Botanists fear research slowdown after priceless specimens destroyed at Australian border

May 12, 2017

By Erik Stokstad

This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges. Some have put a freeze on sending samples to Australia until they are assured that their packages won’t meet a similar fate, and others are discussing broader ways of assuring safe passage of priceless specimens.

“This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries,” says Austin Mast, president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows.”

As a result of the customs debacle, curators in New Zealand put a stay on shipping samples to Australia. So has the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, which holds the second largest collection of preserved plants in the world. “We, and many other herbaria, will not send specimens to Australia until we are sure this situation will not be repeated,” says herbarium Director Barbara Thiers. 

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9 comments on “Botanists fear research slowdown after priceless specimens destroyed at Australian border

  • @OP – This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges.

    They were clearly using under-trained incompetent “jobs-worths” as customs officers, when skilled biologists or botanists were required for this sort of monitoring of legally restricted bio-matter, and guarding against importing invasive species or pathogens!

    I have heard of examples from botanist friends, of customs officers elsewhere, who read lists of prohibited organisms, but can’t identify the plants in front of them which they are supposed to be inspecting!



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  • @OP “This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries,” says Austin Mast,
    president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
    “Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows.”

    Anyone inspecting botanical samples who cannot recognise the words “herbarium”, “botanic garden”, “museum”, or “university”, as key words triggering further investigation into sources of valuable materials, really is unfit to do that job!



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  • Without the ability to send preserved samples to specialists, much collection field work will be wasted!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/science-environment-11931578/thousands-of-plant-species-undiscovered-in-cupboards

    More than 35,000 new species of flowering plants may be lying undiscovered in cupboards around the world, it is claimed.

    A UK team of botanists looked at how long it takes for new species collected in the field and stored in plants vaults called ‘herbaria’ to be identified.

    The found it often took decades, and in one case took 210 years.

    They concluded that of the 70,000 flowering plants that experts believe are yet to be found, over half may already be in collections, awaiting identification.



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  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39897119

    Almost 2,000 new species of plant have been discovered in the past year, according to a report by The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

    Many have potential as food crops, medicines or sources of timber.

    However, scientists say some of the newly-discovered plants are already at risk of extinction.

    They are developing new ways to speed up the discovery and classification of plants to help safeguard them for future generations.

    The second annual assessment of the State of the World’s Plants by scientists at Kew found that 1,730 plants were recorded as being new to science in 2016.

    They include 11 new species from Brazil of the Manihot shrub known for its starchy root, cassava.

    Seven species of the South African plant best known for red bush or rooibos tea were discovered, of which six are already threatened with extinction.

    Other discoveries include new relatives of Aloe Vera, widely used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.

    Prof Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said the new discoveries hold “huge promise” for the future.

    “It’s really important to find these new species because they may well hold the genetic code – or the key – to more resilient food crops from pests and pathogens and climate change into the future,” she said.



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  • Unfortunately Kew, the most notable botanical research organisation in the world, has been devastated by the sociopath Osborne. The Conservative party want to turn it into a theme park. A large part of the internationally expert academics and laboratory researchers there have been sacked and the status of Kew is likely to suffer greatly as a result. Short-term (electoral term) savings which did not consider long-term consequences for science, the country, or the world.



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  • Unfortunately Kew, the most notable botanical research organisation in the world, has been devastated by the sociopath Osborne. The Conservative party want to turn it into a theme park. A large part of the internationally expert academics and laboratory researchers have been sacked and the status of Kew is likely to suffer greatly. Short-term (electoral term) savings which did not consider long-term consequences for science, the country, or the world.



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  • @OP – This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges.

    Meanwhile – denial clowns with a propensity for incinerating fossil carbon, are indirectly causing a threat to other valuable plant material!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39987495

    Norway is boosting the flood defences of its Global Seed Vault on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard after water entered the entrance tunnel last year.

    The storage facility, deep inside a mountain, is designed to preserve the world’s crops from future disasters.

    Unseasonably high temperatures last year caused the permafrost to melt, sending water into the access tunnel.

    No seeds were damaged but the facility is to have new waterproof walls in the tunnel and drainage ditches outside.

    The vault stores seeds from 5,000 crop species from around the world. Dried and frozen, it is believed they can be preserved for hundreds of years.

    Although most countries keep their own supplies of key varieties, the Global Seed Vault acts as a back-up.

    If a nation’s seeds are lost as a result of a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe, the specimens stored in the Arctic could be used to regenerate them.

    Scientists at the facility describe the vault as the most important room in the world.

    Government spokeswoman Hege Njaa Aschim told the BBC that the reason the vault was built on Svalbard was because the permafrost was thought to be permanent.

    She said the problems emerged last October when the temperatures, instead of being -10C or colder, were hovering around 0C.



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