I belong to the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) not because I am a plant taxonomist, but because I want to learn about the field. Its journal Taxon is particularly helpful in this regard, though I can’t say that I read it cover to cover. The articles I find most interesting take a broad view of the field, delve into its history, or deal with nomenclatural issues. In this series of posts, I’ll highlight a few recent items I found particularly informative, beginning with one having a hefty 980 contributors, the Brazil Flora Group (2022). The author list is shorter, but still lengthy, and suggests the massive collaboration underlying the creation of a Brazilian flora.
The impetus for the project began in response to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), adopted in 2002 by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The plan’s first target was to publish a list of the world’s plants by 2010, with plants broadly defined as including algae and fungi. In 2010 Brazil published an online “List of the Species of the Brazilian Flora” and a “Catalogue of Brazilian Plants and Fungi,” which documented 40,989 species of algae, fungi, and plants. By that time the second target of an online World Flora by 2020 was looming. Since Brazil is a large country with great biodiversity, these tasks were themselves correspondingly massive, especially since the last Flora Brasiliensis was published from 1840-1906 and ran to 15 volumes, documenting 19,629 species in Brazil.
An online information system was created for the Brazilian flora species list, and it was further developed for the task of constructing an online flora. Between 2010 and 2015, 430 specialists were involved in adding new species to the list, updating determinations, and contributing descriptive data. In the following five years, 554 more taxonomists joined the project, then called Brazilian Flora 2020. The Taxon paper is essentially a review of the results of this work, including what it revealed about future needs in discovering and protecting Brazil’s biodiversity and supporting the taxonomic work necessary to accomplish these goals. Meanwhile there was another project called “Plants of Brazil: Historic Rescue and a Virtual Herbarium for Knowledge and Conservation of the Brazilian Flora—Reflora.” It’s aim was to develop a virtual herbarium that included specimens not only from the large collection at the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, but also from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. These are among the many European institutions with significant collections of tropical plant specimens because of their former colonial enterprises. The Reflora infrastructure made it possible to upload images, curate specimen records with updated identifications, and add geographic and distribution data. As this work progressed specimens from many more collections were added so that researchers now have access to millions of specimens through the Reflora Virtual Herbarium.
As a result of this work, the Brazil Flora Group was able to report that by December 31, 2020 there were 46,975 known algae, fungi, and plants in Brazil, with 19,669 endemics. These include 6,320 fungi, 4,993 algae, 1,610 bryophytes, 1,403 ferns and lycophytes, 114 gymnosperms, and 35,549 angiosperms. This is hardly a complete count; some areas are under collected. The most substantial collections have come from the Cerrado and also the Atlantic Rainforest, an area that has suffered from overdevelopment with loss of native vegetation. Regions like the Caatinga and Pantanal are less well sampled. There was also great disparity in the rates of increase in different types of species. Amazingly, there was a 75% rise in the number of known fungal species between 2010 and 2020, an indication of the fungal richness yet to be discovered. Not coincidentally the largest mycological collections are in the three states where the greatest number of mycologists are located. Angiosperm numbers, on the other hand, only increased by 7%. Interestingly, the number of known species in the heavily sampled Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest and Cerrado actually deceased between 2015 and 2020. Yes, new species were named, but identification of synonymies and deletion of erroneous records more than offset this increase.
The article, as befits the massive size of the project it describes, is filled with data and insights. The Brazil Flora Group focused on a number of areas that need attention if future GSPC targets are to be met. One major issue is the need to build a stronger taxonomic infrastructure in the country, concomitant with its biodiversity. With almost 1,000 taxonomists involved in the flora, expertise from around the world has been marshalled and will continue to support Brazil’s efforts, but it is no substitute for expertise within the country. What is called the “taxonomic impediment,” lack of facilities and taxonomists, is a worldwide problem, as is the second area of concern: georeferencing. Only about half the occurrence records in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) have coordinates and only a third of these have uncertainty information, which is essential for spatial analyses. Geographic data are particularly important in conservation efforts. As was mentioned earlier, also of concern is the issue of under-sampled areas, and along with this, species and families that have been neglected taxonomically. So there is much work to do, but still, this report is also a celebration of wonderful accomplishments.
Group, T. B. F., Gomes-da-Silva, J., Filardi, F. L. R., Barbosa, M. R. V., Baumgratz, J. F. A., Bicudo, C. E. M., Cavalcanti, T. B., Coelho, M. A. N., Costa, A. F., Costa, D. P., Dalcin, E. C., Labiak, P., Lima, H. C., Lohmann, L. G., Maia, L. C., Mansano, V. F., Menezes, M., Morim, M. P., Moura, C. W. N., … Zuntini, A. R. (2022). Brazilian Flora 2020: Leveraging the power of a collaborative scientific network. TAXON, 71(1), 178–198. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12640
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