Capturing the Diversity – say hello to the little plants

Accompanying us that day was an expert from Oxford University and his colleague in Bryophytes.  These are those lower order plants like mosses, liverworts and algae.  Much ignored in conservation efforts, on a small island bryophytes can have more diversity and interest than the endemic higher order plants.  I’d dabbled a little in mapping these on St Helena.  You could not hope to map the extent of each species; no single person would ever think of spending their days meticulously recording these plants; by the time you did one pass through the whole situation might have changed anyway.  And why would you want to anyway?  But it was important once a family or species has been identified, to know a few sites where you can guarantee to find it again, a sort of living herbarium or wild botanical garden.  More like a safari for plants in fact.  So from a database of located samples I was able to make a map showing where key examples of families were found across St Helena.  But it was a confusing map as so many species and families exist you needed about 300 different symbols to pick them out.  But wandering round with this Bryophyte expert on Ascension, let me say super-enthusiast, it did give me a different perspective on how you see conservation.

Take for example the barracks up on Green Mountain.  To me this was a human construction on the natural environment, one which had been abandoned and neglected and was somewhat of an eyesore.  To our expert, it was a million and one microenvironments with hosts of plants colonising dry surfaces, moist crannies in the grouting, exploiting eroded bricks.  It took us over twenty minutes to prise him from a small section of wall.  I think my problem with the bryophyte experts, and some other botanists too, is that they find it difficult to generalise.  Every species, nay, every plant, has to be examined for its uniqueness.  One of the reasons I liked Andrew and Phil’s work was because it had a goal to give a comprehensive broad brush picture of the status of vegetation on the two islands. From that much more considered and prioritized conservation interventions could be delivered.  While there is a place for the basic science of enthusing about the range of species and types, the other angle is also needed.

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