Guest Column

Why plants need an identity

2018-05-27 00:00
Coca plants being dried. (iStock)

Coca plants being dried. (iStock)

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Plant experts in South Africa have a challenging deadline to meet: gather everything that’s known about the country’s 21 000 indigenous plant species into a formal online record by 2020.

It’s not simply an academic exercise; it’s to help preserve the world’s biological diversity. The SA National Biodiversity Institute – helped by volunteers – has an important contribution to make as a member of the World Flora Online Consortium.

The 41-member group is creating a central record of the world’s plants. This list, known as a Flora, is a description of all species and where they are found.

The online Flora project addresses three problems affecting plant species conservation. One is that some plants have not yet been scientifically named. Without a name, they can’t be part of a conservation plan. The second is that names can change and multiply, creating confusion for researchers. Third, there is no single collection of information about all the world’s plants.

Whenever a new plant species is discovered, it must be named. Through formal naming – taxonomy – a species is clearly defined and described. Its definitive characteristics are highlighted, with its relationships to other species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature evaluates the risk of extinction of species and informs conservation plans, policies and legislation. But it can’t protect an undescribed species.

Taxonomy is not a static science. As more information becomes available, taxonomists try to improve classifications.

Consistent naming is important because names should precisely match the properties of organisms. Environmental managers need this information to guide their strategies.

Taxonomic information is scattered throughout a vast collection of journals, theses, popular articles, books and electronic sources, some of which can be difficult to access.

A Flora that makes information more accessible and easier to share will support the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity follows. South Africa has signed the convention.

Compiling a Flora is an immense task. A first version of the World Flora Online portal was launched in Shenzhen, China, in 2017 at the International Botanical Congress.

About 6% of the world’s plants occur in South Africa and 3% of these are found nowhere else in the world. Despite this botanical wealth, South Africa doesn’t have a complete, up-to-date Flora. The last comprehensive Flora was published in the Flora Capensis in 1933 and dealt with about 11 500 species. That number has almost doubled since then.

South Africa is making good progress with this project. Information for almost 85% of species has been collected and the first set of data will be on the World Flora Online portal this year.

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