Magazine article Geographical

Dr Iain Darbyshire

Magazine article Geographical

Dr Iain Darbyshire

Article excerpt

Dr Iain Darbyshire, 34, a senior botanist at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, works in the African collections, specialising in dryland plant species. Although he frequently conducts plant surveys in remote parts of Africa, he recently discovered a new species inside one of Kew's glasshouses while on a lunchtime stroll. He talks to Natalie Hoare about the difficulties of travelling with specimens, the importance of the great Victorian explorers' records and the etiquette of naming new species

After graduating from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, I did a PhD in palaeogeography and palaeoecology, working in Kenya and Ethiopia. It's where my interest in East African plants started. Palaeogeography uses a variety of methods to reconstruct the historical environment, including changes in climate, land use and vegetation over time, using evidence you can find in stratified lake sediments, for example.

I mainly work in the herbarium, which is where we keep pressed, dried specimens, mainly for plant taxonomy, but we also increasingly work on conservation and documenting regional diversity. I work in the Africa section, especially the drier parts. The work I do in the field ranges from collecting plant specimens for my own research into particular plant groups to doing an inventory of an area that is due to be protected or disturbed in some way to make sure that we're not losing rare species.

In the tropics, we often just don't have data on plant distributions, on localities--so little is known of plants. In terms of research, I tend to document all the plant diversity within a region. I've been working on the flora of tropical East Africa, which covers Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, for example, documenting all the species from a particularly diverse family there (the Acanthaceae, or shrimp plant, family).

Often, we just have historical information from the herbarium specimens. Some of those were collected 150 years ago by explorers such as David Livingstone and Charles Darwin. We still use their specimens, but things have changed a great deal since then in terms of habitats, so another part of my role is to carry out surveys in the field in order to understand the current picture on the ground.

I've done a fair hit of traveling--to Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Uganda--it's definitely one of the pros of the job. I've been quite lucky and avoided any trouble, but there is always a risk.

To conduct an inventory in the field, we use vegetation-plot or transect surveys, where you record all the plant species within a randomly sampled area, covering each different habitat within your site. …

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