I had the opportunity to attend two “brown bag lunch” presentations over the past week. The first was delivered last Friday by a visiting Russian botanist named Valentin Yakubov. Valentin is a leading scientist at the Institute of Biology and Soil Science, part of the Russian Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Science. Valentin is a specialist when it comes to the flora of the RFE and was brought over with grant funding from a private foundation as part of a continuing partnership between Vladivostok Botanic Garden and the UW Botanic Gardens. Over two trips, Valentin curated well over 1,000 specimens and according to David Giblin, UW Herbarium Collections Manager, did 3 months of work by a normal botanist during a span of about 4 weeks. The man is a machine. The purpose of this most recent visit was to identify the last remaining unidentified specimens collected during a past project centered on the flora/fauna of the RFE. Here’s a brief description of that project:
“From 1996 through 2003 researchers from the University of Washington Herbarium (WTU) participated in the International Kuril Islands Project/International Sakhalin Islands Project (IKIP/ISIP; www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/collections/ichthyology/okhotskia/info.htm). A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the University of Washington enabled this multi-year partnership with Russian and Japanese researchers to document the distribution and diversity of multiple organismal groups (e.g., insects, vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens, mammals, fish, mollusks) of these undersurveyed areas of Far East Russia. WTU researchers made over 10,000 vascular plant, bryophyte, and lichen collections over the course of the project.”
David Giblin, was in attendance last Friday, and said that finally having all of these specimens identified and cataloged feels like a giant mill-stone has been removed from around his neck. His gratitude and respect for Valentin’s expertise and incredible work ethic were readily apparent. Valentin’s presentation featured a slideshow of plants he’d collected this past summer on Kamchatka Peninsula. For me, a non-taxonomist, the remarkable and enjoyable thing about the presentation was watching this small gathering of American taxonomists “geek out” over the similarities/differences of Russian and Pacific Northwest plant species. A big shout out to Tony Allison, Garden Guide extraordinaire here at the UWBG, for his stellar translating skills, and another big shout out for Latin – the language of science! If so interested, check out WTU’s online database where you can explore their collection digitally.
The 2nd presentation on “Viburnum Diversity and Evolution” was given on Monday by Michael Donoghue, a visiting professor from Yale University, whose life work (and current sabbatical) is focused on the genus viburnum. Here’s how his friend, Dick Olmstead of the Burke Museum, described the talk:
“Michael has been a leader in the application of phylogenetic inference to understanding plant evolution. He and his students have developed a number of widely used methods for studying things such as quantifying diversification rates, interpreting historical biogeography, constructing huge trees from diverse data, using phylogenies to interpret the evolution/assembly of plant communities, etc. Viburnum has been the subject of much of his research over the past 30 years.”
I only understand about half of that description, so my main reason for attending was due to the fact that Viburnums constitute one of our core collections here at the Washington Park Arboretum (WPA). We can boast 44 different species making ours the 5 largest collection in the U.S. Prior to today’s talk, I knew nothing about this genus, and now I know a little more than nothing. It turns out that they are fascinating; fascinating enough to lead Michael Dirr, renowned plantsman and author to say that “a garden with viburnum is akin to a life without music or art” and fascinating enough to keep Dr. Donoghue’s attention for the past 30 years. And that was part of his underlying message – that in order to make the truly fascinating observations and discoveries about a specific part of the natural world, sometimes it takes a lifetime of looking. Dr. Donoghue lamented somewhat about how this long-term approach to scientific research is becoming less and less common, but encouraged the UW students in attendance to do as he has done and find a specific piece of nature’s puzzle to keep in a back pocket for continued pondering. I guess another way of looking at it is that if you study something for a few decades, eventually you’ll become the leading expert on that thing.
The three latest areas of research that Dr. Donoghue is involved in with various graduate students are: 1) the Viburnum Leaf Beetle and their arrival from the Old World (Europe) to the New World (New England); 2) the presence of extrafloral nectaries and domatia in many species of viburnum that create a symbiotic relationship by providing habitat for leaf-cleaning mites; and 3) how leaf shape variability among viburnum are correlated to environmental conditions (i.e. ovate/deciduous/toothy leaves evolved under cool temperate condition; narrow/evergreen/smooth leaves under tropical conditions). This last one is especially interesting to paleoclimatologists seeking to better understand the Earth’s dynamic climate.
To learn more about Dr. Donoghue’s research, follow this link to his lab’s website: http://www.phylodiversity.net/donoghue/
And to learn more, period, stay tuned for future brown bag lunches and by all means check out the list of upcoming classes offered to the public by UWBG http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/education/classes.shtml.