both part of testing questions of plant dispersal and adaptation. Each is specific to a particular group of plants, tests particular biological concepts, and contributes to the data that will help us predict plant migration and adaptation in the next century. (See References for more information).

angel's trumpet, Brugmansia
angel's trumpet, Brugmansia, one of the Datura relatives
Botany is going to smaller scales at the same time: genetic methods are working out the genes underlying all sorts of traits. I listened to a paper about hybrids between species of tobacco, looking at the flower colors and flower shapes of the hybrids and plotting that against the biochemical pathway that produces the molecules responsible for flower color. It was a complex diagram because plants modify simple molecules to make a variety of products and if more of the starting molecule goes to one product it may limit the options of other pathways. The exciting thing was seeing that those relationships were being figured out. Much of plant basic genetics is shared between species, so while people may work the rules out in well-known systems, such as tobacco, the results can often be applied to quite distantly-related, unstudied species. (But not always, an equally interesting finding.)

tobacco, Nicotiana
Ornamental tobacco, Nicotiana
Numerous speakers expressed concern about the future of rare species with small natural ranges as the climate changes. Plants can and do migrate as conditions change, but for some plants there is no place to migrate to that has the conditions they require, sand dunes or serpentine soils, for example. Those plants are of special concern, from determining which ones they are--for most plants we don't know a lot about what conditions they can and cannot survive--to deciding what to do about it. It seemed to me that for the moment the focus is on learning which plant species are at risk. This means understanding the consequences of progressive habitat loss, decline of pollinators, and climate changes. But it also means determining whether what looks like a widespread but variable plant species is in fact a series of tiny unique species. Knowing that is critical for conservation but unknown for most American plants.

vernal pools, California
Plants flowering as vernal (spring) pools dry up in the California grasslands.
The habitat and so its plants are increasingly rare. (Photo from 1973).
But practical discussion of what to do for small populations in danger of extinction is urgent as well. For example, can we find natural areas to transplant endangered plants into if their current sites have gotten too hot? Or will that make things worse by compromising the species currently in the new site or by separating the endangered plants from their pollinators or seed dispersers? Often there is no really satisfying option. But speakers argued convincingly that saying "we don't know" won't help the plants survive the next 20 years.

Franklinia, an American endemic, has been extinct in nature
since the 18th century. Nobody knows why it was so vulnerable
The cutting edge of botany, seen at the Botanical Society of America meetings, creeps forward with dozens of small studies coalescing into patterns that let us see our environment more clearly. Ultimately this information leads to sound predictions and the ability to take satisfactory action, whether the problem is saving a rare species or slowing an invasive one. All of the questions studied have practical applications, from conservation to agriculture, but I find the ideas, from patterns in how plant hybrids adapt to sand dunes to how plant regulatory genes direct flower color, beautiful in themselves. Botanical knowledge is of course a work in progress and always laden with interesting and exciting ideas.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Further reading
Baldwin, B., A. Thornhill, W. A. Freyman, D.D. Ackerly, M.M. Kling, N. Morueat-Holme and B.D. Mishler. Species richness and endemism in the flora of California. American Journal of Botany104 (3): 487-501 link
Julia Dupin research link  link
Susan Kephart Home Page. Williamette University, Salem, OR   link
Amy Litt's Home Page, U. California Riverside link
Plant Story--Franklinia, the extinct American camellia link
Loren Rieseberg's Lab, University of British Columbia, Vancouver link
Julissa Roncal home page Memorial University of Newfoundland link research projects links
St. Martin, V.  Maryland botanist makes a rare find on the banks of the Potomac. The Washington Post. March 27, 2016 link
Stacy Smith lab, U. Colorado, Boulder link

Papers I heard included:
Dupin J. and S. Smith. Historical biogeography of Datureae (Solanaceae) and the influence of range dynamics on the evolution of environmental niche.
Flanders, N. , E. Walters, C.P. Randie and L. Musselman. The role of generalist avian frugivores in determining the distribution of the mistletoe Phoradendron leucarpum
Knapp, W., A. Frances, A. Weakley, R. Naczi and 16 others. Vascular plant extinction in North America north of Mexico: what have we lost and what can we learn?
McCarthy, E., A. Bernardi, A. Lawhorn, A. Kurti, J. Giovannoni, S. Smith and A. Litt. Floral color differences in Nicotiana allopolyploids: the genetic and biochemical basis.
Merritt, B, S. Yadav, T. Culley, T. Whitwell and S R. Kephart. Can we be defined by our niche? Using ecological niche modeling to differentiate taxa of the wild hyacinth (Camassia spp.) in the eastern United States.
Nieto-Blazquez, M. E., A. Antonelli, J. Ronal. Historical biogeography of endemic seed plant genera in the Caribbean: did GAARlandia play a role?
O'Dell, R. E. Strict vertic clay endemic flora of the Inner South Coast Ranges, California.
Ostevik, K., A. Rose and L. H. Rieseberg. The ecology and genetics of adaptation and speciation in dune sunflowers.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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plants as evidence
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1 comment:

  1. Being a botanist, I love to be around plants looking for newer and better plants everyday. The book you mentioned in first para is worth reading and very informative.